ENCINO, Calif. (Dec. 18)
On Dec. 25, Rod Shapiro and Pat Wong will exchange Christmas and Chanukah gifts spread under a seven-foot Christmas tree. The interfaith couple in their late 50s, married three years, will light the menorah in the evening and invite friends to stop by their Long Beach, Calif., home.
Welcome to Chrismukkah 2005, a holiday that offers greeting cards featuring a reindeer with menorah antlers, recipes for Gefilte Goose and Kris Kringle Kugel in “The Merry Mish Mash Holiday Cookbook,” Christmas-tree ornaments decorated with Stars of David, a children’s book called “Blintzes for Blitzen” and gift wrap adorned with matzah-ball snowmen.
For Shapiro, who describes himself as culturally Jewish, Chrismukkah is a light-hearted solution to the familial conflicts that interfaith couples often face.
“Personally, I think that more and more people should embrace their similarities and tolerate their differences, and Chrismukkah is a holiday that allows couples to do that,” he said.
For others who won’t be wishing their interfaith family and friends a Merry Mazel Tov, Chrismukkah is a superficial and commercial pseudo-holiday that presents multiple problems. It’s compounded this year by the fact that Chanukah and Christmas coincide on the secular calendar, something that happens only every 19 years.
Chrismukkah created enough of a stir last year that the independent Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis issued a joint statement condemning it as shameful plagiarism and an insult to both Christians and Jews. The two groups likely will issue another statement this year.
“The criticism still stands,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “I just feel it’s inappropriate to take two very distinct holidays that belong to two different faith groups and to synthesize them into one. It doesn’t respect the integrity of either one.”
Chrismukkah entered public consciousness in a television episode of “The O.C.” on Dec. 3, 2003. The main character, Seth Cohen — son of a Jewish father and Protestant mother — decided that interfaith families should no longer have to choose between Christmas and Chanukah.
“I created the greatest super holiday known to mankind, drawing on the best that Judaism and Christianity have to offer,” he declared.
While Chrismukkah may not yet have realized Cohen’s prime-time expectations, the celebration will be featured for the third time on “The O.C.” on Dec. 15, in an episode titled “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah.” Is Chrismukkah a made-for-TV, faddish holiday that will fade from memory faster than Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-Me-Elmo? Or is it a more sinister creation that threatens to dilute the religious significance of two distinct holidays, trivializing them and confounding children’s sense of religious identity?
The melding and mingling of customs is nothing new. Historians trace it back to Christians in the first century CE who still considered themselves Jews. And interfaith couples for ages have been quietly celebrating both holidays.
Meanwhile, the number of interfaith families continues to increase. The National Jewish Population Survey 2000 01 counts 5.2 million Jews in the United States, with 47 percent of those, since 1996, marrying non-Jewish spouses.
Estimates of the number of interfaith couples widely vary, but sociologist Bruce Phillips, professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, puts the number at 624,000.
Edmund Case, president and publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, a nonprofit online resource for interfaith families, opposes combining elements of the two holidays for interfaith couples
InterfaithFamily.com advocates raising the children of interfaith families as Jews, but Case sees no problem with participating in Christmas celebrations.
“It doesn’t mean the kids won’t be Jewish; it doesn’t mean they’re rejecting Judaism,” he said.
In the second annual December Dilemma Survey sponsored by InterfaithFamily.com, two-thirds of nearly 400 self-selected respondents indicated that they planned to keep holiday celebrations separate. Additionally, 78 percent thought Chrismukkah was a bad idea, while only 6 percent applauded the concept.
The Opper family of North Easton, Mass., hosts an annual Chanukah party with latkes, cookies and games of dreidel. They also hold a separate Christmas celebration that includes lighting the tree, drinking hot chocolate and egg nog and making a gingerbread house.
“You lose the tradition and history of both of them trying to make a Chanukah bush out of a Christmas tree,” said Cheryl Opper, a practicing Protestant who, along with her husband Neal, is raising their daughter Jewish.
For 78 percent of the families responding to the InterfaithFamily.com survey, the Christmas celebrations are more secular than religious. Betty Bildner, who is Jewish, and John Power, a non-practicing Catholic, have raised their three children Jewish, a decision they made before marrying.
The Encino, Calif., family celebrates Chanukah, but they also have a tree and a separate Christmas observance.
“Christmas is about giving and sharing and about getting together as a family,” Bildner said. To her husband, it’s a reminder of happy times from his childhood.
But for many families the distinctions are more blurry, and decisions regarding religious upbringing are often ignored until a child enters the picture. That was the case for Ron Gompertz.
Gompertz, who describes himself as “a typical bar mitzvah boy from New York City,” is the son of Holocaust survivors but grew up with a Chanukah bush in the house. His wife, Michelle, the daughter of a Church of Christ minister, identifies more with Buddhism and atheism than anything else.
It wasn’t until two and a half years ago, when their daughter Minna was born, that Gompertz, now 52, and his wife started thinking about religious issues.
The family moved to Bozeman, Mont., where in 2004 Gompertz created and launched www.Chrismukkah.com, which he saw as a way to make light of his intermarriage.
The Web site, the subject of a current trademark conflict with Warner Bros., which produces “The O.C.,” serves as an online store to sell Chrismukkah cards and merchandise as well as a forum to publish Gompertz’ reflections on the subject.
Commercially, Chrismukkah might be gaining some ground. Gompertz reported that sales on his Web site have nearly doubled since last year. He expects to sell about 75,000 Chrismukkah cards, with “Good Cheer with a Schmear,” a picture of four bagels with cream cheese, this year’s top seller.
Still, “It’s a very small, micro-garage business,” he said.
Elise Okrend, creator of MixedBlessing interfaith and multicultural cards, a retail and Internet business based in Raleigh, N.C., estimated that she will sell more than 350,000 cards this year, up from about 12,000 when she and her husband, Philip, founded the company about 15 years ago.
But spiritually, Chrismukkah remains a mystery.
“Why have any mishmash?” asked Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., wondering what is drawing anyone to the idea. “They’re looking for something, but they’re totally ignorant.”
Gompertz expressed surprise at last year’s anti-Chrismukkah backlash by talk-show radio hosts and Jewish organizations.
“I’m a Jew and I’m a good Jew,” he said.
Perhaps that’s why he’s been seriously researching the history of his European relatives. Perhaps that’s also why, over the past year, he and his wife made the decision to raise their daughter as a Jew.