“Why? They’re not Jewish. Do they even know what latkes are?” he asked me.
I grew up in an interfaith family. It is all I know. Though it sounds like a series of awkward adventures to other people, to me, it is perfectly normal.
When I was three years old, I told people that I was half-Christian and all Jewish. I wasn’t good at math, but I understood that through my mother’s side I was Jewish through and through. On my dad’s side I had Christmas.
In fact, I only know three things about my father’s religious beliefs:
• Christmas trees should have multi-color lights. Nothing else will do.
• Eggnog is superb, especially in coffee.
• I don’t care if Hebrew school is going skiing. You’re spending Christmas with the family.
These rules also apply to his grandchildren and this was difficult for my husband at first. He is always worried that Christmas will be more fun for the kids than Chanukah, that the enticement of the tree will shake their beliefs, that they will lose their Jewish identity with every bite of green Rice Krispie Treats.
They won’t. I didn’t. No one of my family talks about religious beliefs because it is not necessary.
My investment in a Jewish school for my children, and the time my aunts and uncles and cousins have taken in sending their children to Hebrew school or church, is what solidifies their faith, not how they decorate in November and December. Our relationship with each other is what makes us confident in ourselves and our ability to navigate diverse communities. My children know what to say when someone asks why they don’t have a Christmas tree.
My cousin Kristie currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda with her family for her husband’s diplomatic service. They sent a thoughtful package to my daughter’s classroom at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. It was filled with African crafts and coins and notes from her children. Lila’s teacher sent me a gentle email, “If you don’t mind me asking, are your cousins Jewish? The kids want to send something back and all they want to create is Chanukah-related.”
I explained that they weren’t, but having lived around the world, they were culturally aware and anything the class wanted to send back would be appreciated. Lila’s teachers helped the children create letters and items explaining the story of Chanukah and how they celebrate. No strife. No confusion. No proselytizing. And my daughter didn’t leave feeling like her cousins were outsiders. They were just other children.
I spent Thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle, Kristie’s parents. As my uncle rounded the buffet, he came to the latkes.
“Oooh!! Latkes! Hey Steve, did you see the latkes?”
Just like my Jewish kids stare in wonder at beautiful Christmas lights, my Christian uncle still delights in Jewish food.
Autumn Sadovnik is the director of lifelong learning at the Edward A. Myerberg Center.