Cantor Jennie Chabon shared this story with her congregation:
For the first 13 years of my life, I had a beautiful Christmas tree in my living room every winter, and an Easter basket filled with chocolate waiting outside my door every spring on Easter morning. One year my parents made flour footprints leading from our bedrooms to the front door, sealing forever my belief in magic. My brothers and I were being raised Jewish, so we celebrated Hanukkah and had epic Passover seders and went to Hebrew school, but my dad wasn’t Jewish, so some of his favorite traditions lived on in our Jewish house. Even my mom, who had been raised agnostic in New York by two Jewish parents, had celebrated Christmas as a child. Some of her fondest childhood memories involved Christmas, so our Christmas tree was for many years a symbol of joy and family for all of us. (In fact, as I type and relive those memories, I am reminded of the years when we had advent calendars hanging in our kitchen, with the little windows containing chocolate surprises to be opened each day!)
All of that changed shortly before my bat mitzvah. I am the youngest of four, and at my brothers’ b’nai mitzvah, my father had participated somewhat from the sidelines in their ceremonies. Though he had brought Christian holiday customs into our house, he did not identify as Christian, and over the years Judaism called to him slowly but steadily, with its wisdom and meaningful rituals and emphasis on learning. He felt that for years he had been “sneaking into the ballpark.” He was ready to buy a ticket. It was time for him to become Jewish.
I was thrilled and honored that my dad wanted to be Jewish in time for my bat mitzvah. We would all be Jewish! I had never felt that I was half-Jewish, but I was still very aware, if even just unconsciously, of the impact of his conversion on our whole family. Now that we were all Jewish, what were we doing with a Christmas tree in our house? If my dad was now Jewish, was it appropriate to still have Christian symbols in our home? I felt a profound shift within me, a deep knowing that took me completely by surprise: now that we were all Jewish, I wanted nothing to do with Christmas trees or Easter bunnies. Even though I had not doubted my Jewishness before, I suddenly and urgently wanted to embrace it.
Not surprisingly, the other members of my family all had very different reactions to saying goodbye to the Christmas tree. For some, it was disappointing but understandable, because it was what our dad wanted. For others, the loss was quite profound. It was connected to memories and childhood goodness and a sense of security in the world. The change was not particularly difficult for my dad, but it took my mom many years to stop missing our Christmas tree.
There are so many families in our congregation who can relate to various elements of my story: families with one Jewish parent who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas and are raising their kids as Jews; families with one parent who is born Jewish and one who is a Jew by choice, who are struggling to know how to honor their history without betraying their present; families with kids who can’t figure out exactly how to identify themselves because of the various holidays being celebrated in their home. The list of families and their unique experiences is quite endless, but what is most definitely universal is their desire to be seen and heard, particularly in December.
And so, Rabbi Gutterman and I would like to invite anyone for whom this topic is compelling or meaningful to meet us for a conversation about the joys and struggles of navigating the month of December. We will be meeting in the library on Sunday morning, December 6th from 10:30-12:00. What we can offer is a welcoming and accepting space in which to talk about this tricky topic with other people who also need this opportunity. We don’t expect to offer you many answers but we do hope to facilitate a meaningful and helpful conversation that will ease the transition into the holiday season. We hope that many of you will join us then.
NOTE: Cantor Chabon and Rabbi Gutterman will be offering a number of programs specifically for interfaith families in the coming year, 2016.