Holidays pose dilemma for interfaith couples

December 09, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

As they prepared to celebrate Hanukkah, a joyous week that began for the world's Jews at sundown yesterday, a dozen Baltimore area couples explored surface similarities and deep differences between the Jewish festival and the Christians' Christmas.

One of the similarities is that both can be stressful.

And both can be times of spiritual growth for families, of growing confidence in religious values, said Beth Land Hecht reassuringly. "Many people are learning as adults what they didn't learn as children."

Ms. Hecht, a Jewish social worker, was responding to a young Catonsville woman, the Christian spouse in a Jewish-Christian marriage, who said she had long felt comfortable with a firm decision to raise her children in her husband's faith.

But emotion can overcome such rational decisions, especially in December. In Jewish circles, it's called the December Dilemma.

"It never occurred to me that I would sit down and cry over not having a Christmas tree," the outwardly serene Catonsville wife said about her unexpected tears. She and her husband were sharing their attitudes and experiences with other interfaith couples in a support group organized by Jewish Family Services.

She added a caution. Her preference is for making the December Dilemma a growth process rather than a reason for strictures. "I'm avoiding absolutes right now," the woman said. "If we don't have a tree this year, it doesn't mean we'll never have a tree."

Rabbi Daniel A. Weiner of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where the support group was meeting, warned interfaith couples on the fence between Christmas and Hanukkah against being deluded by television images of happy people merging the two religious festivals.

"Without being coercive, without being heavy-handed, I try to persuade them to choose between one or the other," the rabbi said. "I think to do otherwise is confusing to children and a disservice to both Judaism and Christianity."

Rabbi Weiner and Ms. Hecht agreed that a problem increasingly for the separate religious holidays -- they occur in December but for very different reasons -- is the pressure from advertisers and retailers to commercialize and secularize them.

A new study reported by Associated Baptist Press suggests that the average U.S. family will spend $689 this year on Christmas presents, down from last year's average of $740 but still enough to cause concerns about what many Jews and Christians see as misplaced values.

"This is an enormous expenditure for families who could be using their funds for other things," the Rev. Albert J. Fritsch, a Jesuit priest and ethicist who studies the causes and effects of poverty in Appalachia, has observed.

"In some ways, I'm glad that Judaism is not the dominant religion," said Rabbi Weiner. "Hanukkah has not yet been corrupted by commercialization the way Christmas has. I feel for Christians in this struggle."

If there are apparent similarities in the celebrations, such as the candle lighting and toys for children associated with both, the historical and theological differences are considerable.

To begin with, Hanukkah -- the eight-day Festival of Lights commemorating the Jews' defeat of a pagan emperor some 2,100 years ago -- is a minor holiday on the Jewish religious calendar, while Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus, is central to Christianity.

A reason for the Jewish insistence that Hanukkah's separateness be maintained is that the festival recalls heroic Jews' refusal to abandon their faith in the face of persecution and death at the hands of a cruel Syrian-Greek ruler, Antiochus IV.

Another reason is an alarming statistic for Jews in the United States. Ms. Hecht said that a majority -- 52 percent -- of marriages of American Jews are with a non-Jewish husband or wife. In the resulting interfaith households, only 25 percent of the children are being raised as Jews.

Ms. Hecht said the American Jewish Committee has warned that abandoning religious opposition to mixed marriages could mean their increase from 52 percent a year to 95 percent and the near destruction from within of the Jewish faith and culture.

Rabbi Weiner and Ms. Hecht urged interfaith couples in Baltimore to share their happy childhood memories of distinct celebrations as well as their changing attitudes toward symbols as varied as the Christmas tree, Hanukkah candles and menorahs and an avuncular Santa Claus.

"Learn about and respect your partner's traditions," Rabbi Weiner said, "but realize that not everything can be authentically shared. For example, a Jew may not be able to go to Midnight Mass. A Christmas tree is not a universal American symbol -- it is a Christian symbol."

Some Jews struggling with the December issues of what and how to celebrate respectfully disagreed. One man in Rabbi Weiner's audience said he had no problem with going to Mass as the guest of his wife. Another advised, "Don't get hung up on form and tradition." A third said, "We were Conservative Jews, but we always hung our stockings by the chimney with care."

The rabbi and Ms. Hecht, just as respectfully, urged clearly delineated, one-religion homes and hoped the choice would be for Hanukkah over Christmas.

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