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For Rabbi Lee Diamond
Cherished teacher, colleague and friend
Who taught me how to approach the peaks of Sinai and
to walk down its slopes in silence.
For my darling wife Yurika
twenty things for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren to do (and not do)
•Spouses of other religious backgrounds who are partnered with
Jews, who are considering or have decided to raise their children
•Family members including parents, grandparents, legal guardians,
siblings and the Jewish spouses in intermarriages.
•Rabbis who want to guide interfaith families as they consider
raising Jewish children.
•Jewish community leaders who set policy for institutions with
regard to children from interfaith families.
•Jewish communal professionals who work with interfaith couples,
their children and family members.
Intermarried families represent the fastest growing segment of the
Jewish community. Those of you reading this book who are in an interfaith relationship already represent the majority of all married Jewish
households. There are nearly one million interfaith families in the Jewish
community in America. In particular, we estimate that at least 100,000
mothers of other religious backgrounds are raising their children as Jews,
and maybe as high as 200,000. At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we welcome all of them.
We want to make sure, however, that you understand that our motivation is not primarily driven by numbers. We believe in reaching out and
welcoming you in because it is a core Jewish value in which we believe
and the foundation on which our organization and our lives are built.
We want to thank all of our colleagues at the Jewish Outreach Institute
(JOI). Although the words in this volume are ours and we take responsibility for them, we share their expression each day with those with whom
we work. It is a passionate labor of love for each of them who join with us
to create a more inclusive Jewish community.
It is important to acknowledge the mothers from around North
America who are part of JOI’s program called The Mothers Circle, for
women of other religious backgrounds committed to raising Jewish children in the midst of an interfaith relationship, for sharing their insights
and personal stories with us. The entire Jewish people remain in your
debt for you have helped to secure its future.
In particular we thank you—our readers—who have made a decision
to share with us the destiny of the Jewish people through guaranteeing
the future through your children. According to the rabbinic midrash
(commentary through parables), when God offered the Torah to the
Jewish people, asking for a guarantor, they responded that their children
would be their guarantors. And so this book is offered in that spirit.
We also want to thank our families without whose support our work
would have little value or foundation. In particular, we thank Sheryl
Olitzky, Avi and Sarah Olitzky, and Jesse and Andrea Olitzky; Yurika
Mizuno Golin, Tracy Sklenar, Mary Beth Chazan, Chazan clan, and
Susan and Jack Bender.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin
Hanukkah 2009/5770
How to Use This Book . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Introduction: Why Bother? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Section One: Judaism in Your Home . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Chapter One: Passover: Finding Your Place in the
Jewish Journey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Chapter Two: And Baby Makes Three (Or Four or Five) . . . 39
Chapter Three: Hanukkah . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53
Chapter Four: The Jewish Household . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Chapter Five: What is Jewish Culture? . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Chapter Six: Shabbat: The Jewish Sabbath . . . . . . . . . . 83
Section Two: Organizational Judaism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
Chapter Seven: High Holidays . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
Chapter Eight: The Synagogue: An Introduction for
Newcomers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
Chapter Nine: Jewish Education for Your Children
and Yourself . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
Chapter Ten: Bar and Bat Mitzvah . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
Chapter Eleven: Jewish Spirituality and God-talk . . . . . . 147
Chapter Twelve: Other Holiday Celebrations . . . . . . . . 157
Chapter Thirteen: The Transformative Power of Israel . . 171
Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do)
Section Three: The Issues of Intermarriage
Chapter Fourteen: What About My Own Religious
Traditions? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185
Chapter Fifteen: Your Parents and Your Jewish In-Laws . . 195
Chapter Sixteen: Motivating Your Jewish Spouse—
Or Yourself . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203
Chapter Seventeen: The Communal Hang-Up about
Intermarriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213
Chapter Eighteen: Diversity as Strength . . . . . . . . . . . 221
Thank You for Helping to Build a Jewish Future . . . . . . 231
There are many excellent books about Jewish parenting and we
refer you to them at the end of this book. But what makes this volume
stand out from the rest of them is that we take into consideration your
specific needs and challenges as the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith
relationship, having grown up with little, if any, of the background or
religious identity that you may want to instill in your children.
In the introduction we address the foundational question of the entire
book. It may be the most significant issue you will have to address as a
parent, “Why Bother?” It is rarely asked by members of the Jewish community; perhaps they assume it is simply a given. Even for born-Jews, the
Jewish community can do a better job articulating Judaism’s meaning and
You may be holding this book for as many reasons as there are answers
to that question. Perhaps this book was given to you by your Jewish inlaws. Maybe it was given to you by your own family members who are
supportive of the choices and decisions you have made. You might even
have selected the book yourself or chosen it together with your spouse.
This book will not provide you with all the answers to the questions
you may have but it will answer lots of those questions and offer you
insight along the way. As your children grow older, some of these questions will undoubtedly evolve. And we are here to answer them as well.
In the first two sections of this book, each chapter is divided into three
parts. They represent quick and easily accessible information about the
topic addressed by the particular chapter, as well as insights by those living in an interfaith marriage:
• First Exposure: What to expect about this particular topic or situation, from the angle of being part of a Jewish intermarriage and
as a newcomer to the Jewish community.
• The Essentials: What you need to know about this particular
topic, from a Jewish educational perspective.
• Personal Story: Brief, first-person stories from those of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children and their experiences
with this particular topic or situation.
The chapters in the third section of this book are written in a
“Frequently Asked Questions” format for easy access to the information
that may be of most relevance to you at this time.
While Kerry brings rabbinic perspective to the topics, Paul brings
his personal experience through his marriage to a wonderful Japanese
woman, Yurika. And we both bring our years of experience at the Jewish
Outreach Institute (JOI), where we’ve met with and guided hundreds
of interfaith couples of all variations, helping them to navigate the challenges and opportunities in creating a Jewish home. We know for a fact
that interfaith families can produce children with strong Jewish identities,
because we see it happen all the time. This book will help you participate
in—and perhaps even guide—your family’s Jewish journey.
“Why bother raising Jewish children?” is really asking (on your children’s behalf) the question “Why be Jewish?” This is a relatively new
question for Jews, but it is growing increasingly more relevant. In the
past, there really wasn’t much choice in the matter; the society outside of
the Jewish community did not accept Jews. Of course, there has always
been the option of abandoning Judaism. Many individuals seized this
opportunity when it presented itself. Nevertheless, for the most part, the
Jewish community has been kept together, somewhat by tradition and
family ties but also because there was simply no other choice. Within
our own lifetimes, however, that has changed in North America by 180
It may not feel like it to you, but your intermarriage is part of a sweeping trend with large and complex societal causes. While not the focus of
this book, we point it out so you understand that you are by no means
alone. During the past two decades, there have been nearly twice as
many marriages uniting Jews with those of other religious backgrounds
as there are among Jewish-Jewish couples. Not only has the larger society accepted the Jewish community and its members, but in many cases
Jews and Judaism are considered attractive and even popular. We find it in
entertainment (Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song), in fashion (Madonna’s
Kabbalah red string), in food (even Starbucks sells bagels), and in the
selection of life partners. Although Paul and Kerry represent opposite
chronological ends of the same generation, this turn-around is not something that either of our grandparents experienced or faced. Over the last
50 years, Jews—as the title of a recent book points out—“became white
folks.” Most Jews appeared to become just like everybody else, yet perhaps more importantly, American society also became more “Jewish” in
many ways, thanks to contributions from Jewish leaders (among many
others) in the Civil Rights and Women’s Lib movements. The end result
was that formerly clear boundaries are now porous, if they exist at all.
Jews are now disproportionately represented in the same Ivy League
schools that used to maintain quotas to keep them out; Jewish professionals can work in any company; Jewish doctors can practice in any hospital.
All this did not exist in our grandparents’ generation who (if they were
lucky enough to be here and not in Europe) usually didn’t stray far beyond
the traditional Jewish neighborhoods of the Northeast to such exotic faraway locations as Phoenix, Atlanta, or Seattle, let alone the suburbs of
New Jersey.
Today, at the turn of the 21st Century, Jews are no more secular—or
less Jewishly-educated—than they were at the turn of the 20th Century,
when there was almost no intermarriage. What’s changed is the playing
field. For the Jews, America has fulfilled her promise as a land of opportunities. We’ve succeeded in America beyond our grandparents’ wildest
dreams. But now we suddenly find ourselves in a conundrum. If we are
just like everybody else, what makes us different, unique, and special? Do
we really want to be different?
So it is not only intermarried families who have to ask “Why bother?”
Single Jews and so-called “in-married” families must also ask themselves
“Why be Jewish?” If you find your Jewish spouse struggling with this
question, that’s because many Jews struggle with that question. It is actually part of the Jewish psyche to struggle with that question on a regular
basis, a practice that takes some getting used to, especially if you come
from a tradition that speaks of a tranquil faith. And not just “Why be
Jewish” but “How”? One of the special things about Judaism is that we’ve
all got different answers. There’s an old joke: two Jews, three opinions.
And it’s true. Since there are two authors of this book, you may even find
some of that creative tension in these pages. “Why be Jewish?” Everyone
will answer that question differently. Some may be only variations on the
same answer or multiples of the same answer. There is no catechism or
rote learning that will supply the answer—we can only share with you
some of our own insights and conclusions so that you may find your own
As difficult as it is for your Jewish spouse to clearly answer the question “Why be Jewish?”—and that might frustrate you—it will also be
challenging for you to answer the question: “Why should my children be
Jewish?” But we will help you to do so through the pages of this book and
through the voices of the intermarried families with whom we work on
a daily basis—many of which are included in these pages. In some intermarried families, that question may actually be easier for the non-Jewish1
spouse to answer than the Jewish spouse!
Your partner may have some Jewish memories from childhood that
might help answer your questions. Or not, as some of these memories
may be negative ones they’ve carried from childhood religious school. It
may be because of negative experiences (or no experiences at all) that they
abandoned Judaism in their post-adolescence and are hesitant to provide a
formal religious education for your children. Thus, some of their explanations may sound simplistic; it is because they are not adult explanations
or memories. Or conversely, perhaps it is your spouse pushing you to
get involved, because he or she is so eager and enthusiastic about raising
Jewish children. We can’t stereotype interfaith families, as every family is
unique, but we can try to anticipate what you might need based on shared
experiences of others who have gone before you.
You may hear a lot of talk about why the Jewish community should
welcome in interfaith families like yours. Some may talk about the ideology of inclusion, engendered by texts such as Leviticus 19:34: “The
We hate the phrase “non-Jew” or “non-Jewish,” because we understand that nobody uses “non”-anything to
describe themselves. We wouldn’t call ourselves “non-Christians” or “non-women,” for example. However, we
use it, because we dislike the word “Gentile” even more. (And the Yiddish/Hebrew “Goyim”—while directly
translated as “the nations”—is no longer a neutral term but often actually a slur.) A number of people we know
who are not Jewish describe themselves as Gentile and feel strongly that it is the correct word to use, but we
find it sounds antiquated. Truth is, we haven’t found the right phraseology yet. When not too awkward, we will
dance around it by saying “of other religious backgrounds.” We hope you will forgive our language limitations
as we continue to search for a more inclusive lexicon.
twenty things for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren to do (and not do)
stranger that lives with you shall be to you like the native, and you
shall love him [or her] as yourself; for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Others may speak of the demographic needs, since the North American Jewish community is rapidly
aging and not reproducing itself. Still others may advocate the inclusion
of interfaith families in the community because of a personal interest:
they want to make sure that there is a place in the community for their
own children and grandchildren.
Even with all of these persuasive arguments—and there are others
(such as general liberalism and even Zionism)—little is being suggested
as to why participating in the Jewish community would be good for the
families themselves or their children. And that is what this section of the
book is about. After all, if we can’t persuade you that it will make a difference in your life or the life of your children to join the Jewish community
and raise your children as Jews, then why bother?
So let’s try to redirect the Jewish community’s conversation. Let’s
move it away from being “what’s good for the community” to “what’s
good for you—and your children.” We seldom make decisions about our
families based on what is good for someone or something else, even if we
can consider that someone or something else extremely important. And
those of us committed to a Jewish future certainly consider the Jewish
community to be of utmost importance, because Judaism has always
been about the peoplehood and has never been a solitary religion you can
practice in isolation. Nevertheless, we realize that people evaluate things
for their own sake, not for the sake of others. And that is all that we are
asking you to do. Make your decision about what is best for your children
and family. We think that you will find that raising your children as Jews
to be of great value for you and for them.
Consider the decision you are making from your own perspective. As
difficult as it may seem, try to block out the various messages that you
may be receiving about “Jewish continuity” from various people in your
life. Some readers may have already made the decision to raise Jewish
children before they picked up this book. Others may still be wondering
what to do. Some may even think it appropriate to let their children make
their own decision when they become adults. They will make their own
decisions when they become adults anyway. This doesn’t absolve us of
our responsibility to them as parents when they are children. Hopefully,
this section and this entire book will persuade you as to the value in raising Jewish children. Whatever your decision—and we will work with you
and support you whatever decision you make—this book has one message. If you haven’t heard it before, we want to make sure that you hear
it loud and clear: We in the Jewish community want you, need you and
welcome you with a loving embrace.
Our responsibility is to help you sort out emotion from intellect; we
know that it is nearly impossible to do so when discussing our own children. Nevertheless we will give it a try. We know that the very consideration of raising a child in a religious tradition and community other than
the one you were raised in is daunting just to think about. It takes a special person to take on such a responsibility and embark on such a journey.
Know that you are not alone in your choice to raise Jewish children. Also
know that it is possible—thousands of other parents of different religious
heritages are doing so as well. Nonetheless, we recognize that there is
not one formula for doing so. It is not “one size fits all.” But there are
several compelling reasons for raising Jewish children. Below you will
find a number of reasons that have been suggested to us by people raising
Jewish children. We have added our own comments, as well.
This is what Susan told us. She would do anything to please Eddie, as
he has tried so much to please her. That is why she was willing to raise
their children as Jews. Having grown up in the south, Susan comes from
a Baptist background. Although she recognizes that it was not an easy
decision to make, we all want to do things to please our life’s partner. And
if Judaism is more important to your partner than is your own religion
of origin, the religion in which you were raised, then you may not need
to read any further and can simply turn to the next chapter. If you are
already married, this may be a condition to which you agreed early in
your relationship.
In working with interfaith couples, we often find that it is not the issue
of which religion will be appropriate for the family or for the raising of
children that causes conflict. Rather it is the issue of the practice of religion itself that can bring about friction in a relationship. If you are not particularly religious but religion is of vital importance to your spouse, then
perhaps that is enough of a reason to make the decision to raise Jewish
children. This is especially the case if your spouse is prepared to support
your decision and actively participate in the raising of your children in
his/her religion. That is why it worked so well for Eddie and Susan. She
was fully prepared to raise their children within the Jewish faith as long
as Eddie was really a partner in the process. After all, he had the Jewish
memories that he carried from childhood. She didn’t. When we discussed
this, Eddie quickly interjected, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. There
is no way that I am going to abandon Sue in this aspect of parenting—or
any other for that matter.” While you will create your own memories
with your children as the process of raising them unfolds, it will be his
or her memories that will provide the foundation for their Jewish family
life right now. And for us, religious education is all about creating memories. While it makes it easier when both spouses participate actively and
equally in the religious upbringing of children, it doesn’t always happen
that way. And yet, parents still manage to successfully raise their children
as Jews.
But what is it about Judaism that makes it so important to him or
her? You may want to actually ask the question if you haven’t already
done so. We find that asking the question forces people to think through
things that they may have previously taken for granted. It also helps us
to transcend the assumptions we make about our spouse and even our
in-laws. The choice to raise Jewish children might simply be a desire to
repeat for spouses the fond childhood memories they had as a child. In
many cases—and this might surprise you, especially if you were raised in
a family that actively practiced a religion and went to church regularly—
your spouse may be more concerned about Jewish continuity and community than Jewish faith and religion. Thus, he or she may want to raise
Jewish children but not be particularly interested in its regular practice
or attendance at synagogue worship services. For the religious Christian
who joins the Jewish community through marriage, this is often the most
confusing thing to understand. Why indeed would someone who isn’t
particularly religious—or why would someone’s parents who are similarly not particularly religious—be so concerned about raising children in
a religious that they don’t actively practice?
We helped Susan and Eddie explore those challenges, and we also
helped Susan get “up to speed” through adult education (JOI’s own
“Mothers Circle” program), because it is so much more difficult for one
parent to do it alone. Susan became an active member of her own Jewish
household, even though she herself is not Jewish.
When we first met Ben, he told us that he had a spiritual connection to Judaism. That is why he wanted to raise Jewish children. He was
intrigued by the story of the revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people.
He was a Bible reader and understood that the roots of the three major
western religions could be found in Judaism. He had also explored Zen
Buddhism and felt that because of Judaism’s spiritual nature, there was no
disconnect between Buddhism and Judaism. Ben—and his wife Lauren,
who was born Jewish—was relieved when we told them that many people
have developed an interest (or renewed interest) in Judaism through an
exploration of Eastern religion.
There is a great deal of talk today about “spirituality,” a topic that was
not very popular when Kerry became a rabbi 25 years ago. Perhaps it is
why many rabbis don’t feel comfortable with the term even though many
people prefer that the term is not specifically defined. This lack of clarity actually allows a lot of room to define spirituality individually and
include many things. For Kerry, as a rabbi, spirituality is about a relationship with God. Religious ritual is used to enhance that relationship. If
it doesn’t help to build that relationship, then it is of little value to him.
Some rituals, however effective they may have once been, may be broken
and no longer able to create that relationship—which scholars like Rabbi
Eugene Borowitz like to call the “covenantal relationship” to emphasize
its origins in the Mount Sinai experienced when God revealed the Torah
to the Jewish people according to tradition. In the divine light of that
relationship we are able to see ourselves more clearly.
For Paul, as someone who is not as convinced about the existence of
a God who answers personal prayers as is Kerry, spirituality is not Godcentered. It can be transcendent and bring us beyond the routines of daily
living, but it is more about thankfulness and appreciation for the good
things such as family and friends, their health and happiness, and the
everyday miracles of nature and life in general. The word “God” becomes
a sort of shorthand for “all that I love and hope for,” and that is how Paul,
as an agnostic, has made peace with Jewish liturgy, by embracing the
abstraction and even flexibility in the Jewish understanding of God—a
purposeful abstraction that is rooted in commandments such as the prohibition against trying to create images of God. Yet he is sure that spirituality can still be experienced, because it is intertwined with love, and
for Paul also includes “peoplehood,” a special connection to the Jewish
Perhaps the phrasing of a “spiritual commitment to Judaism” allows for
you some flexibility so as not to abandon your own religious background
while at the same time raise Jewish children. Maybe you sense a spiritual
relationship between Judaism and the faith in which you were raised even
if the actual practices of both religions differ from one another.
This is probably the most important reason for you to decide to make
the commitment to raise Jewish children. It is, in fact, good for your
children. And it isn’t just about raising children in one religion or with
a religion—although we believe that that is probably a better context in
which to raise children. Religion can provide a moral foundation for righteous living. And ritual can help us to concretize complex and abstract
ideas. This isn’t to say that other religions, including the one in which you
were raised, wouldn’t be good for your children. Nevertheless, we want
to point out some of the salient elements about Judaism that you will
hopefully find relevant and perhaps even inspiring.
First, Jewish culture is one in which children prosper. Hilary Rodham
Clinton was correct when she said that “it takes a village to raise a child.”
The Jewish community has long recognized the validity of that truism.
It takes a community to raise a child. So you don’t have to worry about
doing it alone even if you are afraid that you don’t have the spousal support to do so. And in the context of that community, your child will learn
important values that he or she can carry throughout life, including specific ethical behaviors. Jews are much more concerned with the here-andnow than the hereafter, placing the emphasis squarely on how people
relate to one another. Judaism gave the world what is commonly referred
to as the Golden Rule, “do not do unto others what you would not want
done to you.” The great Jewish scholar Hillel, when challenged to explain
the entire creed while standing on one foot, quoted this as the essence of
Judaism. He then admonished, “Now go and study!” And scholarship has
in fact been a hallmark of the Jewish people for millennia.
This combination of caring about others and intense scholarship
is perhaps why Jews are disproportionately represented in the medical
profession. There is a longstanding stereotype that the highest goal for
Jewish parents is to raise children who become doctors, as encapsulated
in this old joke: The first Jewish president of the United States is about to
be sworn in at the White House. His mother sits between two Supreme
Court Justices at the ceremony. When her son gets to the podium, she
turns to one of the Justices and says, “See that boy, the one with his hand
on the Bible? His brother’s a doctor!”
If you have young children you are probably not too obsessed about
their future careers just yet, but the point is that Judaism is a highly intellectual religion and community, and it’s an intellectualism that is often
employed in an earnest attempt to improve the lives of others. The legal
profession is another in which Jews are overrepresented, and whatever
your feelings are about lawyers, our country and other democracies have
embraced the rule of law as the best way to create a fair and just society.
Perhaps having been persecuted in the past, many Jews place their faith
in the legal code and have been active in the ongoing shaping our country’s legal system. And of course, an understanding of legal wrangling is a
key component of Jewish study, as the Torah and Talmud (commentaries)
represent literally thousands of pages of “legal briefs,” discussions and
arguments over the Laws of Moses that are contained in the Bible.
Even in those households where Judaism was not studied or adhered
to very strongly, we still see aspects of this emphasis on learning and
social justice when examining the sweeping demographics of American
Jewry today. For example, a stunning 25% of all Jewish adults hold graduate degrees, compared to 6% of the general adult population. And even
though they tend to fall on the higher end of the economic spectrum,
Jews overwhelmingly continue to support liberal causes in the hopes of
bettering the common good, even in cases where they are directly voting
against their own “pocketbooks.”
Where does this intellectualism come from? Jews have long been called
the People of the Book because of the Bible (that book), but if you visit
any fair sampling of Jewish homes you will find that in fact Jews are the
People of the Books, plural! Rare is the Jewish home without overstuffed
bookshelves. Infrequent is the New York Times Bestsellers List without
a Jewish author and/or Jewish-themed book noted, even though Jews are
only 2% of the U.S. population. We believe the seemingly unquenchable
thirst for knowledge and learning comes from a positive emphasis in
Judaism and Jewish culture on asking questions.
In Judaism, you are supposed to ask questions. It is not only allowed,
but encouraged. For those who have left other religions (and in our experience especially for lapsed Catholics), this aspect of Judaism is a true revelation and a breath of fresh air. Judaism does not try to simplify life into
black and white, good and evil, “with us or against us,” but instead tries to
grapple with the complexities of life and its many shades of gray. Religious
Jews believe the Law was given directly from God at Sinai, but even they
believe that it is up to the individual and the community to grapple with
how to put those laws and ethics into everyday practice. And there is no
hierarchy to Jewish learning. Rabbis do not maintain secret knowledge or
special rituals that are unattainable to the laity. Any Jew (or in the more
conservative branches of Judaism, any Jewish man) can lead prayer services and read from the Torah on behalf of his community, which is why
literacy became a cornerstone of Jewish life at a time in ancient history
when only a tiny percentage of the world’s population could read or write.
Perhaps more importantly, Jews are encouraged to interpret the text for
themselves and to grapple with the interpretations of the great scholars of
generations past. Judaism is a huge, ongoing, multifaceted conversation,
and all are invited to participate. The ticket to entry is learning.
Even the nature of God is up for debate. The word “Israel” means to
“wrestle with God,” and was the name given to the Biblical Jacob after
he spent a night wrestling with “a man”—either God, or an angel, or his
own inner demon. The story, from Genesis, is a metaphor for the Jewish
relationship with God; a constant struggle for understanding, improvement, and self-actualization.
Don’t worry that your children will be hit with this complexity on their
first day of Hebrew school. Obviously, Jewish pre-schools, kindergartens,
and secondary schools have an age-appropriate curriculum that begins
with simplistic, moralistic Bible tales. But the underlying struggle trickles
down, and you will find that most Jewish children even at a young age
feel confident asking questions, challenging the world around them, and
recognizing that they can contribute in changing the world for the better.
Thomas Cahill, in his bestselling book The Gift of the Jews, suggests that
the Jews gave the world its understanding of history, that time is not circular but moves from one point to the next. Judaism suggests that we can
improve the world around us rather than accept the status quo, and that is
a belief you may feel comfortable encouraging your children to embrace.
You will also have to embrace the recognition that you and your
children are doing something that is not easy. It is a challenge to be in a
minority and in our case a tiny minority, especially a minority that has
a history of hatred directed toward us. Many of the non-Jewish women
raising Jewish children in our Mothers Circle program express the fear
that their children may one day face anti-Semitism. While it is safer to be
a Jew today than perhaps at any other time in our long history, we cannot
pretend that anti-Semitism does not exist. And yet, many Jews will tell
you that there is something about their minority status that makes them
stronger and also more empathetic toward others who are persecuted
or in need of help. Jews give disproportionately to charities, and not just
Jewish charities. It is a key Jewish ethic that has been strengthened over
the years by our minority experience. Standing just outside the mainstream may give Jews a wider perspective on life that most of us would
not trade as adults, even though we can all point to some time as a child
when we became consciously aware of our differences. While having the
challenge of minority status may not seem like a positive, we list it here
because rising to that challenge has indeed proven to be a positive for
most Jews. We hope that throughout this book and in your continuing
learning about Judaism you will find even more reasons to feel positive
about raising Jewish children.
This book is not about conversion. Yet some people mistakenly believe
that even if they are raising Jewish children, if they themselves don’t convert to Judaism then Judaism will not directly impact their lives as individuals or as parents. That is not the case. By marrying someone who is
Jewish, you’ve already been impacted upon by Judaism is some way or
another. Perhaps you found a draw toward Judaism or Jewish people even
before you met your spouse. It may not be religious but rather cultural in
curiosity. Perhaps it was always at a comfortable distance—for you and
your spouse. But now that you have children and plan to raise them as
Jews, you become part of the Jewish community. We believe that being
part of the Jewish community will also enhance your life as a parent.
There are so many aspects to Judaism and Jewish culture, everyone
can find some angle of interest. Some folks stumble upon it, while others
actively seek it out. Because you are holding this book, perhaps you are
the seeking type. We hope the rest of this book will help you find avenues
of personal interest in the Jewish religion, culture, and/or people. Because
if you can’t find an interest in it yourself, it will be very difficult to convince your children that they should be interested. Judaism is ultimately
about sharing. You can share Jewish life with your family, even though
you’re not Jewish. The rest of this book will help you get started.
Do you remember your first exposure to Jewish ritual? It probably was
at either a Passover seder (that’s the special dinner meal on the first two
nights of Passover) or at a Hanukkah celebration in the home of your
Jewish relatives. It might even have been at a Jewish wedding ceremony
or brit milah (ritual circumcision, sometimes just called a bris). Perhaps—
although it is less likely the case—your first exposure to Jewish ritual was
at a synagogue during the High Holiday services (which include Rosh
ha-Shanah/New Year and Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement). We chose
to begin this book with Passover because that is, in many ways, where
the Jewish people begin. It is also—along with Hanukkah—the most
observed Jewish holiday on the calendar. Passover celebrates the journey
from slavery in ancient Egypt to the freedom of the desert wanderings as
recorded in the Biblical book of Exodus, and then to revelation and the
acceptance of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and all
its commandments at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago. The goal of the seder
is to bring you back to 1250 b.c.e. As a result, you are now there too. It is
in the midst of that desert journey where the relationship (what Jewish
theologians refer to as the covenant) between God and the Jewish people
You may feel like you stand outside that covenant. Perhaps when you
hear the words during the Passover seder “When we were at Sinai,” you
find it difficult to picture yourself as part of that “we” or imagine yourself
connected in any way to those ancient Hebrews. But you were there. It is
what we like to call a “spiritual reality.” Some people prefer the philosophical term “metaphysical” to describe it. Not everybody who awaited the
presentation of Torah at the foot of Sinai was an Israelite. Yet they were all
there. The Torah puts it this way, “You are standing this day, all of you,
before the Eternal Your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders,
and your officers, even all the people of Israel, your little ones,
your spouses, and the stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from
the hewer of wood to the one who draws water [from the well] so
that you can enter the covenant of the Eternal your God and into
the Divine oath which the Eternal your God makes with you this
day” (Deuteronomy 9:9-11).
There are no incidental references in the text. The “stranger” is
included for a reason (even if we would have preferred a different term for
the English translation of the Hebrew word Ger). The “stranger” recalls
the “mixed multitude”—another term used by the Torah—who left with
the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. Most who joined them were also
slaves. But some of them simply expressed a desire to join the Jewish people at the beginning of its formation. This is how the Bible describes it:
“And the Israelites journeyed from Ramses to Sukkot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. And a mixed multitude
went up also with them, as well as flocks and herds, even a lot of
cattle” (Exodus 12:37-38). From the beginning, even amidst the ancient
Jewish people in its formative stage, there were many additional people
who cast their lot with them. And they were immediately accepted.
As for Passover itself, this holiday is among the greatest gifts that the
Jewish people has given the world. It reflects an unbounded optimism
that is founded on faith. It is this faith that has propelled the Jewish people
throughout its history. And it is this optimism that is retold each year during the Passover seder. Consider the story as retold in the Bible. The Jewish
people had been enslaved for 400 years. (Even if 400 is just a metaphor for
a long time and is not intended to be a precise number, it represents the
passage of many generations.) There seemed to be no end in sight for
their predicament. They felt doomed to be slaves forever. Suddenly, God
appoints Moses as the leader to bring the people out of Egyptian slavery.
Even his selection seems strange. He almost died as a child. He doesn’t
speak well in public. With God’s support and direction, Moses is able to
lead the people out of Egypt, through the desert and eventually enter the
Promised Land—even though Moses himself is not permitted to enter
the Land with the people he has shepherded.
It’s not coincidental that so many enslaved peoples throughout history—as recently as African Americans involved in the civil rights movement in the United States—have taken this model as their own. It is
because of the promise of redemption that it yields. The day before his
assassination, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the prescient
speech in which he said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed
me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the
Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know
tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.” The Passover
story is a universal one that allows it to be translated by different peoples
to relate to their own unique situations. But how do we then relate back,
from our own situations to the very specific experience of the ancient
Hebrews at Sinai, imagining we were there with them? This was the seminal moment, an encounter with the divine so powerful it shaped a people
for over three millennia and continues to energize the Jewish community
each year during Passover.
One way to get into the Passover mindset is to compare it to a particular holiday with which you are most likely very familiar, if you grew up
in the United States. While American Thanksgiving is more related to the
holiday of Sukkot than Passover since the Pilgrims actually based their
first Thanksgiving on the Bible’s description of Sukkot—a direct result
of their knowledge of the Bible (more about that in chapter 12)—for newcomers to the Jewish community, Thanksgiving can serve as a powerful
metaphor to help you understand how to feel like you were “at Sinai” during the Passover seder. Most Americans know that none of their ancestors
were in America during the early 17th Century (to the best of our knowledge, Paul and Kerry’s ancestors were in Europe—although yours may
indeed have been in America), yet even if you can’t trace your family back
to that first dinner between Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, it
doesn’t diminish our enjoyment and celebration of Thanksgiving. It also
doesn’t diminish our relationship to those Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers).
We can relate to those newly-arrived Pilgrims and appreciate their desire
for freedom and a fresh start, regardless of when our own families first
arrived in the U.S. As Americans, as religious pilgrims of our own, we
all take on that shared narrative—even if we are only first-, second- or
third-generation Americans. Then we add to it our own family stories of
immigration, plus the stories of current immigrants. As Americans, the
history of Thanksgiving becomes ours. As part of the American Jewish
community, the memory of Passover becomes part of our own.
While the Torah may record the experience from the individuals who
directly received revelation—depending on your theology and personal
perspective on the Sinai event—even born Jews can’t actually trace their
family tree directly to Moses. Nevertheless, the common narrative that
we share is real. It speaks directly to our own desires for connection to
the collective experience of the Jewish people. Some people put it this
way: Jews don’t have history; they have memory. And in the case of Sinai,
as the text from Deuteronomy cited above illustrates, by virtue of your
decision to raise Jewish children, it is now part of your collective memory.
You become part of it and it is now yours, as well.
Passover (Pesah in Hebrew) is a springtime festival (usually in April)
that celebrates the redemption of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian
slavery. This eight-day holiday starts with a special dinner meal (seder),
usually shared on both of the first two nights. The word seder comes
from the Hebrew word for order, a reference to the particular order that
outlines the Passover evening meal. A special book (haggadah) is used
during the meal and guides the table rituals. Haggadah literally means
“the telling,” that is, the telling of the Passover story. The central symbol
is unleavened bread (matzah) said to represent the hasty exodus of the
Israelites from Egypt, preventing the opportunity of the bread to rise. It
is a mix of flour and water that contains no yeast. Matzah also represents
poverty and is said to be the “bread of our affliction,” eaten by the ancient
Israelites because they were impoverished as slaves.
Since matzah is the primary symbol for Passover, no products with
leaven are permitted during Passover. In order to make sure that their
houses are free of leaven, observant Jews spend days or even weeks before
Passover “spring cleaning” their homes to rid them of leaven (called hametz
in Hebrew). The Rabbis also say that we are weighted down by spiritual
hametz and should take the opportunity in the days before Passover to rid
ourselves of the puffiness of our souls.
At the center of the table that you set for seder is a plate that contains
the various symbols used during the seder meal. While you can use any
plate for this purpose, many people take the opportunity to buy or make
a special plate for this purpose called a seder plate. Besides matzah, the
following items are placed on the seder plate:
• maror—bitter herbs (usually horseradish) which symbolize the
bitterness of the Israelite slaves’ lives;
• haroset—a sweet mix of wine, nuts, and raisins (although there
are lots of various recipes with different ingredients from Jewish
communities around the world) symbolizing the mortar the
Israelite slaves used in their building;
• an egg—to symbolize rebirth;
• karpas—parsley or celery to symbolize spring;
• and a shank bone (or a roasted beet for vegetarians)—a reminder
of the Passover sacrifice that used to occur when the Temple
stood in Jerusalem.
During the middle of the seder, after dinner but before the second half
that concludes the seder, there is a tradition to search for the afikoman,
a broken piece of matzah that was hidden during the seder. While this
was probably developed as one of many means to maintain the attention
of children during the seder, there are a variety of customs regarding it.
Most North American Jews hide the matzah and children search for it.
Once it is found, it is “ransomed” by the children to the person leading the
seder, often a senior member of the family, who eventually relents with
gifts, usually cash.
While the haggadah is probably the best example of a self-contained
teaching unit that is embedded in Jewish ritual and liturgy, there are five
highlights from the seder worth mentioning:
• four glasses of wine (or grape juice);
• the four children;
• the four questions;
• the ten plagues;
• and the cup for Elijah the prophet.
Four glasses of wine (or grape juice): God makes four promises in
the book of Exodus to redeem the ancient Israelites. These promises are
recalled during the seder by a glass of wine—with appropriate blessing.
No need to drink the entire glass. Just add to it a little each time.
The four children (wise, wicked, intellectually-limited, and too young
to ask): These four children (“four sons” if your haggadah is non-egalitarian) exhibit characteristics that represent the entire Jewish people. Some
say that we all exhibit these characteristics at various times in our lives.
The one who is wise knows it all, the rules and regulations and the entire
story of Passover. The one who is wicked sees no relevance for him/herself to Passover. He wasn’t there so why care! The one of limited intellectual ability is only interested in rules and regulations for the holiday
and not the “big picture” of the holiday. And for the one who is too young
to ask, we tell the entire story. But we actually tell the story each year so
that we might all hear it—even those of us who already know it. All of
us need to be reminded of God’s presence in our lives and the promise of
redemption that is implicit in the daily world in which we live.
Four questions: While there are four standard questions included in
the haggadah, these are really culled from many possible questions and
focus on the unusual elements in the seder. They are traditionally “asked”
(or sung in Hebrew) by the youngest person in attendance who is able
to ask—a bit of a cross-reference to the four children. For families with
several siblings, this is an annual point of contention to determine who is
youngest (usually in good humor). The repeated refrain is: “Why is this
night different from all other nights?” (It should be read, however, as How
different is this night from all other nights. Then you really have only
four questions.) The seder attempts to answer all of the questions. The
answer comes through reading of texts that have been selected for the
haggadah. Most families take turns around the table reading. For some
passages, everyone assembled around the table may be asked to read
aloud together.
Ten plagues: In revealing the story we learn that the Pharaoh was not
anxious to allow the ancient Israelites to leave Egypt. They were a slave
workforce that was building his store cities of Pithom and Ramses. So
working with Moses, God sent forth ten plagues to persuade the Pharaoh
to let the Israelites leave. It was the last one—the death of the first born of
Egypt—that was the most convincing. We read how the Angel of Death
came into Egypt but “passed over” the Israelite homes, and this is the
generally accepted origin for the name of the holiday. Traditionally, we
dip our pinky in the wine and put a drop on our plate as we name each
The cup for Elijah: this cup stands full, undisturbed, waiting for the
prophet Elijah to herald in the Messiah. Thus the cup is a symbol of ultimate freedom and redemption. It is a tradition towards the end of the
seder to open the door and symbolically let Elijah into your home.
These are the central elements of a Passover seder, though the meaning of the holiday can also be mined much more deeply, and has been by
countless great scholars and writers if you are so inclined to delve further.
Like fingerprints or snowflakes, no two families’ sedarim (plural of
seder) are exactly alike—though many individual families do the exact
same seder year-in and year-out, for better or worse. When Paul was a
young child, he attended seders led by his paternal grandfather that
seemed to drag on forever. Every single word of the haggadah was read,
much of it in Hebrew (though few at the table understood it), and there
was no snacking until the text specifically called for the meal. And while
we hesitate to say there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do Passover,
if your guests are bored and disinterested and unengaged in the seder,
then something is wrong with the seder not your guests!
The seder is designed as an educational spiritual exercise—to simulate the metaphysical memory of the Exodus from Egypt. There are two
ways to forget this: by seeing the occasion simply as a family get-together
like any other, or by getting so caught up in doing the rote rituals out of
obligation that we lose site of the holiday’s importance and meaning. Of
course, if you are the guest rather than the host, there’s only so much
you can do about it—or suggest, depending on your relationship to the
host. Even a great seder can still take a long time. That means that it usually runs past bedtime for young children and is hard even for older children—and some adults—to stay awake and engaged for the entire seder.
That is why it is important to include enjoyable activities along with the
readings and prayers.
Since the seder is divided into two parts—one before dinner and one
after dinner—we recommend that the first half begin in the living room
or family room. After all, one of the directives of the seder experience
is that we are no longer slaves and can eat leisurely. And don’t forget to
include crudités or something to munch on during the early part of the
seder—the appropriate blessings for vegetables are in the early pages of
the haggadah.
If you are nervous about attending your first seder or want to brush up
on what to expect when attending Passover at your Jewish relatives, one
thing you can do is ask the host weeks ahead of time to borrow a copy of
the haggadah that will be used. You can read through it and become more
comfortable with the liturgy, and also determine what you find most relevant and discuss it with your own family in the days before Passover.
Many of the songs are available as audio files on the Internet so you can
learn the melodies ahead of time as well.
The best way to insure your kids get the most out of Passover is to do
it yourself. It might seem like a daunting task to prepare your own seder¸
especially the first time. But it isn’t so difficult. And there are plenty of
well-illustrated books to guide you through the process. (Some of these
are included in the appendices of this book.) Try not to give into the temptation of allowing Jewish celebrations such as the seder to always take
place at your in-laws’ home, even if they live close by. Kids need to know
that Jewish holidays are not the exclusive domain of their Jewish grandparents. Also keep in mind that the tradition in Jewish communities outside Israel is to hold a seder on both the first and second nights of Passover
(due to concerns about the certainty of calendars from before time was
marked so precisely), which gives you the option of attending the “first
seder” at your in-laws or other friends or relatives, and doing the “second
seder” in your own home.
Because you may not want (or be able) to rely solely on your Jewish
spouse to lead the seder, this will require some homework in terms of
deciding which parts of the seder to include and emphasize. You may also
have to determine what kinds of traditional Jewish foods your family
and guests might expect. (Depending on where you live, there may be
kosher delis or restaurants nearby that do a huge catering business during Passover.) Be sure to communicate with your partner, as sometimes
people become fixed in their ways and may feel like “we’re supposed to do
it this way because that’s how I’ve always done it.”
One thing many families do to personalize the Passover experience,
beginning weeks ahead of time, is create their own haggadah. This is one
area of Jewish liturgy where people are encouraged to be creative. That’s
why there are more haggadot (plural of haggadah) published than any
other Jewish sacred text, including the Torah. Gather a variety of sources,
including physical haggadot as well the growing treasure-trove of material available on the Internet, then cut, paste, photocopy, and (have the
kids) color. While the seder outline is fairly standard, how you fill out that
outline is up to you. If recreating the entire haggadah is too daunting a
project, start by purchasing a set (and you’ll want to do some research to
find the haggadah that best speaks to you, as you’ll need to buy enough
for all your guests and the expense will encourage you to use the same
set year after year) and augment it with a few sheets from other sources.
For example, after reading the traditional version of the ten plagues, there
are many additional versions of “modern plagues” (such as destruction of
the rain forests, ethnic strife, poverty, etc.) that people read to raise social
awareness during their seder.
The haggadah is also intended to include the story of your family’s
Jewish journey along with the main story of the journey of the Jewish
people from ancient Egypt until they settle the land of Israel. You can
start with some of the basics from a standard haggadah; then add readings that reflect the journey of your family. Include pictures and stories,
things that will help those who participate recall the journey of the Jewish
people and the journey of your family—both sides of it.
As the kids get older, include things that they have written (stories,
poetry) that reflect the themes of the haggadah. You may want to even
invite them to write something specifically for your family haggadah.
Ask them to write something about what it means to live in a free land,
for example. And don’t be afraid to ask your own parents to contribute.
After all, they have been on the journey too.
For younger children, the goal is to make the story as engaging as possible. As you know (even if you’ve only watched the Charlton Heston version on TV), there’s a lot to work with. Today more than ever, there are
“props” you can purchase to make the seder fun. For example, you can buy
a “Bag of Plagues” online that illustrates each of the ten plagues as cute,
plush toys. Paul’s sister Tracy is a professional dog trainer, so after doing
the traditional dipping of our pinky in wine as we named the plagues in
order, Tracy then had one of her dogs take a different stuffed “plague” out
of the bag at random and we all named that plague, to the great delight of
Paul’s three-year-old niece. Kerry recommends that families can even go
so far as to invite people to come in costume. This allows individuals the
freedom of participating in the seder and add the perspective of the person whom they are impersonating, such as Moses or Pharaoh or Miriam.
Let that character comment on the various developments in the Passover
narrative as the story unfolds over the course of the evening through the
reading of the haggadah. He also suggests that invited guests or groups
(such as families) be given responsibility for one section of the seder. Then
you simply have to invite each person or group to share their section of
the seder without the responsibility of actually leading the entire seder.
If you were raised with the understanding that Jesus’ Last Supper was
a seder­­—a position most Biblical scholars have rejected—it might impact
your feelings about the seder experience. People might also expect the
“Christian angle” from you.
While Passover seems like one of the most complicated holidays in
the Jewish calendar, it is the easiest to approach as a newcomer. It is part
of the tradition to invite newcomers to the seder table. As a result, many
families often have large groups of people sitting around the table (which
may even spill into various rooms in the house) from many backgrounds.
Questions are encouraged, as is the retelling of the story in great detail.
Debates ensue. Comment on what you’re reading. Have lots of singing
and plenty of food. The cacophony is what makes the experience so special.
“Our Passover tradition started because my husband’s Conservativebordering-on-Orthodox sisters (his parents are no longer with us) refused
to have us at Passover seders once we were engaged and planning our
wedding. That year, we joined a large group of friends (both Jewish
and non-) for a seder they host every year. While they re-tell the story
of Passover, it is an informal gathering where everyone is welcome and
every year there is bound to be discussion about different beliefs.” (Chris
in Atlanta, GA)
“Last year, the first thing that the host of the seder did was welcome
guests who were sitting around the table. He acknowledged that just as
the Jewish people wandered in the desert for 40 years taking a somewhat
circuitous path to the holy land, we all took different paths that ended up
bringing us to that table at that moment. I don’t know if I was the only
person who wasn’t Jewish sitting around the table. It didn’t matter. I felt
like we had been invited on the journey together.” (Steven in Phoenix,
“During the seder, my husband took a call—from Pharaoh! The threeyear olds and five-year olds were shocked when my husband interrupted
the seder to answer his cell phone and then began giving the orders! My
three-year olds were especially impressed, since they had been talking for
weeks about ‘evil Pharaoh’ and ‘mean Pharaoh’!” (Andrea in Hamilton,
You’ve become a parent to a Jewish child: Mazel Tov! Congratulations.
Now what?
We began this book describing the Passover Seder, which is often the
first exposure to your new Jewish relatives’ practice of Judaism. It’s possible that you and your spouse thereafter relied on your in-laws (or other
relatives) to provide all of your Jewish celebrations for you, perhaps for
years following your wedding. Having your own Jewish children, however, means taking that mantle of responsibility for yourself. As Kerry
likes to say, “Kids are no big deal. They just change your whole life.” And
whatever decisions you may have made before you had children, now is
the time to revisit those decisions and the commitments that they imply.
It’s difficult to imagine a more hectic or disorienting time in your life
than right after having (or adopting) your first child. On top of doing all
the things that every new parent must do to care for a fragile infant and
provide a baby-proof home, some of the most important Jewish rituals
in the entire life cycle occur within days of birth. These Jewish rituals
include naming the baby and welcoming him or her into the covenant
between God and the Jewish people.
During this wonderful yet stressful time, there is great potential for
unresolved issues to suddenly surface, so it is best to map things out ahead
of time. For example, there is an ongoing controversy over the practice
of circumcision in the secular world, even as it remains a cornerstone of
the Jewish faith. This may be a particularly difficult issue for intermarried couples where the father is of a religion other than Judaism and is
himself not circumcised (see Personal Stories below). As with all marital
issues, avoidance is simply not the answer. Communicate every possible
scenario with your spouse well in advance, even if you don’t know the sex
of your child before birth, so there are no sudden surprises about what
one partner expects for the child.
For couples who feel no controversy about circumcision, there may
be differing opinions among relatives that need to be addressed in a sensitive manner. Even when both sides of the family are supportive, the
ritual itself can be very trying because you are subjecting this precious
new bundle of joy to pain, no matter how momentary is that pain. For
the Jewish family members who are familiar with the ritual, there is at
least the comfort in understanding the meaning behind the ritual, and
feeling a sense that it ties this new baby boy back thousands of years to
Jewish ancestors Abraham and Isaac. Sharing this sense of connectedness
with our non-Jewish friends and relatives in attendance is one way to ease
their discomfort. Sometimes the mohel (trained ritual circumciser) will
provide wonderful explanations to illumine the ceremony. However, you
may not be able to count on that, so have some material prepared to hand
out like a program that explains what is happening during the ceremony.
(See Essentials below for more about the ceremony itself.)
If you made a promise to help raise Jewish children—even if that
commitment came years ago in the initial glow of falling in love or serious dating—now is the time to begin making good on that promise.
Unfortunately, now may also be your first glimpse into realizing that
there is more involved than you thought, or that your spouse expects a
lot more of you than you ever thought would be your role. If that’s the
case, you are certainly not alone—though it may feel like you are. Don’t
panic! Besides calmly communicating your feelings and concerns with
your spouse, there are places to turn for help. For example, the birth of a
child is an important opportunity to connect with the organized Jewish
community, particularly the synagogue.
A growing number of Jewish communities offer a “Shalom Baby”
program, in which new parents are offered gifts and coupons from
Jewish institutions, usually coordinated by what is called the local
Jewish Federation (a central organizing body in the Jewish community).
Depending on how sophisticated the community, the coordinator of the
program may try to contact you personally and offer to connect you to
additional resources. If not, it may require a bit of initiative on your part.
They may also be able to connect you with a local Jewish playgroup.
Many of these playgroups will be friendly toward interfaith families, as
you are in the fastest-growing demographic within the community. The
point is, Jewish education begins early, for you and your child, and there
may be great opportunities available for you and your family. (See more
in Chapter 9: Jewish Education for Your Children and Yourself.)
Raising children is challenging enough. Raising them in a religion
that is not your own is even more challenging. In Judaism that challenge
begins almost immediately upon the birth of your child. But you can rise
to that challenge, joining the hundreds of thousands of other amazing
parents who are giving of themselves to ensure the Jewish future.
Unlike some other religions, children are born into Judaism. There is
no entry requirement. However, since traditional Judaism acknowledges
the passing of Jewish identity only through the mother, this requires some
explanation. Among the major streams of Judaism, the Conservative and
Orthodox movements adhere to the traditional definition of “who’s a
Jew” that requires the mother to be Jewish (or a conversion for the child).
However, since the early 1980s, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements presume the child of a Jewish father to be Jewish, provided the
child is raised as a Jew and is not raised in another religious tradition. In
order to affirm/accept this religious identity (for all children of intermarriage, not just those of patrilineal descent), their commitment must be
demonstrated in various ways, including through enrollment in a program of Jewish education and a bar/bat mitzvah.
Children of intermarriage being raised as Jews are also expected to
experience all the traditional Jewish birth rituals. For male children, this
includes ritual circumcision. It has become increasingly popular to provide rituals for girls that—like circumcision for boys—acknowledge the
covenantal relationship as well. These ceremonies are designated by various names as explained below.
For the most part, the Jewish community treats adoptive parents much
like natural parents with regard to ritual. However, if an adoptive child is
born to parents who aren’t Jewish, and you wish to raise your child as a
Jew, Jewish law requires that that child be formally converted to Judaism.
The process and context for conversion will be determined by the age of
the child. (For converting an infant, see below.) Parents are able to say the
appropriate conversion blessings for young children. When children can
say them on their own, then they are asked to do so. And when children
become bar/bat mitzvah age, they have to convert of their own free will.
As a matter of fact, children who have been converted by their parents
can choose to reject or affirm their conversion at bar/bat mitzvah age.
As you begin to understand the various rituals and practices associated
with the birth of a Jewish child, opportunities arise for the personalization of the meaning and experience.
Lots of people will tell you about the custom for Jewish naming. In
truth, while there are two or three prevailing customs, just about everything about names is just that—customary rather than religious law.
Often families interpret things on their own and then pass their interpretations onto the next generation as the way that is appropriate to name
babies in the Jewish community. In this regard, unfortunately, names
given to babies can become contentious among family members.
Among Ashkenazic Jews—those who trace their ancestry through
Germany and Eastern Europe—the custom is not to name in honor of a
living relative. It is actually considered “bad luck” to do so. Rather, it is
customary to honor someone who is no longer living by giving the new
child the name of the deceased relative (or the properly gendered version of the name; for example, Paul is named for his great grandmother
Pauline who passed away a few months before his birth). Some people
have translated this to use the first letter of the deceased’s name. Among
Sephardic Jews—those who trace their ancestry through Spain—the
custom is to name in honor of a living grandparent, beginning with the
paternal grandfather. In other words, the first child would be named with
the same name as the living paternal grandfather. The next child would
be given the name of the living maternal grandfather.
Most parents also choose to give a child an equivalent name in
Hebrew as in English, either a direct translation when available (David
is pronounced Dah-VEED) or similar in sound. For example, there’s no
direct translation for Paul (although many choose Shaul or Saul, as in Saul
of Tarshish in the New Testament) so his parents chose Pah-lu, a name
mentioned only once in the entire Bible. For his middle name, Scott, they
chose the Biblical name Shimon even though that directly translates to
Simon in English since there is no Hebrew equivalent for Scott. Hebrew
names are important for use in Jewish ritual, beginning with the circumcision or baby-naming. In Hebrew a child’s name is often mentioned in
relation to his or her parents: X son/daughter of Y. In Jewish ritual con43
texts (except for prayers for healing when the name of the mother is used),
the name of the father is used. (In liberal circles, the names of both parents
are used for most ritual purposes.) Children who are formally converted
to Judaism are given Abraham and Sarah as their parents’ names, since
Abraham and Sarah are credited with “bringing souls to Judaism,” except
when one parent is Jewish. In those cases, it becomes Abraham and the
name of the Jewish parent or Sarah and the name of the Jewish parent.
While this may seem harsh, it provides a direct connection to the ancient
Jewish people for the one who has converted.
Male children are generally named at their brit milah (literally, covenant of circumcision), commonly referred to as a bris (the Ashkenazi
pronunciation of brit), which takes place on the eighth day of life—unless
there is a medical reason why it can’t take place. On the night prior to
the brit milah, a tradition some families follow is to invite children to
visit the newborn and recite the most sacred of prayers, Shema Yisrael
(Hear! Oh Israel), in the baby’s presence. In order to encourage children
to participate and to highlight the sweetness of the occasion, among those
families who practice this custom, candy is promised to the children who
participate. Another tradition that is occasionally followed is for families
to sponsor a night of learning (Torah study) in the home of the newborn
on the evening prior to the brit milah.
On the day of the brit, the baby is generally dressed in white clothes
for the brit milah. Honors are extended to various guests in attendance.
The honor of kvater (the one who “delivers” the baby to the place where
the circumcision is taking place) is often given to a couple. While it is
customary for this couple not yet to have children—since participating in this ritual is said to be a good omen—in liberal communities this
honor can be shared in various ways. The baby’s mother gives the child
to the female kvater who then gives it to her spouse. He then brings the
baby into the room where the brit milah is to take place. The child is
momentarily placed in an empty chair designated for the duration of the
ceremony as Elijah’s chair (for Jewish tradition suggests that the prophet
Elijah attends every brit milah). From Elijah’s chair, the sandak (probably
derived from the Greek word for “companion,” but taking on the meaning “the one who holds the baby during the circumcision,” which is the
highest honor during the ceremony and usually given to the grandfather,
an elder, or a great scholar) takes the baby and holds it while the brit milah
is performed.
Families gather around while the mohel (trained ritual circumciser)
performs the ritual on behalf of the father who, by tradition, is obligated
to perform the ritual on the child. A moment of levity often occurs when
the mohel first asks the father whether he wants to perform the circumcision himself or defer to the mohel (hint to parents: defer!).
The ritual is followed by a meal of celebration (called a seudat mitzvah).
It is generally unheard of for the couple themselves to actually prepare
the food. In most cases it is catered, or the Jewish in-laws help to arrange
it—since they are most familiar with the practice. It is often a breakfast
assortment like bagels and spreads, because many couples choose to hold
the brit first thing in the morning. Odds are the brit will take place on a
weekday (although it can take place on Shabbat), and by having it earlier
you allow people to attend and still get into work (perhaps a little late)
without them having to take off the whole day. (Of course, you must take
into consideration several variables when you make this decision like,
traffic in your town, what works best for you and your family and guests,
Some families also hold a party of welcome called a shalom zakhar
(literally, a “masculine welcome”) in their synagogue for baby boys on
the Friday evening following the birth of the child and therefore prior to
the brit milah. Light refreshments are served rather than a full meal. This
makes sense if you are already affiliated with a synagogue community or
if your Jewish relatives are affiliated and want to honor the birth with this
kind of celebration.
Jews circumcise their male children for one simple reason: the Bible
instructs them to do so. In the book of Genesis, this directive is given by
God: “This is My covenant that you shall keep…circumcise all of your
males. The male that does not circumcise his flesh, that soul shall be cut
off from its nation…” (Genesis 17:10, 14). The patriarch Isaac’s circumcision took place on the eighth day so we follow suit. (See Genesis 21:4.)
Those who are looking for a more spiritual explanation for the selection
of the date suggest that that the number seven represents the cycle of
life—the seven days of creation, the seven days of the week, etc. Thus,
eight represents a superior level to the number seven, it is “above” and
“higher” than nature. Through the act of the brit, the child is able to
attain the level of “eight,” transcending all other levels of nature. This
impresses on the body a bond—the covenantal sign—that surpasses all
levels of rationality and limitations of nature.
Obviously, before even hosting a brit you need to find a mohel. The
absolute best way to choose a mohel is to have already been to some other
family’s brit where you observed a mohel in action that you liked, then
got the name and contact information from that family. Personal recommendations through family and friends is another option. If that’s not
possible, many mohelim (plural of mohel) advertise in the local telephone
book and Jewish newspapers. You can also call most local synagogues for
names of local mohalim. They can also be found on the Internet. Many
communities also have a Jewish information and referral service which
will have information on mohalim. The telephone number is available
from the local Jewish Federation (and is often available on its website;
try or where X is the name of
your community). In most cases, Reform and Conservative mohalim are
medical practitioners, often obstetricians, pediatricians or nurse practitioners, who have also been trained in the relevant Jewish laws and rituals.
Most Orthodox mohalim, who have generally done many, many more
britei milah (plural of brit milah) than their medical counterparts, are
trained as both rabbis and mohalim. As a result, Reform, Conservative,
Reconstructionist and Renewal rabbis often participate with the mohel
in the ritual. Thus, if you already know a rabbi, he or she may be able to
recommend a mohel, and vice versa. It is hard to know what a mohel will
charge for his or her services. Generally there is a prevailing rate in the
community. Don’t be afraid to ask and ask around. There will also be a
charge for using the mikvah (ritual bath)—when conversion is also being
You may have heard about the practice of metzitzah which is when the
mohel suctions the blood of the circumcision. This was originally thought
to be an antiseptic way of cleansing the wound. While most mohalim
use a sterilized gauze pad to do so, some Orthodox mohalim prefer the
ancient practice of using their mouths (and rinse with antiseptic solutions
before doing so). This is a practice to ask your mohel about ahead of time,
especially if he is Orthodox.
Some mohalim may be more inclined to work with interfaith families,
especially participants in the Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism (www. Just about any mohel will be willing to circumcise the
child of a Jewish mother. However, many Orthodox mohalim will only
circumcise the child of a Jewish father (when the mother is not Jewish) if
the circumcision ceremony is actually part of a conversion of the child.
(See below about conversion.) Most mohalim will ask you relevant questions about the child’s religious identity when you contact him (or her in
liberal circles). Try not to be offended by the questions. This will avoid
any potential embarrassment at the ceremony—and help you make sure
you have selected the most appropriate mohel to circumcise your child.
If you want the child converted, a rabbinically-supervised trip to the mikvah will also have to be arranged. Select a rabbi of your preferred denomination when considering conversion of your infant. And make sure that
both rabbi and mohel are willing to work together with regard to the
conversion of the child. It seems like a lot of negotiating, but it will avoid
any unforeseen challenges at the ceremony.
Since there is no historical covenant ceremony for female children,
girls were named (somewhat perfunctory) in the synagogue on the
Sabbath following birth when the father was given an aliyah (Torah
honor). In an effort to provide equal status for girls, numerous ceremonies
have recently been developed, particularly in the more liberal streams of
Judaism. Among the most popular is the brit banot (literally, covenant
of daughters). This ceremony takes its lead from the brit milah although
there is generally no physical act except perhaps the wrapping of the child
in a tallit (prayer shawl).
There are a variety of creative ceremonies that have been developed
for the naming of baby girls and entering them into the covenant, and they
generally tend to be more participatory than the brit milah. They often
take place in the synagogue (like the traditional naming of girls) during
the part of the service that includes the reading of the Torah. When the
ceremony does not take place in the midst of a regular worship service,
the parents can become even more creative. While it is good to name a
daughter early in life, and you may want to choose a logical time for the
naming, there is no specific requirement here either. Some feminists suggest either 14 days, since this is the amount of time that a mother’s ritual
impurity after a daughter’s birth lasts according to the Torah, or 30 days,
since this reflects the ancient belief that a child is viable only after 30 days.
Some families choose to wrap the child in a tallit and include the lighting
of candles (but only if it is not on Shabbat or a holiday) in the ceremony.
Others wash their feet (like the ancient priests) and still others use the
opportunity to pierce the infant’s ears (resonating with the Torah’s notion
of the manumission of servants and a lifetime commitment).
Some liberal communities—and those that advocate a fully egalitarian community—have chosen to no longer encourage the traditional
Pidyon ha-Ben (literally “redemption of the male,” meaning firstborn son)
ceremony since it reflects somewhat of an ancient caste system. Others
are reclaiming the ceremony without its social class distinction. During
the period of Egyptian slavery of the ancient Israelites, God took the life
of every first-born Egyptian and spared the first-born of every Israelite.
To commemorate this event, the Torah records God as saying, “the first
issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine” (Exodus, 13:2). This
was interpreted to mean that first-born sons were obligated to serve in
the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the book of Numbers “you shall
have the first-born redeemed…. Take as their redemption price, from
the age of one month up, the money equivalent of five shekels….”
(Numbers 18:15-16). This obligation evolved into a ceremony that takes
place on the 31st day of life of the child. It is a simple ceremony in which
parents give five shekels (five silver dollars in the U.S.) to a kohen (descendent of the priests, usually Jews with the last names “Cohen,” “Kohn,”
etc., who also receive the first Torah aliyah during worship services in a
traditional synagogue). The parent recites two blessings. The first includes
the traditional formula of blessing and references the ritual act of redemption of the firstborn. The second is the sheheheyanu (the Jewish prayer of
thanksgiving and gratitude). The kohen then holds the money over the
baby’s head and says, “This instead of that. This in commutation for that.
And this in remission for that.” Then he prays for the child and recites the
traditional priestly prayer. A festive meal (seudat mitzvah) is often held
following the ceremony. While not widely practiced today among liberal
Jews, it is practiced in Conservative and more traditional communities.
We include it in this chapter should you choose to celebrate this ritual or
so you are aware of it in case a Jewish relative asks you about it.
While the child of a Jewish mother is always considered Jewish, the
child of a Jewish father (and mother who is not Jewish) is considered
Jewish only by the liberal Jewish community. So some families will
choose to convert their children as infants. (If the mother converts
while pregnant, the child does not need to convert.) The goal is to ease
the child’s acceptance into the entire Jewish community later in life. For
example, we have met couples where both individuals were raised as Jews
yet when approaching one of their rabbis to officiate at their wedding,
were turned away because one of the individuals was of patrilineal Jewish
descent and the rabbi insisted he or she convert before the wedding. This
and other kinds of encounters remain a cause of real pain and anguish in
parts of the Jewish community to this day. Even though more than half of
American Jewry believes patrilineal Jews to be fully Jewish if they want
to be (including the authors), in our work with adult children of intermarriage, patrilineal Jews have often encountered insensitive fellow-Jews at
one time or another who told them, “Oh, you’re mom’s not Jewish? Then
you’re not a real Jew.”
Many Conservative and almost all Orthodox Jews still believe that the
liberal streams’ acceptance of patrilineal descent is unacceptable. While
we work to try to change the culture within the community, the rift
does not seem to be going away anytime soon, so intermarried parents
sometimes choose to officially convert the child into the more traditional
streams of Judaism to avoid such issues later in life. This is also appealing because the conversion ceremony of infants and children is simple. It
includes tevilah (immersion in a ritual bath) for both girls and boys, and
tipat dam (a drop of blood from the remaining foreskin of the penis for
boys) if the conversion is not taking place as part of the brit milah (see
above), or circumcision for boys if one has not previously taken place.
Since parents make the decision for children while they are minors, those
children have to affirm the conversion when they become of majority
age. The formal bar or bat mitzvah serves as an act of confirmation. So
the steps for converting an infant are:
1. Find a cooperative rabbi in the movement you want.
2. Choose a Hebrew name for the child.
3. If the child is a boy, depending on age, either tipat dam (a drop of
blood) or a full brit milah will be required.
4. Under the supervision of the rabbinic beit din (court of three
rabbis assembled for this purpose), take the baby to a mikvah for
ritual immersion.
Consult a rabbi (and mohel if a boy is involved) for additional direction
and guidance.
The call took Kerry by surprise: a Christian father calling JOI from out
west, from his Jewish wife’s hospital room. She had been confined there
for several months of a difficult pregnancy. Now they were nearing the
end of her term and eagerly if anxiously awaiting the birth of their child.
Since they knew that their baby would be a boy, it seemed to the expectant mother like the right time to discuss plans for the brit milah, the ritual
circumcision. They had been married over ten years and had difficulty
conceiving but had decided that their children would be raised as Jews
even before they really contemplated marriage.
The father was firm on his commitment. He had no intention of
changing his mind. He believed that a religious upbringing for a child—
in one religion—was important. But he expressed surprise at his wife’s
request. “What does circumcision have to do with our decision to raise
our son Jewishly?” It hadn’t occurred to her that they were separate issues.
It hadn’t occurred to him that they were one in the same.
Following a long conversation about the issues of social visibility
(when the boy’s Jewish friends see that he looks different than they do),
the father was convinced. The brit milah was scheduled for the eighth
day. But their story highlights the benefits of talking everything out, even
those things that may seem obvious.
It may come as no surprise to you that Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday
that is celebrated by more intermarried Jewish families than any other—
including Passover. For that reason we include it at the beginning of this
book together with Passover and childbirth as key first Jewish experiences for those of other religious backgrounds who have married into the
Jewish community. Like Passover, the celebration of Hanukkah is easily accessible, because it is home-based and does not require synagogue
membership or rabbinic officiation. But its huge popularity is probably
more a result of the proximity on the calendar to Christmas, as well as the
emphasis in the public sphere—especially by the commercial sector—to
give Hanukkah mainstream recognition alongside Christmas and now
KwanzAa, as well. Thus, Hanukkah has become to the Jewish family in
the post-Thanksgiving holiday season what Christmas has been to the
Christian family. There is some historical precedent for this approach.
After all, both Hanukkah and Christmas do have their origins as winter solstice celebrations emerging out of ancient folk religion. When this
solstice celebration took a Jewish path through history, it emerged as
Hanukkah. And when the solstice celebration followed a Christian path,
it became Christmas.
Some will argue—especially the majority of rabbis—that Hanukkah is
a minor festival and should not be celebrated to the same extent in Judaism
as Christmas is among Christians. We disagree. “Minor” is merely a technical term that refers to Jewish law and its general holiday prohibitions.
Since there are virtually no laws that prohibit routine behaviors—particularly work—on Hanukkah, except while the candles are burning in
the hanukkiyah (Hanukkah candelabra or menorah), it is called a “minor”
festival. Most people will agree—especially those with young children—
that Hanukkah is indeed a major Jewish holiday. As a result, we believe
that its celebration should be maximized, not minimized.
Because Hanukkah has entered mainstream North American culture,
you may have first encountered Hanukkah even before you encountered
your Jewish family. It might have been through Jewish childhood friends
or it might have simply been at a giant menorah lighting in the local
shopping mall. Still, you may have found your first Hanukkah party a
disorienting experience if you went unprepared for what to expect. As
with most holiday celebrations in American families (like Christmas in
Christian households) there probably wasn’t a whole lot of religious ritual.
And yet the tradition of reciting Hebrew blessings (often from memory)
while lighting candles may have left you feeling distinctly like an outsider. Maybe someone explained why oily foods like potato pancakes are
de rigueur—but maybe not. Exchanging gifts is certainly easy to understand, but teaching kids to gamble with a four-sided top might seem odd
at first glance. And if you asked what the holiday of Hanukkah is actually
about, you probably received a less-than-satisfying answer about a relatively flimsy miracle and some vague mention of Judah Maccabee, the
hero of the Hanukkah story.
Having entered into an interfaith relationship, this time of year may
now include certain challenges, especially early in your relationship. (This
is what the organized Jewish community often refers to as the so-called
“December dilemma.”) Once you have determined how you may want
to celebrate the season in your home—and in the home of relatives—
these challenges will recede. They may emerge from time to time as your
relationship and your family grows—and your kids and your parents get
Nevertheless, what often does happen, especially when you do not live
in close proximity to family members, is that unresolved issues that lie
dormant during most of the year emerge under the guise of the “holiday
season.” This may also occur because this is the time of year in which
families often visit with one another, and with those visits come conversations about issues that stay unspoken during the rest of the year. We
will address some of these challenges in Chapter 13, “What About My
Own Traditions?” But first, you should be armed with as full an understanding as possible of what Hanukkah means in general and what it can
mean to you and your family specifically.
While the festival seems straightforward because of its celebration (our
enemies tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat), the background of Hanukkah
is not so simple. The popularized version of the Hanukkah story has the
Jewish people in ancient Israel rebelling against the Assyrian-Greeks who
occupied the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and prohibited the practice
of Judaism among the Jewish people. A small guerilla-like army called
the Maccabees (from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” named for the
hammer-like assaults of their leader Judah), gained independence for the
Jewish people by striking against the large Assyrian-Greek army. During
the rededication (that is what the word Hanukkah actually means) of
the Temple, a small cruise of consecrated oil—only enough to burn for
one day—for the Temple’s seven-branched menorah was found. This
oil burned for eight days. Hence the miracle of Hanukkah and its eightday duration—and its lighting of an eight-day menorah specifically for
Hanukkah called a hanukkiyah.
Now for the story behind the story. In order to understand the
Hanukkah story in its entirety, we have to see the land of Israel as an
important nexus connecting the trade routes of Asia, Europe and Africa.
While its role as a trade route has perhaps diminished in modern times,
its importance in the Middle East has not moderated nor has the violent
contention over its land. In addition to its role as a Jewish homeland, Israel
remains a battlefield for the world’s superpowers. In the ancient world,
things were similar. Alexander the Great of Greece had conquered Israel
and much of the Near East—along with most of the world known to the
ancient Greeks.
When Alexander died without an heir to the throne in 323 b.c.e., his
empire was divided among his generals, two of whom established their
own sovereign kingdoms: Ptolomy in Egypt and Seleucus in Syria. Israel,
located between these two countries, was valuable to both. As a result,
Israel became the place where these general battled with one another. So
Israel became ruled by one or the other over the course of time.
Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes) became king of Syria in 175
b.c.e., during which time Israel was under Syrian control. In an effort to
strengthen his hold on Israel, he required all of his subjects to worship the
same (Greek) gods and follow the same (Greek) customs. Jews were not
permitted to study Torah, observe the Sabbath, or do anything Jewish.
A segment of the Jewish community, referred to as Hellenists, were
enamored by the Greek way of life. They wore Greek clothing and spoke
Greek. Their opponents, called Hasidim (literally, pietists, not to be confused with modern Hasidim known by their black coats, fur hats, and
payot or earlocks) did not approve of the influence of the Hellenists. They
felt that the overwhelming presence of Greek culture would destroy
Judaism. The Hasidim began their opposition with a simple refusal to
obey the laws of Antiochus. As a result, they suffered harshly (and their
willingness to be martyred was a direct inspiration to the early Christians).
Eventually, they felt that they had no choice but to rebel physically.
Beginning in the small town of Modiin, not far from Jerusalem, a priest
named Mattathias initiated the revolt. He called on others to join him,
“Whoever is for God, come with me.” The small band of Mattathias and
his five sons (who took the name Maccabees) began a guerilla offensive in
the hills against the mighty Assyrian-Greek army. (The name Maccabee
was later associated as a word formed from the acronym of the words of
the Israelites at the Sea “Who is like you God among the gods that are
worshipped?” (Exodus 15:11)—a phrase taken into the daily liturgy prior
to the central prayer that is said while standing called the Amidah.) The
military offensive deteriorated into a civil war of sorts pitting supporters
of the Greek way of life against those who sought what they perceived
as a more pristine Jewish way of life. Led by one of the sons, Judah, this
small Maccabean army liberated Jerusalem. This indeed was a miraculous victory of the small over the mighty.
The Jewish victors cleansed the Temple and removed the statues
of Zeus and other Greek gods that Antiochus had set up there. On the
twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev (which usually occurs in
December, around the time of the winter solstice, the darkest day of year
when it is natural to seek light) in the year 165 B.C.E., they rededicated
the Temple. Following the model of the fall festival of Sukkot, which the
Jews had not been able to celebrate while under oppression, the dedication of the Temple lasted for eight days. Thus, the first Hanukkah was
actually a delayed celebration of Sukkot. Slowly, the aspects of the Sukkot
celebration in the context of Hanukkah gave way to particular events
reserved for Hanukkah only. These are the rituals which we associate
with Hanukkah today.
It was the Rabbis’ discomfort with the emphasis on the military victory of the Maccabees that led to their eventual stress on the miracle of
the oil in the Hanukkah narrative as the central theme in the story. They
connected it to the text from the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might nor
by power but by Your spirit” (4:6). Eventually, this story eclipsed many of
the other details in the history of Hanukkah, especially since it was more
of a kid-friendly version of what took place. It was this emphasis on God’s
role that led to the two primary sacred instructions (mitzvot or commandments) associated with Hanukkah. The first mitzvah is the lighting
of the nine-branched hanukkiyah (eight branches for each day and one to
light the rest) together with what is called Pirsomat ha-Nes (literally, publicizing the miracle). In order to do the latter, the hanukkiyah is placed in
a window so that all can see it. But the miracle that is being publicized
is much more than what took place with the oil. As Rabbi Leon Morris
states, “Emphasizing the miracle of the oil more than the military victory
is a way of acknowledging the limits of human power and strength…. [It]
demonstrates our recognition of God’s role in history and affirms that
there is an order and meaning to our lives.”
The second mitzvah is reciting a group of Psalms known as the Hallel
Psalms (113-118) since they are Psalms of praise to God—and are recited
on various occasions throughout the year. These psalms are recited in
the liturgy so you would only encounter them in the synagogue—unless
you choose to follow the pattern of daily and holiday prayer on your own
when you would include these psalms.
The historic story of Hanukkah provides adults with much to discuss
intellectually, if so inclined, about topics of relevance to today’s Jewish
community in America, such as Judaism’s relationship to the larger culture. Some see in the Hanukkah story a message that to preserve Judaism,
we must fight against any incorporation of outside cultural influences
(even though it’s clear Judaism has always drawn on such influences since
its earliest days). Others point out that there has to be a balance between
engaging with the larger culture and maintaining Jewish distinctiveness.
Assimilation—where small subgroups are absorbed into the dominant
culture to the point of no longer being recognizable, similar to how Greek
culture threatened to overwhelm Israel at the time of the Maccabees—is
often portrayed as a key threat to today’s Jewish community, and too
many people inaccurately assume intermarriage is synonymous with
assimilation. At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we believe “integration” is
a better word to describe what happens to most American Jews. They feel
fully American and fully Jewish (even if some feel less-than-fully Jewishly
knowledgeable). And those intermarried families who create Jewish
households certainly have not assimilated beyond recognition but are in
fact preserving Jewish continuity into the next generation.
For better or worse, Hanukkah parties where these kinds of issues get
debated are few and far between. Instead, the holiday is more about cele58
brating with family and friends, and creating excitement for any children
in our lives. And that’s good too!
The most iconographic image of Hanukkah is the lighting of the
hanukkiyah, the nine-branched candelabra that commemorates the miracle of the Temple oil lasting for all eight days when there was only supply
of consecrated oil for one. Because Jewish holidays run from sunset to
sundown, some secular calendars can actually cause confusion about the
start time when they list the first day of Hanukkah. Lately, calendars have
gotten better at listing the first night of Hanukkah instead (for example,
“Hanukkah (begins at sunset)”), so take care in finding out the correct
That first evening, there will be two new candles in your Hanukkah
menorah: one to represent the first day of the holiday and one called the
shamash (“guard” or “servant”) that sits on a higher level—or separate—
and will be lit first, then used to light the other. The second night, there
will be three new candles in your menorah, two to represent the second
day of the holiday plus one to serve as shamash, lit first and then used to
light the other two, and so on until—by the end of Hanukkah—you’ve
used up a box of 44 candles and all nine spaces of your hanukkiyah holds a
burning candle. Each night you let the candles burn for at least a half hour,
which with most candles means letting them burn down completely.
(Help your children avoid the urge to blow them out like a birthday cake!
However, if you have to leave your house before they have burned all the
way down or you can’t be close enough to keep an eye on them, it’s better
to put them out than to create a fire hazard.) There is also a custom to use
the same shamash throughout the holiday—to establish a real purpose
for the shamash and to connect the days throughout the festival. This is
the way Kerry’s family does it. Some hanukkiyot (plural) use oil instead of
candles, which is messier but truer to the original; this can be an exciting
departure for those who have always used candles.
There is great confusion even among Jews as to the order of placing
and lighting candles, so here—at last—is the definitive answer. When
you are facing the menorah, the shamash of course goes in the shamash
holder (which must be on a higher level—or separate—while all the others are on an even level to make it a kosher hanukkiyah) and the candles
representing the days go into the menorah starting from the right-hand
side. (They are also to be in a line—rather than bunched together or in a
circle so as not to imitate a bonfire.) So on the fourth night, the right half
of your Hanukkah menorah has candles ready to be lit and the left half
does not. However, each night you light the candles from left to right,
welcoming the newest candle first. If you are putting your menorah in
the window, as is the mitzvah mentioned above (and these days feel free
to fulfill that mitzvah with an electric menorah), the candles should be
placed (or turned on) for the benefit of the people outside looking in,
which is their right-hand side, not necessarily yours.
Before you light the hanukkiyah, blessings are recited, either just by
the person lighting or by everyone in attendance. (We think it’s nicer
when everyone joins in.) You can easily find these blessings in prayer
books, Hanukkah or holiday guide books, and online in Hebrew, Hebrew
transliteration, and English translation. One way to help everyone in
attendance feel more comfortable is to print out copies and hand them
out to everyone (even if you know some folks have it memorized, so as
not to single anyone out). This is also nice because many Jews who only
say the prayers in Hebrew from memory may not even be able to translate
fully what they’re saying, so a printout allows them to read the English
translation and perhaps appreciate the moment a bit more.
Two blessings are recited every night of Hanukkah, with a third
added for the first night. The two blessings recited each night thank God
for instructing us to light the hanukkiyah (a common formula for such
blessings), and for the miracles that took place in ancient times during
this season. The extra blessing recited on the first night is the traditional
Sheheheyanu prayer recited whenever Jews reach a milestone or new
experience, thanking God for keeping us alive “to reach this time.” After
the blessings, a longer text is recited by some families called ha-nerot hallalu. Like the first blessing, this describes the requirement to light the
candles and describes their meaning. Then some families sing the traditional song Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages), which is about deliverance from
those who oppressed the Jews in the past, including during the Hanukkah
story. This music, too, can be found online if you want to get a head-start
on the melody or print out the words before attending a family member’s
Hanukkah party.
Besides the Hanukkah menorah, there are a number of other fun
Hanukkah traditions. To emphasize the miracle of the oil, foods made in
oil are served during the holiday. Traditionally, these are potato pancakes
(usually known by their Yiddish name latkes) and jelly doughnuts (sufganiot in Hebrew since they are popular in Israel). Frying latkes together
is a great family activity for children who are old enough to learn. There
are a variety of recipes available on the Internet to try, or perhaps this
is a way to bond with your in-laws, by learning their recipe and helping them prepare it for the holiday. Many kosher and kosher-style restaurants, caterers and delis will also serve latkes, if cooking is not your thing.
Latkes are usually served topped with either apple sauce or sour cream
(though if meat is also being served in a kosher home, sour cream would
not be served due to the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy).
In addition, a special game is played with a four-sided spinning top
called a dreidel (a word derived from the Yiddish for “to turn”; in Hebrew
it is called a sevivon). On each side of the dreidel is a Hebrew letter as an
acronym of sorts for “A Great Miracle Happened There.” (In Israel, the
dreidels are the same except for one letter to reflect the notion “A Great
Miracle Happened Here.”) The game is basically a form of gambling, and
these kinds of tops were actually used by gamblers in the Middle Ages
before six-sided dice became popular.
The rules of dreidel are fairly simple but engaging, and can be played
for coins like pennies or—if you really want to get high-stakes—nickels.
(Chocolate coins or candies can also be used.) There is a communal pot
or kitty. Everyone starts with the same number of coins (if you’re playing
fair) and antes up by putting a coin in the kitty. The first player spins the
dreidel by twisting the handle with a snapping motion between thumb
and middle finger. The Hebrew letter facing up after the dreidel finally
falls will tell you what to do next:
‫ג‬Gimmel: You win the whole kitty. This is what you’re hoping for.
‫ה‬Hey: You win half the kitty. Still pretty enjoyable.
‫נ‬Nun: You get nothing.
‫שׁ‬Shin: You add two more to the kitty, which is not good.
Then you pass the dreidel to the next player and everyone antes up
again. If you lose all your coins, you’re out of the game. This continues,
sometimes for a very long while, until only one person ends up with all
the coins. That person is commonly referred to as “the winner” and will
try but fail to remain modest about it. The game is not just for kids, either.
At Paul’s family Hanukkah parties lately, the younger dreidel-spinners
have been in their 20s. Yet when it is time to sit down to play, everyone
recalls who won last year’s annual dreidel game.
To offer newcomers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with
the rules of the game, JOI created a “virtual dreidel game” online at and we welcome you to try your hand at it, to
warm up for your Hanukkah party.
Gift-giving, especially for families with young children, is a central
component of the Hanukkah celebration. While Hanukkah gift-giving
is probably a transformation of the Hanukkah coins associated with the
dreidel game and influenced by the massive gift-giving of Christmas,
there may also be a historic basis unrelated to today’s modern shopping
frenzy. (See more below.) Regardless of its origin, it is clear that most
children in Jewish households today will not be content receiving anything less for Hanukkah than their neighbors and classmates receive for
Christmas. To compete with that magical Christmas-morning moment
of diving into a pile of gifts under a Christmas tree, Jews in America
have created the tradition of giving gifts on each of the eight nights of
Hanukkah, trying (usually unsuccessfully) to assure their children that
it is “even better.” Some save the biggest gift (think: video game console)
for the eighth night; others give it on the first night. Gifts on the other
nights are usually more modest. And some families have attempted to
address more altruistic theme for gift-giving. If this doesn’t work for all
nights, then try doing it for at least one night. On that night, we teach our
children that part of the joy of receiving gifts is in the giving of gifts to
others, especially to those less fortunate. (See below.)
Although young children tend to focus on receiving gifts, there are
ways to raise the festival to greater significance while still enjoying it as
a family with young children. It is possible that the giving of gifts on
Hanukkah arose independently out of a practice in seventeenth century
Poland when children were given coins to give, in turn, to their poorly
paid teachers as a bonus. Gift-giving at this time of year is a result of the
connection between the root word for Hanukkah and education (hinukh
in Hebrew) and has evolved to giving gifts beyond just to educators. As
communities became more affluent, children were given these same
coins to keep for themselves—and share with others. They were always
encouraged to give some of these coins to charity. Unfortunately, it seems
we may have forgotten over time that some of the coins/gifts were designated for charity. Nevertheless, some of these customs remain in Jewish
communities around the world.
Children are never too young to be taught to appreciate the giving of
charity. So while we recommend that Hanukkah be celebrated to the fullest (decorations, party and presents), we also suggest designating either
parts each night or one night in its entirety as a time for the giving of
gifts to others in need rather than expecting it for ourselves. For older
children, some families choose a theme (based on a Jewish value, such
as baal tashhit or wanton destruction, usually understood as regard for
the environment) for each night of the holiday to be used as a prism for
celebration and for gift-giving.
Another tradition is to provide a hanukkiyah for each family member
to light, or even for each party guest. Of course, the children have to be
old enough to light a candle or someone must help them. This can really
personalize the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles. And thanks to the
Jewish tradition of beautifying ritual objects, there is an amazing array of
hanukkiyot available, including kid-friendly ones decorated with Disney
While preparations will be somewhat dependent on the ages of your
children, it is important not to relegate Hanukkah to childhood status.
When that happens, children outgrow Hanukkah (and other holidays too)
and have nothing left when they are adults. That is why it is important
to make sure that some preparations are intentionally for adults and not
designed for children, such as the collection of museum quality hanukkiyot and dreidels. Or perhaps participate in an intellectual discussion
of the themes of the holiday and its miracles or even study of the more
sophisticated rabbinic stories about the holidays.
Nevertheless, your family should feel and see the spirit of Hanukkah
for several weeks before the festival itself. For readers who celebrated
Christmas as children, take the best of your childhood memories and
translate them as best as possible into a Jewish/Hanukkah context. Not
all of them will fit (we don’t endorse the “Hanukkah Bush” or “Hanukkah
Harry”), but lots of them will, especially as you strive to use the lens of
family through which to envision Hanukkah. Invite family over to decorate your house, as a place to start. Make sure that you include a holiday
party and Hanukkah foods during each night of the holiday. Be bold and
experiment. Try out different recipes. Kerry’s wife made zucchini latkes
one year! Tell Hanukkah stories to your children and make sure that
there are age-appropriate Hanukkah books all over the house.
If you like to collect things, make an effort to add to your Hanukkah
menorah collection each year. Go for variety over quality. One of our
favorites—that has now become a classic—is the Hanukkah menorah
made from models of the Statue of Liberty. Why not make one that features an architectural icon in your community. (You can also add to your
ritual art collection too.) You can do the same with dreidels—and they are
generally less expensive than menorahs.
Because Hanukkah has far fewer standardized rituals than the
Passover Seder, it provides parents with the opportunity to get very creative. It is also an excellent opportunity to engage with your organized
Jewish community in low-barrier events that more Jewish organizations
are beginning to offer, such as free or low-cost Hanukkah parties, festivals and concerts that don’t require membership to attend. However you
celebrate, know that Hanukkah is a primary opportunity to instill Jewish
excitement and pride in your children. We encourage you to find ways to
really make it special.
When I was a child I had one Jewish friend. And each year, her mom
made sure to invite me to her home for latkes (potato pancakes). She
even taught me her family recipe—along with her daughter, my friend.
Imagine the surprise on my now in-laws’ faces when I met them for the
first time while my husband and I were dating (and living together) and I
served latkes. My mother-in-law admitted that they were the best she had
ever tasted. That was the beginning of what continues to be an excellent
relationship. (Jane in Brooklyn, NY)
After lighting the candles, we march around the house singing Maoz
Tzur (Rock of Ages). We take turns being the leader and our march can
take us anywhere, outside, through the basement, even in and out of the
bathtub and shower area and clambering over the beds. It’s the leader’s
choice! This family tradition stems from my husband’s very fond memory
of doing this with his family as a young boy. The end of the march is
timed by the leader to coincide with stopping right in front of the pile of
Hanukkah presents that await our opening. (Pat in Savannah, GA)
Because the debate over Christmas and Hanukkah—the so-called
“December dilemma”—provoked so much tension and anxiety in our
relationship before we were married, we decided that we would avoid
the challenge entirely by planning a vacation each year for the end of
December. So we spent the first few winter vacations of our marriage
away from the orbit and pressure of both of our families. Once we had
children we felt more comfortable making decisions for ourselves. We
only celebrate Hanukkah in our home, but we do share in the celebration
of Christmas in my parents’ home or in the home of one of my brothers
or sisters. (Robin in Canton, OH)
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish
Outreach Institute (JOI) in New York, the only national organization that
provides programs and services for interfaith families, advocating for a
more inclusive Jewish community. He is well-known for his many inspirational books that bring the wisdom of Jewish tradition into everyday
life, including many books on Jewish spirituality, healing, and religious
Paul Golin is associate executive director of JOI and a frequent speaker
and writer advocating for greater inclusion of intermarried families. He is
co-author together with Rabbi Olitzky of Twenty Things for Grandparents of
Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their