Interfaith Challenge: When December isn’t Wonderful

Right about now (late December) the world seems full of Christmas, and many liberal Jewish publications seem full of stories about interfaith families that are having a wonderful December.

But what if your interfaith household is having a tough time this year? Here are some tips for you, in this moment:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The holidays hit a lot of people hard. Your particular issue may be “interfaith” but there are also people in single-faith households that get stressed out, fight, or feel horrible this time of year. Depression is not unusual, either. So even though the marketing on TV tells you that everyone else is happy, don’t you believe it.
  2. Kindness is more important than holiday spirit. We can’t control how we feel, but we can choose what we do. Choose kindness whenever you can.
  3. Keep your agreements if you possibly can. Let’s say you have agreed to something, and now you find that it is uncomfortable. You can say to your partner, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”  You can renegotiate for next year after December is over (see #7 and #8 below) but for now, keep the agreements you’ve made. It will make any future renegotiation easier.
  4. This year is just this year. It isn’t how it’s always going to be. Next year might be completely different.
  5. Make a little time and/or space for your tradition. If the house feels too Christmasy, this might be a time to go to synagogue, mosque, or temple. If it feels not Christmasy enough, it might be a time to go to church, or to any of the places where Christmas is in abundance.
  6. Make a little time and/or space for yourself. What restores you? Go do that. Go for a run or to the gym. Get that pedicure. Meditate. Listen to your music. Be kind not only to others, but to yourself.
  7. Don’t try to process December during December. If it’s already December, the Christmas goose is in the oven, and the Chanukah fat is in the fire. Yes, you and your beloved may need to have a conversation, maybe even a conversation with a skilled counselor helping, but now it’s all too raw. Be as kind to one another as you can, survive to January, then have a conversation when you aren’t in the middle of it.
  8. Know that help is available. If that conversation is going to be tough, or you don’t know where to begin, call your rabbi or minister and ask for help. That may be enough, or they may refer you to an individual or couples counselor who can help. One thing: you want a counselor with experience in interfaith issues. It’s OK to ask for what you need.
  9. Take depression and other mental health issues seriously. Sometimes the only issue is December, but sometimes December can highlight deeper troubles, like mental health issues or addiction. Don’t brush those things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away. Seek treatment for mental health issues. If the sick person won’t seek treatment, other family members need the support of counseling, Al-Anon, or a NAMI group.
  10. December will not last forever. I promise.

Love My Neighbor


One of my neighbors has the brightest, most colorful light display imaginable. Last year I found out why he does it: he lives in that house with his 90 year old mother. Years ago, everyone in that cul-de-sac had holiday lights. Now most of them are elderly and he has gradually added to his light show as theirs have become too burdensome. He enchants the whole street, including me.

This year I noticed something else: the first lights he puts up are all blue and white. It’s only after Chanukah that the red and green lights are lit. That can’t be a coincidence.

I am fond of my neighbor: he’s a good man. I smile every time I round the corner and see his light display. It isn’t my holiday, but I love to see his lights shine.

Sixth Night: Shabbat Convergence!

Tonight we celebrate a Jewish convergence:

That means the longest Birkat Hamazon of the year tonight and tomorrow, as Rabbi David Wolpe pointed out on Twitter today.

Rabbi Wolpe didn’t mention that this will also add bits and pieces to the service tomorrow morning, all of it special:

We add Al HaNissim to the Amidah during Chanukah. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving for the miracles of Chanukah. This version is a lot more entertaining that merely reciting the prayer, but I can’t resist posting it:

For a translation and an explanation of the prayer, here’s an explanation from the Orthodox Union website.

Because it is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet, we recite a short Hallel (Praise) prayer tomorrow morning. This is a recording of Hallel sung by the Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Shevat 5771, but it’s pretty close to what you will hear in a liberal synagogue tomorrow morning:

The video starts sideways, I don’t know why, but bear with it – the Hebrew is clear and beautiful. Hallel is a set of hymns of praise that likely go back to Temple times. Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism has a lovely piece on the Meaning and History of Hallel.

Finally, there are also special Torah readings for Chanukah, from the Book of Numbers.

This is the liturgical equivalent of a Chanukah party: we’re celebrating, praising, telling stories, and most of it comes with rousing tunes. I hope you enjoy your Chanukah convergence: I plan to do so!

Third Night: Three’s a Crowd

There is something in the human psyche that is attracted to groups of three. Research shows that three examples form the most powerful argument for persuasion. Comedians use groups of three to make us laugh. The U.S. Marine Corps uses the “Rule of Three” for all levels of organization, because it is their experience that an effective Marine can attend to three things at once, no more.

  • Two is a coincidence. Three is a pattern.
  • Two have a disagreement. Three has decision-making power.
  • Two is a couple. Three is a crowd.

Three also shows up in Jewish practice and tradition. A beit din [rabbinical court] consists of at least three rabbis. In modern times, a beit din is composed of three rabbis, and usually it is convened to authorize a conversion.

Three also has special significance at mealtimes. While we say blessings before we eat food to take note that it comes from God, we say a blessing of thanksgiving after a meal. That blessing is called the Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing for Satisfaction, from the passage in Deuteronomy:

And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you. – Deuteronomy 8:10

It’s a long and beautiful blessing. It is a “thank you” blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessing gives thanks for the many happy relations between God and Israel.

If three or more Jews say or sing it, there is a special introduction, called the zimmun, an invitation to the group to say the blessing:

If three Jews eat together, they have an obligation to invite one another [to say the blessing after a meal.] – Mishnah Berakhot, 7.1

What does this have to do with Chanukah? Chanukah is a feast of dedication. Dedication is public, not private. We advertise it. And because it is not private, we invite other Jews to celebrate it with us.

As the nights go by, the light grows. Tonight, with three candles lit, we advertise the miracle and invite other Jews to celebrate, to dedicate themselves, to grow in relationship with the Jewish people.

Second Night: Publicize the Miracle

Rava inquired: Where the choice is between kindling a Chanukah light and sanctification of Shabbat by blessing the wine, what is the law? Is sanctification of Shabbat preferable since it is a frequent obligation (while kindling the Chanukah lights is only an annual event) Or perhaps kindling the Chanukah light is preferable since its purpose is publicizing the miracle that God wrought for the Jewish people? After Rava asked this question, he himself resolved it: Kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable, since its purpose is publicizing the miracle. – Shabbat 23b

There is a long discussion of lighting the Chanukah candles in Tractate Shabbat of the Talmud: how to do it, what kind of lights are best, and so on. One principle informs all those discussions: Pirsumei nisa, “Publicize the miracle.”

This calls to my mind another line from Pirkei Avot:

Hillel used to say, “…the shy cannot learn…” Pirkei Avot, 2:6


Judaism is not a shy religion. Our holiest text, the Torah, is a “warts and all” picture of a nation sprung from a breathtakingly dysfunctional family. The Talmud also transmits minority opinions, dissenting opinions, unflattering stories, and some downright unattractive details; we keep it all because sanitizing it would be less than the truth.

Rabbi Steven Leder, my homiletics teacher in rabbinical school, taught me that there are two rules for writing a hesped, that uniquely Jewish form of the funeral eulogy.  The first rule is: Tell the truth. If the departed was in fact a workaholic with a mean streak, don’t say that he was a sweetie-pie. Put a tactful a spin on it, say that his passion for business sometimes overrode his better instincts, be sure to emphasize any good qualities he had, but tell the truth. (The second rule? Help them cry. Help the mourners begin the inevitable process of mourning.)

“Telling it like it is” is a grand old Jewish tradition. It sometimes runs counter to the desire to fit in and please, to our need to be loved and our fear of rejection. It can be embarrassing, it can be costly, it can be a real pain in the neck, but the only lies a good Jew should tell (or listen to) are the white lies of kindness, things like telling every bride that she’s beautiful on her wedding day.

There are things about the Chanukah story that are upsetting to anyone who looks farther than the children’s version. It was not just a war against the Greeks, it was a brother-against-brother Jewish civil war. The real miracle of Chanukah is that what emerged from it was not a ayatollah state of fundamentalists, but a Judaism that incorporated some of the best of Hellenist culture and was strong and flexible enough to survive the disasters of the Roman wars.

Tonight, as we light the second candle, may we publicize the miracle, may we remind ourselves not to be shy in seeking and telling the truth.

These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Eternal. –Zachariah 8:16-17

First Night: Bravery

I love the first night of Chanukah. I love the bravery of two little lights, the shamash (“helper”) candle and the 1st candle. The dark is so very dark, and those little lights shine brightly against it.

The world feels like a dark night lately. For the past several days I’ve laid in bed, reading the increasingly horrifying details of murders and murder attempts all over the world: Colorado Springs, Jerusalem, San Bernardino, London, Beirut, Cairo.  I’ve read so much about hate that I’m sick with it. I’ve read hateful words coming from so many frightened people.

Tonight I’m going to take comfort in two little candles. One lights, the other is lit. We never have one without the other. There is never a lone candle in the dark.

In some ways, the shamash is the “extra” candle. It isn’t counted, doesn’t get credit for its light. But in another, it stands for all the helpers out there in the world, who spread the light to others, often without credit for what they do.

I will remind myself that none of us is ever a lone candle in the dark. There are always other lights, and I will focus my eyes on them as I read the news and make my way through social media.  Fred Rogers suggested that the best way to navigate a scary world is to “Look for the helpers.” I’m going to look for the people who are spreading the light.

Chag urim sameach – Happy holiday of lights!

Jewish Self-Care for December: 12 Tips

For Jews in North America, December can a challenging month. Here are some tips for maintaining your Jewish equilibrium in the midst of Jingle Bells and Silent Nights:

DO keep Shabbat. “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel,” said Ahad HaAm, one of the wisest of the early Zionists. If you don’t know what he’s talking about, try tasting Shabbat for a month and see what happens in your life.

DO celebrate Chanukah. Yes, it is a minor feast, but it is a celebration of dedication to Jewishness, exactly what we need in the Christmas season.

DO make your home a sanctuary. Home can be Jewish space where other traditions don’t intrude. Read 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home for ideas on how to do that.

DO have clear and loving  boundaries in your interfaith home. Exactly what those boundaries are is up to you and your beloved, but clear communication about them can save a lot of pain. If you are already in a place of pain about it, get a counselor to help you sort things out.

DO reach out to and support other Jews. December is a challenge for most of us. Invite people for Shabbat, or for a little Chanukah gathering. Set up a movie date for Dec 25.

DO be proactive with your children’s school. Make sure your child’s teacher knows that he or she is Jewish, and what your boundaries are on Christmas-themed activities, ideally before these things become an issue. Combine with other Jewish parents if there are any to offer to bring a Chanukah lesson to school, etc.

DON’T feel guilty that your children “don’t get Christmas.” Use these tips (especially Shabbat!) to give them the rich and sustaining tradition that is their birthright. Christmas is once a year. A strong Jewish identity is a treasure year-round and for life.

DO keep consumption under control.  This is the season for marketing and partying. Don’t overbuy, overeat, or over-consume, no matter what the culture at large is pushing you to do. If you have children and the grandparents are going overboard with presents, share A Tale of Two Grandmothers with them. 

DO give yourself permission to enjoy. Christmas isn’t our holiday, but perhaps you enjoy the decorations, or the lights, or the music. I love my neighbors’ light displays. Enjoying them as I drive by doesn’t make me a traitor to Judaism. They can enjoy the light of my menorah, too.

DON’T spend time in retail space unless it’s required. Cocoon at home. Add a new mitzvah to your life. Watch Jewish movies. Find a new Jewish blog or two. Enjoy a hobby. Exercise. Enjoy your family. If you work in retail, you have my sympathy.

DO have a reply ready for “Merry Christmas.” My favorite reply is, “I’ll take a happy Chanukah and wish YOU a Merry Christmas.” If you have a stock reply on hand, then you can deal with it “on automatic.”

DON’T take every mention of Christmas personally. A great deal of of the “Merry Christmas” we get is highly IM-personal, which is irritating, but if I got mad every time I heard it, I would have to double my blood pressure meds. Good self care sometimes means “let it go.”