Behind the Headlines: How Interfatih Couples Face the December Holiday Dilemma

The Christmas holidays, which symbolize warmth and togetherness for Christians, are often a source of stress and discomfort for Jews.

But for the ever-growing number of households with intermarried partners, and even for those in which one partner has converted to Judaism, the holidays can be no less than a time of crisis.

Popularly known as the “December dilemma,” the problem of dealing with the celebration of Christmas and Chanukah often marks a turning point in such couples’ overall approach to religion, both for themselves and for their children.

While intermarriage is considered a deeply disturbing trend for most in the Jewish community, it is an undeniable reality.

According to research by sociologist Egon Mayer, about 35 to 40 out of 100 Jewish marriages now include a non-Jewish partner. Approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of intermarriages involve conversion to Judaism, with an estimated 5 percent converting to Christianity.

For intermarried couples, the holidays are “the annual test of how they handle their differences the rest of the year,” Mayer said.

“It brings to a head differences that are there all year ’round but cannot be avoided during this time of year because of the high awareness that Christmas and Chanukah arouse.”

Those involved agree. “The December dilemma intensifies and highlights what happens during the rest of the year,” Roberta, a non-Jewish woman with a Jewish husband, said at a workshop on the issue at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

‘FELLOW BERKELEY RADICALS’

Wed during the 1960s when they were self-described “fellow Berkeley radicals,” Roberta and her husband did not find the issue of religion troubling during the first 11 years of their marriage.

She said she had always assumed their home would be a potpourri of religious and cultural traditions. She had happily participated in Passover seders and assumed that her husband would accept her traditions just as tolerantly.

After their first child was born, she said she hoped that their family traditions might now include a Christmas tree.

She was utterly unprepared for her husband’s reaction. He said the tree would not only disturb him but deeply threaten him.

“It’s like having the boot of the oppressor in my own home,” he told her.

The Christmas tree debate led Roberta to rethink the role religion should play in her home and resulted in a growing involvement in Judaism for the entire family.

They joined a progressive synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which attracts many intermarried couples. Their two daughters have attended religious school and the eldest is now preparing for a Bat Mitzvah. The daughters converted to Judaism, though Roberta has not.

Despite the family’s growing Jewishness, Roberta’s reluctance to surrender her cultural heritage is symbolized in the small Christmas tree that still stands in her home.

Roberta’s case is typical in that it is usually the Jewish partner who feels most threatened by celebration of Christmas.

With the weight of American society’s stress on the Christmas holiday, Jews fear that if they allow signs of Christmas inside the home, their Jewishness will be eroded.

“Jewishness has been such a threatened identity for so long,” said Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who directs interfaith programs for the 92nd Street Y. “The paradox for them being involved with someone non-Jewish is that their Jewish identity is threatened in an intimate way.”

Non-Jews do not feel an equal threat, Cowan said, and are usually much more open to Jewish symbols and traditions. Therefore, it is usually the non-Jewish partner who feels the family should celebrate both religions, and the Jewish partner who resists it.

WORST TIME OF YEAR

Neil Jacobs, another workshop participant, said that “Christmas was unquestionably the worst time of year” when he was growing up. As a young boy attending yeshiva in an Italian neighborhood, he did not directly experience anti-Semitism, but said he “felt more vulnerable” in addition to feeling left out and alienated.

He is adamant in wanting his home with his wife of five months free of Christmas symbols, and has gone as far as to oppose having a poinsettia plant in his home during the holidays.

He has, however, agreed to celebrate Christmas with his new wife’s parents at her childhood home in Vermont, and will learn, he said, to “force the words ‘Merry Christmas’ through my teeth.”

“Joan is my wife,” Jacobs said, “and these are her parents. To cut them off and not show respect for their traditions is not correct.”

Lina Romanoff, who heads the Philadelphia-based Jewish Converts Network, said that even in homes where a partner has chosen Judaism as his or her religion, it is often difficult for the person to give up treasured childhood symbols of family holidays.

One convert Romanoff counseled was active in Jewish life, but had such an emotional attachment to the symbol of the Christmas tree, that she actually kept a fully decorated tree hidden inside a closet during the holiday season.

“Every year, she would sit in a closet with a Christmas tree and cry,” Romanoff said. “She called herself a Christmas tree junkie. On the outside, she was a model Jew, but she had a deep, dark secret.”

PATIENCE ADVISED

In cases where the non-Jewish or converted partner feels it is impossible to give up a Christmas symbol, Romanoff advises patience. She points to the example of another convert she counseled who felt she could not give up a Christmas tree.

Romanoff told the woman’s Jewish husband to be patient and advised her to go ahead and put up the tree.

“A year later, the tree was smaller,” Romanoff said. “As time went on, it got smaller and smaller. Eventually, she said she didn’t have to have it anymore. As her comfort level with Judaism increased, she didn’t need it.”

When it comes to children, Romanoff takes a harder line. Couples “should agree to raise the child in one faith,” she said. “When they are raised with both religions or nothing, they are confused, angry and resentful later in life.”

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