by Julie Wolf, Jewish Family Network Program Specialist
This month, we knew we wanted to interview someone from an interfaith family who had perhaps weathered the stormy seas of the “December dilemma” already. With Christmas falling smack-dab in the middle of Hanukkah this year, it’s an issue that is at the forefront of many of our minds. I usually talk to someone I’ve never met in person, and often we don’t meet face-to-face until long after the interview is over. But this month all I did was spin around in my office chair and set my sights on the guy in the office chair next to me, my husband, Keith Wagner. Keith grew up in a non-Jewish family in a non-Jewish town in South Jersey. He has no plans to convert to Judaism, but he has his own yarmulke and wouldn’t think of eating bread on Passover. Together we’re raising Jewish children (Rachel, 10; Benjamin, 7; and Lila, 5) in a Jewish home, and Keith is as much a part of that as I am. In this interview, he talks about his personal decision to embrace Judaism for our family, but how that decision hasn’t always come without a cost.
How did a nice Protestant boy like you find yourself in a menorah-only home?
When we were dating, observing the Jewish holidays was important to you, so I did it. End of story, full stop. We did try, that one year, to observe both holidays — I went out and got a little tabletop Christmas tree with votive candles — but apparently it didn’t work for you.
You boxed it up and put it away and told me not to worry about it. Do you ever miss celebrating Christmas in your own home?
The idea of not celebrating in my own home — the observance of the tradition more so than the religious observances — didn’t bother me so much, since I knew that there would always be Christmas at my parents’ house. I guess I do miss celebrating it some — mostly for the atmosphere. I like the lights on the tree. I have very vivid memories of the smell of evergreen in the house. It was always a very peaceful season, it seemed to me, after the bustle of the celebrating and the extended family get-togethers.
For what it’s worth, I still plan to watch A Christmas Story this Christmas like we do at your parents’, even though we’ll be home.
Ohhh, fuuudge. [Laughs.] Well, A Christmas Story is more about celebrating a great movie and an under-acknowledged humorist than it is about the religious holiday.
And about getting your tongue stuck to a frozen lamppost. Did you go to church a lot when you were growing up? Was there much diversity in your town? We don’t see too many electric menorahs in the windows in your parents’ neighborhood when we visit. Did you know anything about Judaism or Jewish holidays when you were a kid?
I went to Sunday school every week all the way through high school, with regular Sunday services. There were extra activities as well — church dinners, social outings, an annual baseball night to see the Phillies. I was in the church choir for a bunch of years (can you imagine? I don’t know how that happened). We would go to a local retirement home every Christmas and sing carols for the residents, deliver little Christmas tree ornaments that the church would make. I guess I was fully engaged with the community.
I honestly didn’t know much about Judaism in my formative years. There was one Jewish kid (that I knew of) in my middle school, Joel Sacks. His mom was the den mother for the school’s Cub Scout troop. (I lasted for about two weeks — I think I bought the book and got halfway through my pine derby racer before deciding it wasn’t for me — Cub Scouts, not Judaism). But I never discussed religion with him.
In retrospect, I imagine now that it must have been hard for him, the lone Jewish representative in our grade. Different practices and traditions weren’t really part of my vocabulary at the time — I wasn’t curious about that sort of thing then. Catholicism probably dominated, then a smattering of other denominations — Presbyterian, Lutheran. I remember one year the reverend at our church hosted a seder on the Friday before Easter, to give everyone in the congregation the experience of what went on at the Last Supper. A hard-boiled egg features prominently in that recollection. (I did not develop a lifelong affection for matzoh from that experience.) I didn’t develop a better understanding of Judaism until college, when I made a few Jewish friends and celebrated my first Hanukkah.
When we got married, our rabbi said he felt that an interfaith family should choose one religious tradition in their home, which we already knew intuitively, I think. Why do you think this is beneficial to the kids, and also to the parents?
The two traditions are related at a very bedrock level, but they’re too different to exist comfortably next to one another in the same home. Comparative religions is a great college course, but for little kids who are developing a sense of self and identity, a single set of beliefs is better. It’s easier for them to grab onto, rather than having to spend a lot of time discussing and reconciling the differences, and then leaving the kids to negotiate all that in their own heads. When you focus exclusively on one religion, there’s more stability and consistency, and I think that’s important for kids.
Whether it’s beneficial for the parents I guess depends on the parents. For me it works fine, but if you have two parents who have a very strong sense of religious identity, I think it would be very difficult for one to totally abdicate their tradition. Following just one tradition has certainly made me more religious, or identify more with religion, at least from a service-attending, community-participating perspective. With Rachel in the junior choir, and with the Hebrew school’s service attendance requirements, I’ve been to more organized religious services in the last 12 months that I’d been to in the 20 years after high school.
The “December dilemma” is a huge topic for many families, and such a painful one sometimes. In our case it was your parents who had a hard time. Things are better now, but it will never be a really comfortable subject. For some non-Jewish partners who fully embrace raising their children Jewish, it is still hard to let go of Christmas. Is there anything you can share from our experience that might help couples who are negotiating this for the first time?
I don’t know. Again, it depends on the partners and on their families. Every situation has to be different, I imagine. Certainly the decision to choose Judaism is something you should agree upon very early, probably even before marriage. I mean, both of the rabbis we interviewed to marry us broached the question, and one even required that we sign a contract stating that we’d raise our children Jewish. I don’t recall when we had our discussion, but it was before Rachel was born. It made it easier to negotiate the holidays once the kids were in the picture. The people who are going to be most distressed by a decision to choose one religious tradition over the other are probably going to be the in-laws, the grandparents. I don’t know how, or if, you can cushion that blow for them. If your families are the type who’d be amenable to such a suggestion, consider including them in your celebration. But you have to decide what’s best for you as a couple, and for your family as a unit, then stand by that decision. Support your partner. They and your kids are the ones you’re making this decision for.
Any favorite things about Hanukkah? I’ll go first: I love the latkes, but I hate how the frying makes the house smell. On a serious note, it makes my heart happy to hear you saying the blessings over the candles with the kids. Your turn.
Hanukkah’s great. I love playing dreidel with the kids. (I’m something of a gamer, you know.) I like the sufganiyot — any excuse to eat a handful of small jelly doughnuts is OK by me. I like the night of charity that we have, when we give instead of get. The music leaves a little something to be desired — for whatever reason, there’s no Jewish equivalent to traditional Christmas tunes. I like the nightly candle lighting, the joy and awe on the kids’ faces, their serious business look when it’s their turn to wield the shamash, and then afterward just letting the candles burn down and out. And last but not least, I like the way that celebrating the festival with our family makes you happy.