Resolving the December Dilemma for Interfaith Couples and Families
What is the December dilemma?
I don’t know where I first heard the term “December dilemma,” but it accurately describes a Jewish conundrum at this time of year. It refers to the cross-cultural tension that intermarried, specifically Jewish-Gentile couples and their children, experience at the winter holiday season.
Many intermarried couples find these days particularly distressing. Familiar cultural symbols seem to scratch across the grain of a partner’s ideal for celebrating the season. In North America the typical expectation is of good cheer, communal warmth and family joy. That would hold true whether entering into the Christmas spirit or Hanukkah remembrance.
However, in the new Jewish family pattern, where multi-ethnic members are increasingly mixed into the family, the atmosphere can be uncomfortable. Emotions can get stirred up over how holidays should be observed, especially when more than one tradition is present in the home. If that is your experience, let me encourage you: It’s not your fault; it is just the clashing of dissimilar cultures.
Jewish-gentile culture clash around the Holidays
“Culture” is all the learned behaviors and rules for living that have come from social authorities and personal experiences accumulated while growing up. It helps order our lives into the “right way” of doing things. If we were computers, culture would be like our personal software. It tells us how to operate in familiar environments. Can you imagine the cross-cultural collision when two conflicting systems of “ought-ness” are operating in the same social space? Computers can crash under those circumstances and so can family cohesion.
Are there any resources to help resolve intermarried cultural tensions around the season of the December dilemma? I hope to offer some useful suggestions. However, let’s first consider what I mean by the “new Jewish family pattern.”
Cultural trends: Disaffiliation, declining birth rates and intermarriage
Actually, studies have found that it helps Jewish-Gentile couples move toward better understanding when they realize that they are relating within a complex social phenomenon. If you are personally affected, or know couples or those in an intermarried household that are, I hope the following information will cast some light on your situation.
Three factors surfaced in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) that illustrated a seismic shift taking place within the American Jewish community.1 The significant social trends were:
- Disaffiliation from Jewish institutions was up to 63 percent. American Jews tend to have only a limited and declining voluntary membership in Jewish organizations, causes and resources. American Jews have been opting out of a religious definition of Jewishness. They prefer an ambiguous connection to Judaism, an ethnic attachment to heritage and a subjective notion of culture.
- Jewish birth rate has dropped below the replacement level. It is now around 1.8 children per average American Jewish couple. That fact set off alarm about preservation of the Jewish people on the North American continent.
- Jewish-Gentile intermarriage had risen to 52% for all marriages since 1985 and has been holding at that level. The former taboo against Jewish out-marriage with Gentiles had collapsed by 2001.2
Perhaps you, or someone you know, fit that pattern of the “new normal” in Jewish life. One more interesting discovery is that Jewish-Gentile couples now represent more than a third of all American Jews. So, where does this growing population fit?
Traditional responses from religion for interfaith couples and families
Traditional American Jewish leaders are divided about how to respond to a growing population of Jewish-Gentile couples. Most do not take an egalitarian view of the spiritual traditions or desires of a Gentile that has entered the Jewish community through marriage. Generally, the approach has included one of more of the following:
- Bring ‘Em In—Embrace the couple and help them to make Jewish choices for their family life.
- Shape ‘Em Up—Reconnect Jewish partners to Judaism with uncertain status for Gentiles.
- Shape ‘Em Up—Convert the Gentile partner, requiring renunciation of all prior religious faith.
- Move ‘Em Out—Ignore intermarried Jews as apostates for marrying out.
On the other side, American churches have not typically focused on reaching out to Jewish-Gentile couples. Hence, there is little consideration for the religious or cultural traditions of a Jewish person who has entered that spiritual community via marriage. No comparable alarm about ethnic survival exists in the church such as is found in the Jewish community response to intermarriage. Typical church reactions might include:
- Discouraging Christians against marrying or having a serious romantic relationship with a non-Christian
- Encouraging Christians to bring Jewish family members to church services and events
- Calling on Jewish partners to become followers of Jesus before marriage
While understandable, none of these responses engage family members as cultural equals. One person is usually being pressed to change or, in the least, made to feel like a cultural outsider. It is easy for families to conclude that they don’t belong in either community. They often feel isolated, especially at times like this season when they face the December dilemma on their own.
Challenge of Jewish and Gentile cultural differences
In a sense, every relationship is cross-cultural. When two cultures are different enough, the “operating systems” of a relationship can “crash.”
Challenges occur in the ways that people respond to cultural differences. That is where the tension erupts from within the December dilemma. First there is uneasiness, like discovering that everything in a familiar room has been rearranged while you were out. The expectation is that the holiday should be observed just like one family used to do it. Any suggested deviation from the tradition is an uncomfortable deviation for the tried and true way of doing things. A cultural compromise can be a way out of the dilemma, but potentially with a loss of meaning. Can a “Hanukkah bush” be associated with the meaning of Jesus’ birth, as would a Christmas tree? Maybe, but one partner is likely to say, “Something is missing.”
Many Jewish-Gentile couples struggle to break out of an ethnocentric perspective. We all tend to see cultural symbols from our unique perspective only. So conflict can erupt when two people view a symbol differently. One Gentile Christian brought a little angel figurine home as a decoration, only to be stunned by her Jewish spouse who accused her of bringing “Jesus in with it.” Little did she expect that her innocent cherub would set off a survival instinct within her Jewish loved one.
Heartache can result when one partner chooses not to learn the holiday meanings of the other. A study I conducted found that Gentile partners were more eager to learn about Jewish holiday traditions than Jewish partners were to discover the meaning of Christian ones.3 There can be something unsettling about a discussion that links Jesus with anything Jewish, like the concept of Messiah. A Jewish partner told me that he didn’t want to have Christmas music playing in the house because it brought Jesus uncomfortably close. People usually want to preserve the emotional feeling of the holidays as they remember them growing up. Any new or different influence becomes an uncomfortable intrusion.
The hardest cross-cultural bridge to navigate at this season is what to teach children. It is a perfect time to introduce them to the holidays of both cultures and help them to appreciate both traditions. However, if the messages are compromised to spare the feelings of one or both adult partners then the children could miss the true meanings and joy.
Is there any hope of resolving the cross-cultural tensions? Yes there is, and no one has to deny a heritage. However, it might require taking a brave new look at the cultural celebrations of a loved one.
Cross-cultural discovery for Jewish and Gentile couples and families
Here is a suggestion for cross-cultural discovery: Don’t assume that you know the meaning within a cultural symbol that is not your own. Ask questions. Learn about the sense that each partner associates with their symbols and practices at this season. Ask your partner what each of the symbols for their holiday mean. It is appropriate to ask, “Hey, why the tree? What does that have to do with Christmas?” or “Why do your parents eat potato pancakes at this season?” And if they don’t know the reason or history behind a cultural symbol or practice, look it up together in a book or an encyclopedia.4
If you have children, include them in the cross-cultural learning curve. Introduce them to the historical accounts and even the legends associated with the holidays. Make a distinction between the elements that are rooted in history and those that have coalesced through cultural developments over the centuries. The New Testament account of the origin of Christmas says, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ [Yeshua the Messiah] came about . . . ” (Matthew 1:18). But where did the word “Christmas” come from and how did Santa Claus get into the picture? The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees provide fairly historical accounts of the fight for perseverance of the Jewish people and the overthrow of foreign oppressors, which Hanukkah commemorates. But who started the legend of the oil lasting for eight nights?
Make sure to help the children of Jewish-Gentile couples understand the significance of what they are learning. Hanukkah can teach them about Jewish survival and God’s preservation of the Israelite people. The birth of Messiah is the good news about God’s shalom (peace) among all humanity, because “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah the Lord.” These are messages that can help children develop a healthy sense of ethnic pride, reassurance of God’s love and hope for a rich spiritual life.
Finding spiritual harmony at home during the December dilemma
I would like to suggest a fitting goal for solving the December dilemma. If you find yourself vying for the preeminence of your culture in a household of competing cultures, try this: Determine to seek spiritual harmony in your home this holiday season. You can create the opportunity for it through cross-cultural discovery. Here are some suggestions.
Recognize that your home is a multicultural storehouse. All people have unique cultural practices and preferences. It is time to get to know your own culture and to learn about the culture of others in your household. That doesn’t mean that you have to be just like each other. However, knowledge and understanding will help you relate more easily if you approach your cultural differences as a wonderful learning experience.
Ethnicity is the anchor. Ethnic identity is a safe place from which to start a cross-cultural discovery. Ethnicity, or bloodline, doesn’t change even as it goes through various expressions of culture. A Jew and a non-Jew, or Gentile, will usually seek to preserve their ethnic or national heritage, regardless of religion. So that is the anchor, or safe harbor for identity, from which to explore different cultural expressions or symbolic meanings.
Blessing of the whole world is the hope for harmony. Jewish ethnicity is a gift from God. That fact makes it worth preserving. The Lord God of Israel promised to bless all nations through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God told Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Christians believe that this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures is stating that one of Abraham’s descendants will be the Messiah, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed. They believe that the Messiah God spoke of is Yeshua: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus (Yeshua), because he will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
- Thus a non-Jewish member of your household represents at least one of those nations that receive a blessing from God through the Jewish people. So, in a very real sense, Jews and Gentiles have something in common to celebrate at Christmas: blessing.
Ultimate unity in a religious sense comes when we discover the harmony between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. As a Jew, I was surprised to find the New Testament to be a very Jewish book. It is written by Jews and in a Jewish context. In fact, it is impossible to fully understand the accounts of the life of Jesus (the Gospels) without knowing the antecedents in the Hebrew Scriptures to which the authors and Jesus refer. On many occasions the New Testament authors quote the Jewish prophets or refer back to the heroes of the Jewish faith, like Moses, King David and Daniel. Gentiles who have been content to approach Christianity solely from the New Testament will greatly enhance their faith by reading the Hebrew Scriptures.
Many Christmas carols are based on those Scriptures. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” reminds us that the prophet Micah predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:1, Hebrew Scriptures). “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is drawn from several passages in the book of Isaiah, including the prophecy that Immanuel, which means “God with us,” would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
If you are a Gentile who has never explored the Jewish roots of your faith, open up the first “two-thirds” of your Bible and take a look. You will gain a new appreciation for the Jewish people and God’s role for us. If you are Jewish and have never opened that “forbidden” book, the New Testament, take the time to read it for yourself, as I did. You will discover that the New and the “Old” Testaments are not two books, or two parts of a book, but they are one. When you discover that, you are well on the way to achieving that oneness in your home!
Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!
1. See www.jewishdatabank.org/national.asp for data from the 1971, 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys
2. American Jewish Committee, Responding to Intermarriage: Survey Analysis, Policy. (New York: American Jewish Committee Department of Contemporary Jewish Life, January 2001.)
3. Enoch Wan and Tuvya Zaretsky, Jewish-Gentile Couples: Trends, Challenges and Hopes (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2004) p. 72.
4. Purple Pomegranate Publishing has some excellent resources at http://store.jewsforjesus.org/
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.