Making meaning out of the holiday season

AP With the White House in the background and the National Christmas Tree at right, people stand for a song … Continued


With the White House in the background and the National Christmas Tree at right, people stand for a song at the end of the lighting of the National Hanukkah Menorah, during an event sponsored by the American Friends of Lubavitch, on The Ellipse in Washington marking the second night of Hanukkah in Washington, on Dec. 9, 2012. The eight-day Jewish holiday began at sundown Saturday, Dec. 8.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone can have a simple thought these days. It used to be, as my grandchildren like a story to begin, a very, very long time ago, that we would try to think and plan out how we were going to do something. We’d take our time, try out a few ideas, talk amongst the family, make a phone call or two, check things out with the extended family and then draw a conclusion. In other words, make a decision and basically stick with it.

So how can we try to preserve some of these tried and true techniques given the print catalogues, the web, the smart phones, the apps, and the social media gurus who are out there bombarding us with ads and information to stimulate our brains to buy things we really don’t even need? This is hard enough for anyone to manage. But then put on top of these demands, the burdens if you are an interfaith family trying to make some decisions about how to get through this time intact and with some authenticity.

View Photo Gallery: Around the world, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is bringing families and communities together around the menorah. Lighting candles signifies the Maccabees’ victory over Greek soldiers in 165 B.C. and the rededication of their temple, when a small amount of oil that they believed would last for only one day instead lasted eight.

Here are some stories about families that did focus on how they wanted to celebrate the holidays and took the time to make it happen. All of these examples are about interfaith families who have decided to have Judaism as the lead religion in their homes. They honor the religion and parents with another religion by attending their celebrations. In their own homes, they are raising the children as Jews. All these stories are about making meaning and building memories.

My friend Marsha, who is Jewish, has three sisters. They all have many progeny and most of them are in interfaith marriages. Some were married by rabbis; others in non-religious ceremonies. The next generation of children identify themselves as Jews and for the most part, live in interfaith families where the non-Jewish partner has not converted. In the families where they belong to a Jewish congregation, the children go to afternoon religious school. While the attachment to religious institutions is relatively strong in this cohort, it is the grandmothers, my friend Marsha and her two sisters, who have assumed the primary responsibility for the transmission of Jewish identity to the grandchildren. Marsha does not miss an opportunity to teach her grandchildren about the basic tenets that inform our lives as Jews. As a member of the Board of a local social welfare organization, she carefully explains to her grandchildren why she is on the Board and what the organization does. She has involved them by bringing them to the facility where they can be involved at an appropriate level. She explains “tzedakah” by doing it.

Hanukkah is upon us and Marsha connects with her sisters. On all the Jewish holidays they try to bring as many of the family members together. This year it is twenty-six people, ten of whom are grandchildren. Marsha told me that she is reluctant to let anyone else bring the food. She is adamant that in this way, she expresses her love of family and she is building a memory bank of Hanukahs for her grandchildren. She hopes and anticipates that they will associate Hanukah with her brisket and her potato latkes. In this case, the gifts are secondary to the food. Only the youngest of the children receive gifts and only one each.

The essential point of this story is Marsha’s clarity about her responsibility to transmit Jewish values and a Jewish identification to her grandchildren. She is doing this by gathering the extended family, celebrating a Jewish holiday together, making traditional foods for them to remember, and demonstrating the importance of doing the right thing. When the oldest grandchild goes off to college and becomes a vegetarian, she’ll have to adjust the menu! Hopefully, by then they will be secure in their Jewish identities.

Here is a second story about Sally, the non-Jewish partner who attended my “Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners” with her fiancée. When I bumped into Sally several years later, the couple had married and now had a 7-year old son. She told me that she was getting increasingly upset with the commercialism of Hanukkah and wanted to try to make some changes in how the family would approach the holiday. She saw the opportunity she had in front of her and sat down to discuss this with her husband and son. Together, they made the shift from consumerism to thoughtfulness. After identifying some things they could do, e.g. volunteer at a shelter, cook dinner for another family, and other similar activities allowing them to show their generosity of spirit, they each voted and decided what they would do together to “show respect and honor to their elders.” The family activity centered on talking and learning about this value as well as doing something to enact the true meaning of, “honor thy mother and thy father,” one of the Ten Commandments. They baked brownies and delivered them to all four of the grandparents. The project expanded when their son decided they should include his aunts and uncles and then he added the residents in the nursing home that was in their neighborhood. Sally’s pride in what she had accomplished was visible in her smile.

Here is the central point: do this as a joint process. Not all extended families live close by, and not all families want to be together. However, try to talk about what is important in your life and then together, create your own ways in which you can do wonderful acts of kindness for your friends, relatives, and those in need. Engage your partner, your parents, and your children in this conversation. Share stories of past holiday celebrations and why they are memorable. In this way, you can create the opportunity to have a very different and meaningful experience.

Marion L. Usher, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington School of Medicine and Behavioral Sciences, is creator of, an interfaith workshop for Jews and their partners.

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  • chrisbrown12

    As a footnote I thought I’d mention that the Chanukah tradition of lighting candles is in some way or another related to the German Advent tradition. I leave it to others to decide whether they are related or not.