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.

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.”




How To Chanukah

Chanukah begins this year (2015) at sundown on December 6.

I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on  So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:

How to Light the Chanukah Candles (VIDEO)

Chanukah 101 (The Basics!)

Traditional Chanukah Foods

Chanukah in the Synagogue

I hope these meet your needs for basic Chanukah materials! Now some goodies from past years:

Chanukah Videos! (Music, silliness, fun, laughter. It’s good for you.)

A More Meaningful Chanukah

The Evolution of Chanukah – How did it get to be such a big deal?

Why the Insistence that Chanukah is a Minor Holiday?

And yes, it’s early, but since I’m already getting questions, I thought it was time to start posting resources. Enjoy November, enjoy Thanksgiving, and when the time comes, enjoy Chanukah!


Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet 5775 began last night at sundown, on the evening of December 21, 2014.

6chanukahWelcome to Tevet! It’s the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and last night, when we lit six candles, the month of Tevet arrived to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest things to happen in it are not Jewish days at all: Christmas and the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually fall in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!


In the Mood for Chanukah!

YouTube is a great resource for both how-to’s and for chanukah music and videos. Here are some goodies I gleaned there recently:

The Maccabeats have a new Hanukkah video, “All about the Nes” (Nes = Miracle)

And their “oldies” are still up as well:

And here’s a how-to video that explains exactly how you light the candles:

Now, MORE Chanukah videos for your enjoyment!:

This is just a taste of the variety you can find online!

Chanukah: More Dedication!

4189089032_fa0e037be5_bI’m glad that so many people have been reading my post, A More Meaningful Chanukah. I thought I’d add some more possibilities for dedication, some larger projects that you can launch during the week.  Who knows, by next Chanukah, that aspect of your life may be transformed!

We tend to think of “dedication” as a nice intention or a ceremony, but real dedication is more than a sterile event. When we say of someone “Rachel has real dedication to x” we mean that Rachel spends her time and her money and her nerves focusing on a particular thing. It might be “her art” or “Torah” or “her dog” but the word “dedication” means Rachel is invested. The activities I’m suggesting are meant to give you a chance to invest yourself.

These additional dedications are geared less to families with young children and more to households with teens or households that are all adults. They are larger projects that you won’t finish in a day or a week – but you can make a good beginning.

1. Lo ta’ashok et re’echa – Do Not Oppress Your Neighbor

Read “In the Mississippi River” from the Jewish Women’s Archive blog. It concludes with five ways to join the struggle for racial justice:

  1. If you are white, educate yourself about appropriate and responsible ways to take action and parse your own privilege. Check out the organization Showing Up For Racial Justice, which is posting articles and holding national training calls for white allies.
  2. If you are Jewish, recognize racial diversity in the Jewish community—not every American Jew has white skin or comes from an Eastern European immigrant family. Michael Twitty and Carolivia Herron have shared extremely personal and powerful reflections about their experiences as Jews of color. Reach out to people in your community and talk with one another. Also, take some time to learn about and grapple with the history of the American Jewish community. After this quick article, you may want to read Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks.
  3. Strive to understand the racist policies and systems that have created the current national crisis around mass incarceration and police brutality. This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander’sThe New Jim Crow are easy to understand and fairly comprehensive.
  4. No matter who you are, allow black voices to come to the fore. Follow black folks who are leading the movements on the ground inFerguson, New York, and in your own community, even when it is hard to concede your own knowledge or experience.
  5. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Be critical of what you hear, diversify your news sources, and be curious about others’ experiences. Stand and be counted—movements are made of individuals.

2. Bacharta b’chaim – Choose life

Life is full of choices. One set of choices we don’t like to talk about are the tough choices when someone gets sick or dies. Yet those choices can affect our families in profound ways, sometimes for generations. If we want any voice in those decisions, and want to save our families additional pain, we need to think about these things ahead of time.

1. Do you have an advance directive for medical decisions? To whom can doctors look for decisions if you cannot voice your own wishes? You can download the forms for your state at this web site. But filling out a form is not sufficient: it is critical that you discuss your wishes with your family. For more info, read Do You Need an Advance Directive? from the Patients’ Rights Council.

2. Do you have a will? Every adult needs to have a proper will. Otherwise, should you die, the courts decide everything, and they will take months to do so. If you have no children, no real estate, and few assets, maybe all you need is a simple will that you can produce with generic forms. Once you have children, property, or more than a few assets, then it’s good to pay for at least a conversation with an attorney.

3. Have you thought about organ donation? If you’ve thought about it, that’s not enough: you need to talk to family. Even if you’ve marked a box on your drivers license, organ donation requires the consent of family, and it will make a hard mitzvah a lot easier if they have heard that it’s what you want.

3. B’tzelem Elohim – In the Image of God

Look around your life: who is there that you have overlooked? Are there people at your synagogue or at the PTA that you avoid because they are different and talking to them is uncomfortable? Someone in a wheelchair? Someone lesbian or gay? Someone Deaf? Someone with a mental illness? A developmental disability? Someone transgender?

You can dedicate yourself to developing some new skills for relating appropriately with these neighbors:

1. Even if you think you already know plenty about a particular life situation, take time to read up on current information. For instance, many people think persons with mental illness are dangerous, and that’s not true: most people with mental illnesses are dangerous only to themselves, if that. Google the thing you need to learn about, and find a good book or article. That will demystify the situation. But don’t stop there!

2. Acquire small talk skills. Imagine for a moment that you have a magnificent nose, a Cyrano nose. Imagine what it would be like if every new person who said hello to you immediately began talking about your nose. (Hint: you would not enjoy it, if only because it is boring to always have the same conversation.) That is also true for any other distinctive characteristic. So we use small talk as a bridge past the obvious (past the Cyrano nose) to more fruitful conversation. For a primer, read The Power of Small Talk.” The great thing about learning small talk is that you can practice it just about anywhere, on anyone!

3. Be sure to listen as well as talk. Ask questions about the everyday. Get to know this person as a person, not as a category. Find out what they are passionate about. Find out what makes them laugh. Until you know more about them than about their Cyrano nose, you aren’t done.


A More Meaningful Chanukah

judaism-152029_640My friend Dawn Kepler* and I were talking recently about ways to make Chanukah more meaningful. How might we use the framework of eight days and make it a real re-dedication to Jewish values?

We decided we’d set up a list of eight Jewish values and give them each one day of Chanukah. We’d plan appropriate activities for ourselves and/or our households. We brainstormed activities that might be suitable for different households (depending on ages and abilities.) The idea of activities is not simply doing for doing’s sake, but doing for the sake of learning. Be sure to reflect and talk afterwards!

Now we invite you to look ahead at your calendar, see what Jewish value might fit each day.  If our activity suggestions are too modest for you, Yasher koach! Go do something that you think would be better.

1. Nidivut – Generosity
a. Go shopping for a needy family.
b. ​Make  breakfast in bed for the family cook.
c. Visit an animal shelter and give them your old towels and sheets for bedding.
d. Give gifts to one another.
e. Shop for a local “Toys for Tots” drive or for the Food Bank.

2. Tzedek – Justice
a. Write a letter to an elected official about some issue of justice.
b. Teach each other about a justice issue dear to us.
c. Make and decorate a family tzedakah box.
d. Write a letter to the editor of the newspaper about a justice issue.
e. Give tzedakah to an organization that works for justice.


3. Hoda’ah – Gratitude
a. Write a thank you card to someone who isn’t expecting it.
b. Write a thank you card to another member of the household. Be specific.
c. Make a list of things for which we are grateful. Then make a “bouquet” of those things by making paper flowers and writing the gratitudes on them. Use it to decorate the table next Shabbat.
​d. Play the ABC Gratitude game as a family:  Name something for which you are grateful for each letter of the alphabet. (I’m grateful for apricots. I’m grateful for blankets. etc.)​
e. See how many times you can say “thank you” to people during the day.

4. Kibud Av v’Em – Honoring Parents
a. Give gifts to parents and grandparents.
b. Adopt an elder who doesn’t have children for the evening or more.
c. Tell stories about family, maybe craft projects honoring family who have died.
​d. Make a coupon book of things you will do for a parent or grandparent in the coming year.​
e. Visit the graves of parents or grandparents who have died. Leave a stone.


5. Talmud Torah – Studying Torah
a. Play “Torah Jeopardy:” Give the questions to which Torah names and places are the answer.
b. Make a play of the Torah portion of the week (usually part of the Joseph story, very dramatic!)
c. Make Torah scrolls with citations or pictures of our favorite verses of Torah in them, gift to one another.
​d. Draw a picture of how you imagine your favorite biblical hero or heroine looked. Tell his/her story to your family.
e. Download and play “Middot-opoly.” It’s a game for learning Jewish values!
6. Hachnasat Orchim – Hospitality
a. Have a Chanukah party. Invite people over!
b. Have people over for Shabbat dinner & Menorah lighting.
​c. Invite someone who is single to dinner, services or out to coffee.​
​d. Volunteer to be an usher at your synagogue.
e. Provide part or all of the oneg for the Shabbat service that falls during Chanukah.

7. Ahavat Yisrael – Love of Israel (the country or the people)
a. Tzedakah to an Israeli organization
b. Tzedakah to a local Jewish organization
c. Watch an Israeli or Jewish-themed film together & discuss over popcorn.
d. Put on Israeli music or Klezmer and dance!


8. Rachmanut – Compassion
a. Volunteer at the Food Bank or similar nonprofit.
b. Give out clean, new tube socks to people on the street asking for help.
c. Visit someone who is shut-in, if possible light the menorah with them.
​d. During the week of Chanukah give one dollar to every person you see begging. (Keep a stash of dollars just for them.) Talk about how it felt at the end of the week.

There are many more Jewish values to choose from​, many more activities that you might try to express and learn about these and other values. Explore the possibilities, and let me know how it goes!


* Dawn is the Director of Building Jewish Bridges, a wonderful organization that supports interfaith families. If you are in an interfaith relationship, or have an interfaith family, check out their website!