My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
I am engaged to a wonderful man – who is not Jewish. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve talked a lot about what our interfaith life will look like. But talking about a Christmas tree, something seemingly so small, was always put on the back burner to make room for conversations about what traditions the wedding ceremony will involve, and how to raise our future children.
Last year was our first Christmas together living under the same roof, and we were saved from the discussion yet again because our apartment was too small to even conceive of displaying a tree. We have since moved to a larger, more tree-accommodating apartment, and this year the conversation became real. It was very deep, and went something like this:
Erik: Can we please get a tree?
Erik: Like, right now?
And off we went to pick out our tree and all of its fixings. A couple of hours later, our living room glowed from its lights and we sat on the couch tired, happy, and thoroughly impressed with ourselves. Then, my mind began to wander.
What did this mean? What would my mother say? Am I going to be judged for putting this up in my apartment?
I found myself in an after-the-fact December Dilemma, and all of my thoughts were verbalized through the sentence, “I can’t believe there’s a Christmas tree in my apartment.” I didn’t know that uttering those words would lead to a learning experience!
My fiancé Erik, who is originally from Ukraine, told me that in the Soviet Union, in the Communists’ effort to stifle religion, Christmas trees were forbidden. So instead, folks put up New Year’s trees – a tradition that many continue today. The tree therefore can carry with it cultural as opposed to religious significance.
“Cool!” I thought. “We have a New Year’s tree – NOT a Christmas tree! So much easier to explain to family! So much easier to confess to friends!”
It appeared that my personal December Dilemma had been solved thanks to a quick history lesson from my fiancé. I have learned through this process that feelings about Christmas/New Year’s trees are fluid. So where are my feelings now?
Well, the tree has been up for a few weeks, and with each day that passes… I love it more. I appreciated the history lesson from Erik, but I’ve since realized that labeling the tree is unimportant to me. What is important is that it makes someone I love comfortable and happy, and, whatever its significance or connotations, that’s enough for me. Appreciating a part of his identity doesn’t take away from my identity, and I understand now that that is why it was so easy for me to agree to get one. My heart got it before my head did.
There is no single “right answer” that will apply to everyone, when it comes to deciding on shared practices and rituals—at this holiday season, or at any time of year. I am also very glad that there are so many resources, like Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism, that can support interfaith families in navigating these conversations and choices in respectful, informed ways.
This year, when I look at the Christmas/New Year’s tree, with its ornaments hung so precisely and its laughably-too-small skirt, all I see is joy, understanding, and respect. I am proudly Jewish, and the tree does not diminish that – and in fact, while a Christmas tree might not be part of my identity, the qualities of joy, understanding, and respect, are ones I try to embody every day.
On the first night of Hanukkah, Erik and I took out our brand new chanukiah (which we also picked out together). We said the blessings, and the candles glowed right alongside the Christmas lights. Who knows how our interfaith traditions will evolve over time, but for now there is no December Dilemma in our apartment. There is love, and learning, and a whole lot of lights.
From my interfaith family to yours, Happy Everything!
Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me, because I can celebrate it with my Christian family. For many Jews like myself, who have not only friends but also family of other faiths, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come together. It is a holiday embodying values important both in Judaism and American culture.
However, this embrace of Thanksgiving by people of all faiths was not always the case.
Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of the annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional event. It supposedly was first observed in 1631 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Pilgrims breaking bread with the local Native Americans who helped them with their successful harvest. However, this image of the supposed-first Thanksgiving has become fraught with controversy, since history makes clear that beyond the first joint “Thanksgiving,” mutual peace, dependence, and friendship did not characterize Native American/Pilgrim relations—but that’s another blog post.
With time, the holiday came to serve as symbol for national unity, but one that was still rooted in a primarily Protestant Christian understanding. The Continental Congress gave the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777, which stressed that observance would “please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance.” In 1844, South Carolina Governor Hammond called on Thanksgiving for the citizens of his state to join in worship, as “becomes all Christian nations…. to God their creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.” In response, Jews in Charleston protested. They refused to observe Thanksgiving publicly in the synagogues, keeping the two buildings closed on the holiday and accused Hammond of violating the constitution of South Carolina. Hammond’s reply? “I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land.” Rather than continuing an intemperate debate, they resolved to publish all of the correspondence in the press, allowing “public opinion of the country” to decide the issue.
The official federal holiday was enacted during the Civil War when this nation was in the midst of a tumultuous struggle. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials, beginning in 1846, encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving be widely adopted. She hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Her appeal for a national day of thanksgiving was successful, and Lincoln put forth a national proclamation in November of 1863. Secretary of State Seward called on the nation to observe the day “with one heart and voice,” to bring about peace. The holiday stressed the act of a “family homecoming,” and helped ease the dislocations of wars, industrial and commercial revolutions, and social unrest.
It also helped Jews feel more included in the American experience.
Scholars like Beth Wenger in History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage argue that over time, Thanksgiving has proven to be an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot, pointing out that the Pilgrims were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible. Almost since their first arrival in America, Jews sponsored celebrations of American holidays as a way of asserting both their allegiance to American civic ideals and the symbiosis of Jewish and American values. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews even made a practice of celebrating Thanksgiving in synagogues while Christians were doing the same in churches. With time, it became popular to participate in interfaith ceremonies. Indeed, this trend continues across the country in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Sun Valley, Idaho.
Despite its complicated past, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder that even in our troubled times, we can still give thanks. Practicing gratitude in one’s everyday life is as good for a person as exercise or healthy living. It keeps us centered, humble, and ultimately, empathetic. It is that empathy for others around us that defines us both as a Jewish community and country, and it can continue to help all of us, despite our differences, tackle difficulties in the future.
I will be grateful to gather for this ecumenical celebration with my own religiously diverse family. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
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