A compromise between Christmas, Hanukkah?

Mixed Jewish, Christian families weigh blending the religions for ‘Christmakuh’ or keeping them separate

Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
The Rev. Julia Jarvis leads a service after the lighting of the menorah during the Takoma Park-based Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington’s meeting Sunday at Sligo Middle School.

Grace Lerner remembers the day in elementary school when she was asked how she celebrated the winter holidays, and where she fell in the classroom example of a Venn diagram with intersecting circles. Was she part of an ‘‘A” family that trimmed a tree, or a ‘‘B” family that lit a menorah?

Even then, she understood where she fell: right in the middle, where the circles overlapped.

‘‘I used to think I got double presents, until I equated it and realized that they just split them in half,” said Lerner, 17, a senior at Kensington’s Albert Einstein High School whose family lives in Silver Spring. ‘‘My friends used to say, well how can you be both? They get it now. ... The two basically go together.”

Lerner calls herself Jewish 11 months out of the year and Christian in December. Her mother, Melinda, was raised Protestant. Her father, Richard, is Jewish.

Neither spouse reports much of a ‘‘December dilemma,” the time of year many interfaith families find challenging and must find ways to accommodate the holiday traditions — and demands — of their respective faiths.

‘‘It’s easier to satisfy both and honor both if you do separate them, than when blending them,” Melinda Lerner said of celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah during the holiday season. ‘‘This way, you don’t short one side over the other.”

The Lerners credit much of their success to the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) of Greater Washington, a Takoma Park-based organization that at one point used a Venn diagram to describe its membership base, more than 110 religiously-blended families looking to learn more about Christian and Jewish traditions. Most come from the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area.

‘‘For us, it’s not really a blending, but being respectful of each other’s faith,” said Rob Liebreich, who is Jewish, of he and his wife, Jennifer, who is Catholic. The couple, who have an infant son, live in Takoma Park and frequently attend IFFP meetings. ‘‘I think the thing we’ve learned is that there’s so many other issues out there, that this is one among many discussion points,” he said.

During a recent IFFP adult group meeting at Sligo Middle School, couples met to discuss the angst they feel during the holidays, and whether they should blend their traditions into more of a ‘‘Christmakuh” celebration or keep the two separate.

A majority in the room admitted to putting up a Christmas tree in the house. Ian Spatz, a board member of the group who diagnosed himself as having ‘‘Christmas envy syndrome,” joked that Jews marry Christians just so they can get Christmas.

But the real issues came as discussions began on what to do about Jesus.

‘‘Jesus has come a long way at IFFP. There were years where we were very conscious about being safe, making everyone feel comfortable,” said Susan Ryder, program coordinator with the organization. ‘‘Now we know we need to step on people’s toes, and talk about the issues that push people’s buttons.”

Many interfaith couples choose not to discuss the divinity of Jesus during the holidays. The Lerners celebrate the birth of Jesus as that of a Jewish man who represents peace, hope and goodwill. The real problems arise around Easter, many said, when talk of the Christian belief of divine resurrection is more difficult to ignore.

‘‘We haven’t much gotten to the meaning of it just yet, other than having the Easter Bunny come to our house,” said Jennifer Cavey of Ellicott City, who is part of the IFFP group.

The Rev. Bonnie J. Berger, who ministers at the interfaith Takoma Park Metaphysical Chapel, said looking at the holidays as a time to examine miracles, a more universal message, is one way to address discontent during the Christian Easter and Christmas holidays. The Rev. Julia Jarvis, spiritual director with the IFFP, said broadening religions to discuss ways Judaism fits into Christianity, and vice versa, is an important step before getting down to specifics about how to address Jesus, if at all.

‘‘The biblical stories are important, but if you’re not living a life of love and joy and service, what good is it to know the stories?” said Jarvis, who was raised Southern Baptist. ‘‘The stories are important to inspire those values, and in wanting to live a certain way.”

For Cavey, who is Jewish, her most difficult struggle came this year, when the family put up Christmas lights for the first time in part to appease the couple’s 5-year-old son, Ryan. She called the act ‘‘the last straw before admitting to the world that we celebrate a Christmas in this house.”

‘‘My little boy was so excited, he was jumping out his skin,” Cavey said. ‘‘Seeing that, it made all the guilt, all the angst go away.”

Whether families place a Star of David on their Christmas trees, or keep their baby Jesus figurines in a room separate from the menorah candles, most have found a path toward compromise, or are working to do so.

‘‘I definitely remember that time period, going to temple and not feeling comfortable. ... Was there a big neon sign over my head?” Melinda Lerner said. ‘‘Part of it has been just an evolution of family, and figuring out how you recognize holiday traditions as a family. It feels comfortable now.”