Passing the torch of Jewish tradition

Mixed families come together for Hanukkah

December 04, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

There's no uncertainty in the Lindenbaums' living room about what holiday they are celebrating this year.

The husband and wife once made merry in winter with a Christmas tree for Amanda, who was raised Catholic, and a Hanukkah menorah for Heath, who grew up Jewish. But now menorah stickers cling to the windows of their Pikesville home, which is strung indoors and out with blue and white lights in preparation for the holiday beginning tonight.

Amanda and her husband decided last year to maintain a Jewish home for their two children, though they will still visit her parents for breakfast on Dec. 25. "We have a festive home, but it's not a Christmas tree home," she said.

She is learning more about the rituals and history of Judaism through The Mothers Circle, an educational program that offers non-Jewish moms the support and background to raise a family in an unfamiliar faith.

The Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills is hosting the eight-month course in the Baltimore area and hopes to start a new group next month. It was developed by the New York City-based Jewish Outreach Institute five years ago and is now in 26 cities.

The educational program, a corresponding online discussion forum and family events are meant to help moms balance Judaism with the religions in which they were raised. And December, with the cultural dominance of Christmas, can be a time of conflicts.

"These moms were people who in many cases were doing a lot to raise Jewish children," said Liz Stoll, national coordinator of the program.

"In some cases they were even being pushed away," she said. "This was a really important opportunity to reach out, welcome in and give these moms the support they deserve."

The institute estimates there are more than 100,000 non-Jewish women raising Jewish children in North America. "Our idea is to try to give them education and support and to try to draw them into the community," Stoll said.

At one time, most branches of Judaism defined someone as Jewish if his or her mother was Jewish. Today, some rabbis now recognize patrilineal connections - people with Jewish fathers. Other rabbis have children born to non-Jewish mothers undergo a conversion ceremony, through immersion in a mikvah, or ritual bath. Boys would also have a ritual circumcision.

Regardless of questions of heritage, moms often make most of the practical decisions about children's lives, including school and religious instruction, said Sandee Lever, the coordinator of the Baltimore County program.

"When push comes to shove, it's the mother that has the greatest influence," she said. "Usually the husbands just kind of go along with them."

Lever and Stoll emphasized, however, that mothers are not being encouraged to abandon whatever faith or beliefs they hold.

"We are not here to convert them. We are here to educate them," Lever said.

Some husbands might not be prepared to direct their children's spiritual lives. Though Jewish by birth, some might not have had any formal Jewish education.

"The fact that they were brought up Jewish, they kind of take it for granted," Lever said. "The women are the ones who are really initiating these Jewish customs."

In the course, moms learn about holidays and also how to incorporate Judaism into everyday lives and values, Stoll said. Topics range from dealing with relatives to questions about rituals.

Jorie Rozencwaig of Owings Mills was going to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with her 8-month-old son, Benjamin. She said she joined the circle because she knew about holidays but not their history.

At a meeting last week, Lever went over some Hanukkah blessings and demonstrated how to insert the candles in a Hanukkah menorah - from right to left, adding one on each of the holiday's eight nights - and the process for lighting the candelabra from left to right. She also explained the history of the holiday.

Hanukkah, which means "rededication," marks the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians in the second century B.C. According to tradition, the Maccabees had enough oil to light lamps in the temple for only one night, but the oil lasted for eight.

The coordinator went over some customs and traditions, such as playing with dreidels and eating foods fried in oil.

This weekend, Amanda Lindenbaum had already taught her 6-year-old son, Cole, to make some Hanukkah crafts. His sister, 2-year-old Kate, was adding dots to some dreidel shapes her mom had cut out.

Heath Lindenbaum said he grew up doing similar crafts at this time of year but also enjoyed celebrating Christmas.

But his wife, who grew up with pretty secular holidays, decided they should pick one faith for their kids. And he knew he would always be Jewish. "I didn't want to have confusion in my home," Amanda said.

His relatives are helping them revive abandoned traditions. The Lindenbaums, Heath's parents and his sister trade off holding Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Amanda and Heath are also hosting a Hanukkah party.

Once, "my grandparents were the ones who made the holidays," Heath said.

Now, "we can be those people," Amanda said.

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