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Happy Chanukah!

When my husband and I were talking about having a baby, one of the things he said that was important to him was raising our kids Jewish.

I said, “That’s fine with me, but what does that mean to you?”

Eleven years later, we’re still working on the answer to that question.

My husband, like many American Jews, was raised in a largely secular environment, amongst many other Jews. His family has a long, proud tradition of involvement in the labor unions, which to them was a commitment that was born of religious conviction. Though they weren’t religious, their Jewish cultural tradition taught tikkun olam (repairing the world) as a primary goal in one’s life. Another important thing that kids were taught was tzedakah (charity or justice).  It was not enough to live a good life — you are required to help others live a good life, too.

My family was Catholic, and through most of my childhood we attended mass regularly and celebrated all the holidays. But by the time I reached high school, my parents’ involvement in the religion had waned, and none of their children went on to practice Catholicism in their adulthood. For me, it would make no sense to say that I wanted to raise my kids “Catholic,” since that term denotes an actual religious practice rather than a cultural heritage.

So I had no problem adopting a Jewish heritage for my kids, though it did involve a learning curve for both me and my husband. Aside from studying to be a bar mitzvah, my husband really had no religious training at all. But his Jewish identity was solid: he grew up in heavily Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and he had a huge family network in the area.

At the time we had our first child, we knew a few non-religious Jews in the area, none of them with kids our kids’ age. So the first thing we did was enroll our son in a Jewish preschool, which served as a training ground in Judaism for both him and for his parents. We learned the basics of the holidays and the prayers, and we met other local Jewish families, almost all of them “mixed” marriages.

So my situation isn’t unusual — in fact, it’s a fact of life for many mothers of Jewish kids. The interesting thing is how it ties into mothering: I would have had no problem mothering my children as my mother had mothered me, but at first, inserting a religious custom that my husband had barely practiced in his childhood felt forced. After a while, the traditions we were trying to practice made a bit more sense and we started to make them our own, with our own personal flair.

Last year I wrote an article for Growing Up in Santa Cruz (republished in about local families who don’t celebrate Christmas. I really related to Alisun Thompson, who said: “We were aware when the kids hit school age of the conflicting sides of not celebrating the dominant holiday.”

We non-Jews who are mothering Jewish children have to come up with a whole bag of tricks that we weren’t prepared for. And adopting a minor holiday of little importance (Chanukah) has been part of how we’ve been able to make this transition. On the one hand, Jewish kids are set from the beginning to be comfortable not being in the “in” group. By definition, unless you live in a very Jewish neighborhood, being Jewish means you’re not “in”: you don’t sing the songs, have the tree in your living room, or open the presents on Christmas morning.

On the other hand, Jewish kids growing up with cousins who celebrate Christmas (whether or not their parents identify themselves as “Christian”) have a bigger thing to overcome: what is the tradition of your family? How do you recreate the special excitement that kids feel during December?

In Judaism, what are called the High Holidays  — Yom Kippur (day of atonement) and Rosh Hashanah (new year) — are the really big holidays. They happen in the autumn, when the biggest excitement in most American families is back to school and falling leaves. The second most important holiday is Passover, in the spring, coinciding more or less with Easter. Even Purim (a celebration that involves dressing up and making a lot of noise) and Sukkot (the harvest festival) are probably more important, on a religious scale, than Chanukah.

But amongst many American Jews, and I would guess, even more in families that are blending with the Christian heritage of one parent, Chanukah allows us to share in the excitement of December (though Chanukah occasionally happens in the end of November, since it’s on a lunar calendar). We pump up Chanukah not for any religious reason but because we feel a need to offer our kids something to counter the big excitement their cousins are feeling.

If I were religious, or if my husband were religious, I might find this objectionable. But since we’re not, we’ve just decided that we need to present them with another opportunity to celebrate the beginning of the winter months. I’m a pretty logical person and so what appeals to me about Christmas and Chanukah is pretty much the same thing: when the days are shorter and it’s dark before we get dinner on the table, lights, candles, shiny things, special food, and presents bring a bit more cheer into the house.

I get this from my Catholic dad: I pretty much like any excuse for decorating the house and eating good food! So yes, in the scheme of things Chanukah is a pretty minor Jewish holiday. But in our house, we use it as a reason to celebrate the pagan origins of a winter solstice holiday — the celebration of light, warmth, and good food — as well as the parts of the Jewish religion that speak to us: teaching our kids about tikkun olam and tzedakah.

So even if you’re not Jewish and aren’t raising Jewish children, happy Chanukah! For that matter, happy Diwali and happy Solstice and happy anything that celebrates the beauty we can bring into our lives during the coldest and, in California, wettest months.

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

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