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Use Your Words: My Children Taught Me to Love Our Interfaith Holidays

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© LES CUNLIFFE | DREAMSTIME
  • © Les Cunliffe | Dreamstime

My 4-year-old son's favorite way to welcome the Sabbath on Friday nights is to tattle on his toddler sister. "She's not covering her eyes!" he reports nearly every week.

It's a scene that unfolds as we perform the traditional Jewish ritual of lighting the Shabbat candles, using our hands to wave the light toward us and then covering our eyes while we sing the blessing. To be fair, my daughter's version of covering her eyes does look like putting on fake binoculars. My wife and I usually stifle a laugh and let it slide.

Then we all sing the Hebrew blessing together: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik neir shel Shabbat.

After the chaos of getting the four of us seated at the table, emotion often wells up inside me — even though this is not my blessing.

My wife grew up as an Orthodox Jew. I'm the daughter of a Methodist minister, raised in the South. I attended church and Sunday school weekly. I joined the youth group and sang in the church choir. During the summer, I went to church camp. Both the religion and the culture of Christianity were a major part of my life.

By the time I met my wife in my late twenties, I was questioning my faith and my place in any religion. When she and I chose to spend our lives together, we decided to raise our children in a Jewish home. But I knew I couldn't convert. To borrow a concept from journalist Krista Tippett, Christianity is my mother tongue. I couldn't abandon that part of my history or that connection to my family.

Melding our two religious backgrounds was painful. For the first several years of our relationship, "the religion thing," as we called it, hovered over us at all times. We would acknowledge it and put it off, talk and fight, and push the decision about how to raise children someday down the line.

After attending couples counseling and an interfaith couples support group, we came to a decision: Yes, we could build a life together. We would raise our kids in a Jewish home. And — in a huge concession for my wife — we would celebrate Christmas. We could sort out the details that would inevitably come up as long as we respected and loved each other.

I wanted to believe that was true, but uncertainty plagued me. I envisioned a future that I didn't belong to — a Jewish family that I helped to grow but that did not include me.

These fears were never more present than at Christmas. Before we met, I went all out for the holiday. My attachment to it is secular: To me, it means family, food and joyful gatherings. Starting the day after Thanksgiving, I listened to nothing but Christmas music, watched made-for-TV Christmas movies and poured over Christmas baking magazines. I delighted in the carols that rang out at the grocery store. I didn't just want a tree with lights and ornaments on it — I also wanted a big wreath and strings of twinkly lights on the front door. I wanted to Christmas it all up.

But each time Christmas rolled around, my wife and I did an uncomfortable dance about what it meant to celebrate a Christian holiday in our Jewish home. I felt like we were on opposite sides — wreath or no wreath on the front door? Lights outside or not?

I knew why my celebrating her Jewish traditions wasn't the same as her celebrating my Christian ones. I didn't grow up experiencing the othering — or flat-out ignoring — of my culture and holidays the way she did. Now, when I hear "Jingle Bells" in a store, I think about all the people unwillingly bombarded with Christmas every December.

Even so, I held tight to my own resentment and fear. Not putting a wreath on the front door felt like losing a part of myself. I treated these discussions as a game of holiday tic-tac-toe — where there was only one winner. What I didn't realize was that our children, when they came along, would blow up the tidy square board I was trying to create.

Before we had kids, I was focused on what I would pass down, what I would teach them about my own traditions. And I worried about the places where my wife's traditions would preclude mine.

But our kids are not interested in our boundaries.

They are wide open to the world, ready to welcome every celebration that includes love, light and song. They're as delighted to gaze at candles as they are to hang ornaments. And they don't care at all about wreaths on the door.

Now when they sing Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay, I am the one being stretched and molded into something new. They've shown me that this life of compromise and shared traditions is so much better than if I'd "won" all the spots on the tic-tac-toe board.

My son likes to categorize things, and he explains his thinking to me. He and his sister and his mommy are Jewish. I'm not Jewish. Neither is our dog. "And our family is Jewish," he says. It doesn't feel like a contradiction to him at all.

My children see a world that holds many truths, and they've created a place for me to belong that I didn't know how to build for myself.

Now, I feel grateful when I come downstairs early on cold, dark December mornings to the lights of the Christmas tree bouncing off the gleam from the two electric menorahs in the windows. I wave the lights toward me with my hands, then cover my eyes.

In the cracks between my fingers, they glow like twin beacons.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Seeing the Light"