When Sylvia Kahn first celebrated Christmas with her future husband’s family some 20 years ago, she was in awe of the rituals.
Kahn, who was raised in a secular Jewish home in Alameda, remembered eating potato latkes to mark Chanukah — and not much else. With her future in-laws, she decorated a Christmas tree, exchanged gifts and delighted in the bonding.
Ironically, Kahn said participating in the Christian traditions and marrying a non-Jew strengthened her Jewish identity.
Today, she and her husband of 13 years, Daniel Salsbury, are raising two Jewish children, Evan, 11, and Bennett, 6, in a home that, during December, is decorated in red and green.
“This is a family-oriented, celebratory time of year,” said Kahn, who lives in Alameda and belongs to Temple Sinai in Oakland. “My husband has fond memories of Christmas with his family, and it was not something he wanted to give up. Our compromise was to raise the kids Jewish and celebrate Christmas. It was a simple decision.”
Interfaith families raising their children Jewish are continuing at high and stable levels to participate in secular Christmas activities; to keep their holiday festivities separate; and to believe that their participation in Christmas does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity.
These trends emerged from the December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily.com, an online resource for interfaith families exploring Jewish life and making Jewish life choices.
For the last seven years, the nonprofit has asked how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” or the confluence of Chanukah and Christmas.
“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas continue to be common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “These families, by very large measure, see their Christmas celebrations as entirely secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity.”
Skeptics of that notion argue that parents can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and simultaneously observe Christmas.
Survey results suggest that they are doing so.
“My kids have a stronger sense of Judaism as children than I ever did,” Kahn said. “The tricky part for us is what we do with the ‘American response’ of gift giving at Chanukah. Presents for Christmas and Chanukah are obscene. We treat Chanukah as the Festival of Lights in our home, with the focus on lighting the menorah.”
Families who celebrate both holidays make clear distinctions between the two, and give clear priority to Chanukah over Christmas, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday.
A majority celebrate Chanukah at home, and mark Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered on the extended family.
Of course, there are the exceptions, such as Kahn’s family.
On Christmas, “we don’t get out of our pajamas,” Kahn said. “The day is devoted to family, and that’s pretty sacred. We decorate the house, use [letter] blocks to write messages under our tree and take pictures of the sentimental words. It’s a lovely tradition and a way of capturing memories.”
Kahn’s husband, Daniel, grew up in a conservative Christian home. In the past, his father, a youth minister, and mother would send children’s books about Christianity to Evan and Bennett. It didn’t take long for Kahn and Salsbury to notice that this was confusing their children.
In fact, the realization came to them about four years ago while sitting in one of Dawn Kepler’s discussion groups for Bay Area interfaith couples.
Kepler, director of Building Jewish Bridges: Outreach to Interfaith Couples, agrees that children definitely should be brought into the discussion. “At age-appropriate times, share information with them. No child should not fully understand” their parent’s religion, she said.
Kahn said she left the class understanding that it’s not enough to know one’s religious heritage. There has to be celebration, too.
“If I married somebody Jewish, or who wasn’t Jewish but was fine with just celebrating Chanukah, I don’t know that I would be able to create the rituals we have,” Kahn said. “What we do is special. We get to have so much fun as a family and spend an entire month focused on each other.”