Editor’s note: This article was inspired by the November 19 @nourish talk that Naz participated in.
It’s the month of December, and my 4&½ year old asks, “Mommy, is the whole world Jewish?”
“Who’s not Jewish?”
“Your dad’s not Jewish. And Grandpa’s not Jewish.”
“Do they celebrate Christmas?”
“Yes, if they want to.”
“So can I celebrate Christmas?”
It’s the holiday time, and us Jewish women who are married to non Jews, begin to worry that our faith will be eclipsed by the jingles of Santa’s bells and the twinkling Christmas lights. It’s during Christmas time that our children seem to remember that there are other faiths within their own family constructs, and determine rather quickly that, regardless of what their Jewish mommies want, they have choice and access to other religious value systems and rituals.
Us Jewish mommies panic because we want our children to value the traditions connected to our faith. We want the sacrifices made by our grandparents and ancestors to keep the Jewish faith alive amidst worldwide anti-semitism to matter. We want their sacrifices to matter to our children and inspire them to continue the Jewish heritage. We feel we owe it to our people regardless of being in an interfaith marriage.
I used to panic as well. I felt insulted when my in laws wanted to expose my toddler to Santa Claus and their well decorated Christmas trees. They’d directly remind me, “He’s not just Jewish.” My son was enamored by the beauty of Christmas and all the finely wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree. My father-in-law, who lives with us, made a point to gift my son on Christmas Day and not on Hanukkah. My husband was saddened that we couldn’t get a Christmas tree and decorate it “just for fun”. I felt alone and confused about how to navigate the holidays.
And then one day I decided to change my perspective. I started to mentally log the hours I dedicated to a Jewish life. Why was Hanukkah and Christmas time the defining moment for my family? After all, Christmas is celebrated in December. That’s just one month out of the year. And the actual celebratory moment is from one evening to another, unlike most Jewish holidays that can span anywhere from two to eight nights. Why was my son’s Jewish identity suddenly at risk during this one month?
I realized that if I wanted my whole family, au pair included, to relate to Judaism and have a Jewish home I needed to do more than stick some mezuzahs on the doorways and put up a few hamzas. I needed to carve out a meaningful set of Jewish norms that we could live by as a family … and it all started with getting excited about the 52 Shabbats of the year.
Almost every week we do Shabbat in our home. When we all gather at the table, I’m the only full Jew. This means that I come from an Iraqi mom and Iranian dad who are both Jewish. My husband, and father-in-law who lives with us, are Guyanese with Hindu-Christian roots. Our au pair is from Germany and identifies as Christian. And then there is our son, Brian Jr, who is being raised as a Guyanese Jew. Of course I don’t have much influence over him learning about Guyanese culture. He has his father and grandpa for that. But I have a lot to do and say about him identifying religiously as a Jewish boy. My priority is to make sure Shabbat happens every Friday night. It’s the primary way we teach Brian that he is Jewish and that many of the rituals of our home stem from a Jewish perspective.
It’s no small task to make Shabbat happen every week. It takes a lot of organizing and everyone must have a role. I hold myself accountable for setting a tempting menu. As a working woman, I must cook everything on Thursday night and label it with reheating instructions. I’ve worked with the au pair to show her how to set the table for Shabbat which includes a fancy tablecloth and the ritual items. She then heats up all the food. My husband gets the flowers and knows to give lots of compliments to show his appreciation. He also says a modified inclusive Jewish blessing for our child. I say the blessing to welcome Shabbat, and our son says the blessing for the wine and bread. At times, my father in law also joins us, knowing that on Shabbat, where his grandson says prayers in Hebrew, good food and family time will be enjoyed. After dinner we schedule either a family friendly movie or play a series of board games. We make sure to put away our phones and not allow our activities to be dictated by time. We reflect on what we value in each other and give thanks to the goodness we have received all week.
In the Singh household we make time to do 52 Shabbats every year. We also commit to sending out 12 Shabbat invitations – one invite a month – to another Jewish family in order to be involved in the Jewish community. We also attend about 10 Hinei Ma Tov events and 3 Jammies and Jeans Shabbat events; we do 2 mitzvahs a year at the synagogue by volunteering our time; my son attends 1 hour of Hebrew school each week at the JLC, which totals 40 classes a year. Lastly, we visit my mom’s Iraqi synagogue once a year for a festivity during a Jewish holiday of her choice. And that brings us to the many Jewish holidays where we push ourselves a bit more to be celebratory and remember important ancestral rituals.
I no longer worry when my son asks about Santa Claus or when he wants to linger around my sister in law’s Christmas tree. It’s also okay for us to take part in Christmas activities outside of our home such as seeing a tree lighting ceremony or listening to a Christmas concert. Brian is being raised as a Jew, but there are other religious influences in our family and we need to acknowledge them.
My son knows he is Jewish because it’s a weekly and monthly activity in his life. We’ve clocked in our “Jewish hours” which has been accepted as a norm by the whole family. The 52 Shabbats prompt Jewish prayer, sacrifice of other activities, and behavioral codes that create a Jewish home and upbringing. It creates a system of appreciating God’s blessings and each other. It also holds hands with attending synagogue on some Saturdays, Hebrew school during the week, doing mitzvahs, and taking part in other communal Jewish activities.
So 52 Shabbats later, I know my son understands he’s Jewish and it’s his norm. I know my husband has some footing in Judaism as more and more of our happy moments are derived from Shabbat gatherings. It’s our time with people we love and care about. It’s real and predictable.
No Santa or Christmas tree can compete with that.