Early on, helping our young daughter Michal to experience her Jewishness was surprisingly easy. As a sociologist, but especially as a mom, I marveled at the many clever traditions that serve to perpetuate Judaism across generations: the hypnotic glow of Shabbat candles, the snappy holiday melodies, afikomen hunting on Pesach, dressing up in silly Purim costumes, and the delicious taste of our weekly challah.
Propped up on the couch the first Shabbat she could chew on a hunk of challah, Michal gobbled up as much of it as she could. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe this religious upbringing stuff isn’t going to be as hard as I imagined.”
Michal’s religious upbringing became a little tougher, though, as her social world expanded. For example, when she was around three, we stopped for a red light, our windows down on a blazing-hot December day in Southern California. Suddenly a man in a Santa suit promoting a nearby Christmas tree lot appeared, serenading Michal with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Michal was delighted. My reaction was more mixed: It was fun to see Michal’s glee, and I wanted our family to live in a multifaceted, multicultural world—but I didn’t want my girl bonding with Santa Claus!
After several verses of the Santa serenade, the traffic light changed and we drove on. But not all situations have been as easy to navigate.
Once Michal started school, there was the annual challenge of Christmas trees in classrooms as well as the inevitable holiday decorations and parties, an overlap of religious and secular life that her dad and I found objectionable.
At first I had to force myself to speak up: “Maybe you could, uh, just talk about, um... general stuff, ” I’d meekly suggest, “like winter or the upcoming new year...?” The response I got was usually some variation of:
“The kids love Christmas, so we can’t just ignore it.”
“A Christmas tree is a cultural, not a religious, object, anyway.”
“Don’t worry: We’re teaching them about Chanukah, too!”
“What’s your problem, lady?!”
The kids did love the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas, but I suspected the teachers loved them even more. After all, the holiday came with ready-made songs, activities, and bulletin board ideas that filled up an entire month’s curriculum.
We weren’t looking for equal time or a chanukiah next to the decorated tree. In fact, I was troubled by the friendly ecumenism, admittedly born of goodwill, that teachers, administrators, and parents generally seemed to advocate: “We’re all the same as people, ” they said or implied. “We can all share everyone ’s beliefs. We can all celebrate everyone ’s holidays!” Their cheerful universalism ignored significant religious distinctions and dismissed Judaism’s unique value. Nor did my husband and I believe it was the business of teachers to conduct Michal’s religious education. That was the responsibility of her family and synagogue.
So, I did have a problem. And, in part, it’s never been resolved.
Eventually, though, I developed a different slant on the yearly Christmas tree chat. Accepting that I was unlikely to prevent holiday activities, I switched from “debate mode” to nurturing mutually teachable moments. One year, a school director explained to me that anything outside of church (or synagogue, she assumed) was not really “religious.” I responded by describing the many Jewish holidays celebrated at home that are central to Judaism.
In time, these encounters became annual Chanukah rituals in themselves, just as predictable as spinning the dreidel and frying latkes. And it gradually dawned on me that these experiences perfectly echo the theme of Chanukah. After all, the threats of assimilation and secularization are at the heart of the holiday story—the refusal of Judah and his small band of guerrilla warriors to let Judaism be eclipsed by the dominant culture. What, then, could be a more fitting commemoration of Chanukah than promoting dialogue about the value of respecting the boundaries between religious practice and public life?
My conversations about religion in the classroom are one individual’s efforts to keep Judaism from being absorbed into a secularized melting pot. In this way, every year, in our wonderfully pluralistic communities, moms and dads, grandpas and grandmas, and kids themselves each get a chance to be Judah Maccabee. True, our actions may be far less dramatic than Maccabean armed resistance. But when we take action, our lives become part of the ongoing Chanukah story.
Judith Richlin-Klonsky is a sociologist and member of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, California.