Many of you had some strong opinions in regards to Jordana Horn’s recent piece, Actually, You Can’t Celebrate Christmas AND Hanukkah. Here’s a response from one mother on the other side of the holiday season spectrum.
Our mostly agnostic family celebrates both Jewish and Christian holidays, despite the fact that such cross-practice is technically anathema to both religions. We shamelessly pick and choose religio-cultural traditions and implement them willy-nilly. Here’s why, and how, and why it should be okay:
I am an atheist from a family of what I’ll call “Santa Claus Christians” (as opposed to Jesus Christ Christians). We do Easter Egg hunts and Christmas trees, but we never had a religious family life to speak of.
Meanwhile, my husband is from a family of very secular American Jews. Very secular. My husband is the younger sibling and he never even had a bar mitzvah because his parents were burned out by the experience with his older brother.
My husband and I met as adults, got married, generally agreed to be non-religious with some select Oprah-style “remembering your spirit” exceptions, and largely ignored the topic of faith for most of the first part of our relationship.
We now have a kid. My husband has little or no interest in passing along his family traditions, which don’t seem to have been particularly pronounced in any case. I, on the other hand, am both intrigued by and proud of my son’s Jewish heritage. I know a gloss of Jewish culture from growing up in west Los Angeles and the Valley with countless Jewish friends, and I could probably even “pass” if I wasn’t interrogated too closely. But I don’t have that iron-clad family certainty of “this is how you do it,” (or don’t do it, as the case may be) when it comes to the actual religion, or even just the more obscure holidays. Like, I know there’s such a thing as Tisha B’av, but wouldn’t have the first idea what to do about it.
Still, I am embarking on a course of self-education in hopes of teaching my son some of the fundamentals of being Jewish, which is to say, the culture and traditions of the people, if not the articles of faith, proper. For that matter, I’d like to delve further into practicing the 613 mitzvot, but my husband, who is technically the family Jew, generally finds Jewish cultural practices stressful, which results in a lot of initiatives being squelched early. For example, I enthusiastically bought him a mezuzah for Christmas last year (how’s that for offending two religions at once?) and he summarily removed it from the doorjam on the grounds that it was “weird.” (You guys are going to have to work on him on that one yourselves, sorry!)
Faced with a total lack of enthusiasm on the part of my dear husband, I clumsily try to make Judaism part of a preschooling curriculum for our kid, dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah and delving into retro versions of Kol Nidre on YouTube. (My toddler particularly likes the Perry Como rendition.) We frequent the local Jewish children’s museums and library. And I do potato pancakes for Hannukah, but I’ll probably serve them with ham. Horrifying, yes? Are you horrified? You probably are, and maybe you should be.
But here’s the thing. I’m not going to stop my ridiculous attempts to inculcate my child with whatever it is that I can about his Jewish background. Why? Well, for one thing I am a huge Jewish-community fangirl. Ya’ll are Chosen and you’re a People of the Book and you’re an overachieving model minority and you appear to have more cultural institutions per capita than not just any similar-sized ethnic group but pretty much any ethnic group ever. Sign my kid up for that, please.
On a less perky note, even though my kid will never be Jewish according to the Jews—my uterus was not certified for Jewish gestation—my son would be considered Jewish enough for Hitler to screw with. Tragically, I have to give that dude’s evil absurdity credence, because as a protective (dare I say paranoid?) mother, I want to know what might be coming for my baby. Ironically, in some circles, our family’s lazy secularity and “mixed faith” is also considered part of a Silent Holocaust. Where does that leave my kid? Unclear, but I believe that there is a generation of “half-Jewish” kids out there who are, in fact, an important part of the modern Jewish community. Yes, as a group, we are currently stationed on the margins of the Jewish world, but with just 13.5 million Jews running around (out of seven billion people worldwide), it seems to me that it would be a terrible shame to let any Jewish potential go to waste.
I sometimes yearn for something like the Butterball hotline, an 888-HALF-JEW toll-free number I could call when I need guidance on how to “correctly” shape the Jewish side of my son’s experience. I want a kindly customer service rep representing the brand of Judaism to tell me what to do, and then I can go burn the turkey on my own, knowing that any mistakes or controversial decisions I make were done consciously and with good intention. But I suppose that in the real world, you can’t expect people to support you unconditionally without them also wanting to get a say on how you conduct yourself. Which is to say that I’m not expecting to get rabbinic approval for our wacky choices any time soon, but I am going to keep bumbling along.
Yes, I’m probably doing everything wrong.
Yes, our practices are almost certainly apostate to all but the most liberal of believers on both sides.
But I’m still a Santa Claus atheist trying to raise my son with the love, respect, and admiration for Jewish life that is an important part of my life, and that’s why we celebrate both Hannukah and Christmas in our house.