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Holiday au Lait

Irony intrudes on life, speaking more eloquently than I ever could. As I began editing a rough draft of this essay on how my interfaith family has maintained a sense of Jewishness and of living in a larger world each holiday season, I spilled eggnog on my laptop. After drying out the computer, all of my changes were lost. My eggnog ate my interfaith essay.

But the incident encouraged me to move in a different direction. I’ve written about my family’s choice to raise our children to identify as Jews, while at the same time allowing me to retain my Methodist identity. This is disturbing to folks who like to see tidiness in others’ life choices, but after 13 years of marriage and 10 years of raising interfaith children, I feel more strongly than ever that it is a good choice for our family.

The whole idea of a December dilemma is rather insulting to practicing Jews and Christians. It assumes that someone in a typical interfaith relationship is so easily swayed by tinsel and a tree that they’ll forswear their Jewishness for a few gifts and goodies in a stocking. It has seemed clear to me that the dilemma portion of the December equation is the hugeness of Christmas–how it creeps into every crevice of modern American life for a few weeks. As annoying as this is (and it’s just as annoying to many Christians as it is to Jews) the strains of Christmas hymns in the shopping center will probably not be responsible for a mass rejection of traditional Jewish practices.

Although Christmas–and all the trimmings–gets the most attention as a divisive factor in an interfaith home, Hanukkah is a very difficult holiday for interfaith spouses who know the underlying anti-assimilation message of this Jewish civil-war celebration. At some point during the week of Hanukkah my husband will remind me, “You know, if we lived back in the day, they’d be coming for US first!” And it gives me a chill to realize that at its root the Hanukkah celebration was a victory not just over unjust Seleucid intervention in Jewish tradition, but a routing of mixed-faith Jewish/Greek families by a more fundamentalist strain.

As a family we could focus on the divisions, or we can try to find the common ground and create a dialogue–learn and grow from the experiences and traditions of our collective past. When my children were just babies I wrote the following in an essay for 18Doors, :

I have strong, positive memories of my own childhood Christmas celebrations, and I work each year to find a way to re-live these memories while maintaining a Jewish home. One route we’ve explored is to use the Christmas season as a time to teach our children about people who have used peaceful means to achieve their goals. We contrast this with Hanukkah, a holiday that stresses the importance of fighting to retain religious rights.

Our Jewish home is not a “typical” Jewish home, but I suspect that our practices reflect a growing movement in the Jewish community. The controversial “Who is a Jew?” question poses the query, “What is a Jewish home?” To find my own answer to this I must trust my intelligence and my education and I constantly reevaluate my own place in Judaism.

And I still feel the same way.

Yes, we have a tree. In the few years when I suggested to my husband that we shelve the idea, either he or his mother were so disappointed that we ended up getting one. Neither my husband nor I can understand how having a tree in the house for two weeks can undo 52 weeks of Shabbat (Sabbath) celebrations or a year of Hebrew school lessons. We also have a menorah–several, in fact. Our children each have their own, we have a family menorah, and we have the plastic lighted one for the window. We gather each night of Hanukkah, we all say the blessings and we light the candles–often with non-Jewish friends who drop by for latkes and Christmas cookies.

I teach knitting and write books about knit and crochet for my living. I travel across the country speaking to groups about the effect knitting can have on their lives, and how to make their stitches “happy.” It’s an odd way to earn a living, but I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to carve out my own little niche. In my travels I meet folks from a variety of faith traditions, and because knitting can be such a meditative endeavor, at times the discussion turns spiritual.

I meet people who may not be active members of a church or temple, but they consider themselves spiritual–they rely on a sense of numinous mystery to help them discover their own personal identity. They may not necessarily be the most dogmatic or traditional representative of a belief, but they carry a spark of self discovery-through-faith into everything they do. Sometimes they belong to a religious group, but just as often they’re seekers, not tied to any one doctrine, discerning truth where they can find it. And they give me a great sense of hope.

As we discuss our ways of celebrating the distinctive holidays from each culture, a common thread emerges: the self-identifying spirituals tend to be more open to adding a diverse celebration to their own family calendar. On the other hand, I find that folks who believe a Christmas tree in an interfaith home spells doom for Judiasm, or that the menorah on the piano sets the grandkids on a path to eternal damnation, are giving too much power to the outward trappings of a celebration.

The 500-pound gorilla in the room in all of these discussions is a fear of assimilation–the assumption that it will lead to a weakening and watered-down, pale version of a robust religious tradition. Logically there can be an argument made for this, but it doesn’t take into consideration the chemistry of human interaction. Elements can react in unexpected ways. Add water to milk and you’ve watered it down; add coffee to the same milk and you’ve created cafe au lait. Who is to say that the mixing of Jewish and Christian holiday traditions may not provide us with a more potent blend?

We’re told–perhaps by the same folks who tell us that an interfaith family should pick ONE religion and stick with it–that we shouldn’t discuss politics or religion. However, I’ve found that with a little guidance these conversations can be respectful and enlightening to all parties. And that has become the key to my family’s holiday celebration. With a bit of guidance we can use the legacy of my own childhood, and lessons from my husband’s faith, to create a space where both traditions are honored teaching tools. We are growing our own spiritual tradition, and we honor the traditions of all of our parents.

Annie Modesitt

Annie Modesitt is the author of Confessions of a Knitting Heretic (ModeKnit 2004), Twist & Loop (Potter Craft 2006) and Men Who Knit & The Dogs Who Love Them (Lark, Jan 2007). She celebrates all types of holidays with her husband and children in South Orange, N.J. They plan a move to Minnesota, where they intend to add a few Scandinavian holidays to their calendar. She blogs about knitting, teaching and life at