Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
Click here for more »
Basic Holiday Info
Click here for more »
Think Pieces and Sermons
Click here for more »
During the December months, many interfaith families discover that they must devise creative solutions of how to meaningfully honor Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time. As this New York Times article shows, many Jewish families make out-of-the-box decisions in order to create family traditions that resonate with them. While these decisions may seem unorthodox to some, it is important to remember that one way of being a â€śJewish familyâ€ť does not work for everyone. The complicated decisions that families make about incorporating many different traditions into one cohesive whole do not necessarily lessen their commitment to Judaism.
Although Hayley Krischer is a Jew, married to a Jew, and raising two Jewish children, Kirsherâ€™s ex-husband and the father of her son is not Jewish.
The month of December, as almost any interfaith family will tell you, can be a tricky month to navigate. Whether holidays overlap or fall at opposite ends of the month â€“ as Hanukkah and Christmas do this year â€“ families still encounter sensitive issues of celebration. For intermarried families raising Jewish children, this time of year can be especially challenging. How can these families instill a strong Jewish identity while at the same time honoring the backgrounds of their non-Jewish family members?
This topic is big enough that it isnâ€™t relegated to Jewish media, as every year there are numerous articles in the secular media about interfaith parenting during December.
Admittedly, I am a big fan of Chabad. Sure, there are aspects of Chabadâ€™s approach to the Jewish community with which I disagree. But I have always applauded the willingness of its emissaries to go where people areâ€”all over the globe. I have also always appreciated Chabadâ€™s approach to Public Space Judaism, particularly during the Hanukkah season. If there is any doubt as to what time of year it is, just ask Chabad. Otherwise, why would there be so many humongous menorahs (hanukiyot) in commercial malls, grocery stores, and government centers across the United States?
Unwittingly or not, the Jewish community has defaulted the public celebration of Hanukkah to Chabad. Perhaps some of it is a result of the discomfort among some American Jews of Chabadâ€™s â€śmash-upâ€ť of church and state, to borrow a concept from the world of popular music. And that is why nearly every photo of a government official lighting an â€śofficialâ€ť menorah includes a local Chabad rabbi.
But Chabad shouldnâ€™t be the only visible Jewish presence in the public arena.
We are in the afterglow of Hanukkah, and thanks to an exciting initiative of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, thousands of newcomers to Jewish life celebrated the holiday this year in a whole new way. Last month, the Jewish Outreach Institute developed a new Hanukkah resource that was sent to Big Tent Judaism member organizations as a way to reach unaffiliated individuals and families in their communities. We printed laminated holiday instruction cards to help those on the periphery of Jewish life celebrate Hanukkah. The â€śnewcomer cardsâ€ť were modeled after airplane safety cards, and offered clear, visually engaging and appealing instructions on how to participate in Hanukkah ritual and celebration (including candle lighting, latke-making, and driedel playing). The cards were a way of helping communities throughout North America activate the Big Tent Judaism principles of â€śwelcoming all newcomers,â€ť and â€ślowering barriers to participation.â€ť
Almost 100 communities asked for the cards, reaching close to 8000 people around the continent. Participating organizations distributed cards through a variety of creative means. Hereâ€™s just a sample of how they helped spread the light and some of the reactions:
As Iâ€™ve written in the past, I think the Jewish community is barking up the wrong tree by continuing to bemoan Jewish assimilation into the larger American culture, when â€śassimilationâ€ť is really not an accurate depiction of whatâ€™s happened to the Jews. Recently Rabbi Irwin Kula, who spoke at JOIâ€™s last national conference and continues to put deep and innovative ideas about Judaism into the secular media, has a new video about Hanukkah in which he points out a very interesting anomaly in the whole assimilation theory:
Matisyahu, the commercially successful Hassidic reggae singer, is on a mission. With the release of his Hanukkah song, â€śMiracle,â€ť he has started a campaign on behalf of Hanukkah music, a category he finds extremely lacking. â€śWhere is it?â€ť he ponders on NPRâ€™s All Things Considered blog. Even relative to the small Jewish population, he notes that Jews have produced an insignificant number of Hanukkah songs. This discrepancy, he argues, should be addressed by Jewish musicians: the more Jewish musicians invest in writing and producing quality Hanukkah (and Jewish) songs, the greater the likelihood that they will be bought and listened to by folks in the Jewish community.
Though creating Hanukkah music might seem like a petty competition with Christmas, it is in fact an avenue to Jewish life and cultural expression. In his NPR interview, Matisyahu rightly sums up musicâ€™s role in Judaism by quoting the Hassidic teaching that â€śmusic is the quill of the soul.â€ť In other words, music engages the soul, and Jewish music engages the Jewish community.
In our work with communities across North America, one thing we constantly teach is that in order to reach those on the periphery of the Jewish community, we have to go where they are rather than wait for them to come to us. Itâ€™s what we call Public Space Judaism, and itâ€™s one of the cornerstones of our work and philosophy. The best time of year to do this is around holidays, particularly Hanukkah and Passover since those are the two most observed holidays by both affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish families.
There is another benefit of putting Judaism on public display, as we learn from an article in the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa. Yes, it helps us reach those on the periphery, but it can also help remind Jews of all backgrounds that despite our difference of opinions, we all stand together under Judaismâ€™s Big Tent.