On this particular occasion, we were out on the lake in a rowboat trying to reel in a bass or two. This was nothing out of the ordinary, except for the carefully worded question with which Carl suddenly blind-sided me: "You're not Jewish are you?"
Having grown up a member of the only Jewish family in a suburban Minneapolis neighborhood, I had experienced a healthy dose of anti-Semitism during my young life. It was not uncommon for my route home from school to be creatively designed, on the fly, to avoid being assaulted by the kids in the neighborhood who had identified me as a target simply by virtue of my family's religious affiliation. By the age of 10, I had been sufficiently sensitized, and when I heard Carl's question, my antennae went up faster than the shields on the Starship Enterprise in the presence of a Klingon invader.
Realizing that I was on a boat in the middle of a lake, and detecting the all-too-familiar stench of bigotry, I gave the only answer that was guaranteed to preserve my safety: "No!" I stated, with a degree of conviction and emphasis that included the rippling overtones of, "How could you even suggest such a thing?"
Denying one's identity out of fear is an act of self-betrayal most Americans can't imagine. Recent census figures show that 86 percent of the U.S. population define themselves as Christian, whereas only 2 percent are Jewish (with a combined 5 percent affiliated with other faiths). So for the vast majority of us, the religious self-betrayal I felt compelled to engage in as a child is not part of our reality. Similarly, as we dive headfirst into another Christmas season, it's hard for most of us to conceive of the "December Dilemma" most Jews confront. The choice between participating in a holiday that magnifies the most fundamental differences between Jewish and Christian beliefs, and maintaining a separate identity and feeling alienated for a few weeks is akin to the options I faced on a Northern Minnesota lake as a 10-year-old boy. This December Dilemma is an even greater challenge for the growing number of Jews who fall in love with, marry and have children with partners born of Christian heritage.
The Council of Jewish Federation's (now called the United Jewish Communities) 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that since 1985, 52 percent of Jews are marrying outside their faith (compared with just 9 percent prior to 1965). And there is every reason to believe that this trend has continued during the ensuing 16 years, with estimates as high as 80 percent in certain areas of the country. With a rise in interfaith marriages comes an increase in the number of couples who confront the December Dilemma. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, a psychotherapist and the founding spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder, says the December holidays are a particularly fertile breeding ground for conflict in interfaith marriages because the feelings connected to holiday memories run so deep.
"Holidays are very connected with our inner child and with the most primitive parts of ourselves. They have to do with old memories that are connected with senses and smells and the first early intake of experience with family, love, belonging and warmth. A lot of times people have a sense of December being just filled with magic and light. If you have that in your background, you want to preserve that, and you want to give that to your kids. If you come from two different ethnic groups, which is happening so widely now, you have different ethnic memories and different things that you want to preserve."
In a recent workshop for interfaith families led by Firestone, four approaches to celebrating the December holidays in a Christian/Jewish interfaith family were outlined: 1. Celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah minimally, 2. Celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah fully, 3. Celebrate neither holiday, and 4. Choose one holiday and create a single-tradition household. According to Firestone, research shows that children with a single religious identity suffer less confusion and are healthier emotionally than those raised in a dual-religion household. Consequently, she generally recommends the fourth option to families she counsels. "It's much kinder to give a child an identity that they can handle," she explains. "Just because the parents are struggling with their conflicting identities doesn't mean the child should be burdened."
The most common place for the December Dilemma to manifest itself is around the Christmas tree. Commonly, the Christian member of an interfaith marriage points to the Pagan nature of the Christmas tree, thereby minimizing its religious significance. The Jewish partner, however, may view having a Christmas tree in the home as a betrayal of his or her faith. "The Christmas tree is second only to the cross as a religious symbol," says Firestone. "Many Jews feel like they've completely sold out if they have a Christmas tree."
Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen have interviewed hundreds of psychologists, family therapists, sociologists, religious leaders and interfaith couples. From this research, this interfaith couple wrote a comprehensive, practical self-help book for interfaith couples, The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews & Christians. Petsonk and Remsen share Firestone's concerns about the confusion children experience in a dual-religion household.
"People who say they are raising their children Jewish but have a tree and all celebrate Christmas are, in effect, not raising the children in one religion. In America, the tree is such a potent symbol, and it alone introduces a second religion into the home. If you have a tree, you have as much Christianity in your home as many Christian families."
Boulder psychologist Dr. Janet Joyce disagrees. Joyce, the Jewish half of an interfaith marriage, believes that it is possible to integrate a secular celebration of Christmas into a Jewish household without creating confusion for her two children, eight-year-old Rachel and five-year-old Sarah. Joyce and her husband, Matthew, discussed their options and came to an agreement prior to having children.
"We decided, together, that we were going to raise our children as Jews," Janet Joyce says. "However, my husband always celebrated Christmas as a child. It is important to him to be able to celebrate that holiday with his children. The agreement that we made was that we would have a secular Christmas celebration in our home and that there would be no religious aspect to the celebration of the holiday."
The Joyces include a Christmas tree in their celebration and feel that this decision has not compromised their daughters' sense of religious identity. "If you would ask them, 'What religion are you?' they would unequivocally say that they are Jewish," Joyce insists.
Despite her belief that a secular celebration of Christmas is possible in a Jewish home, Joyce does warn against the pitfalls families may experience if the lines become blurred.
"Some families do try to establish a dual identity for their children, and I think they face the greatest challenge," she cautions. "I think it's very difficult to do, and it can be confusing for the children. If you're going to make that kind of a choice, you have to have an awful lot of support, education and resources."
Despite the challenges of interfaith marriage, there is hope in the example of a fairly well-known Jewish boy who fell in love with and married a non-Jewish girl a number of years ago. This Jewish boy received the support of his wife and non-Jewish family in making some pivotal decisions on his career path. Things worked out well in this interfaith marriage, and the Jewish boy went on to be one of the most famous and influential leaders in world history. Perhaps you've heard of him. His name was Moses.