Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

A Menorah on the Table and a Tree in the Window

My religiously confused daughters live under one ecumenical roof.

  santamenorah.jpg“It’s a celebration of winter," my wife said.  "It smells nice.”  She was getting annoyed.

“Its called a Christmas tree,” I countered.  “Christ-Mass.”  I thought that by parsing the word 'Christmas', my point would perhaps become more obvious.

"Christmas is a secular term," she responded.  "At least it is to me.”  She wasn't budging.  

“How can Christ-Mass be secular?” I muttered, this time more to myself.  It was a done deal. I was once again losing our seasonal argument.  

Happy Chrismakah.  Or Hanakus.  Or Chrismakwanzakah.  

Diaspora used to be easier before we got so ecumenical.

As a Jewish guy from a traditional American Jewish family (we ate bacon on ski trips but never in our home), I must reckon with the fact that I have joined the ranks of mixed religion families.  My wife, though of Eastern European descent, is not Jewish.  According to my parents, her Latvian heritage and thus her parents’ war experience conferred the requisite suffering for their blessings.  Despite all that, it is odd how this particular season plays with the sense of self that we all bring to something as scientifically arbitrary as what religion we are born into.  In fact, I admit to recently taking comfort in a local Bat Mitzvah announcement for someone named something like Rachel McCormick.  As Tevya would remind us, “it’s a new world, Golde.”

But then, there are my kids.  

What do I tell my kids? 

We’d like December to be about something other than gifts of course, but how do we create religious experience out of a mixed tradition that takes place during a season that tries its best to be paradoxically both secular and simultaneously evangelical.  Can’t we have Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men without being so darn organized?

When my daughter was 4, she played often with the little boy next door.  For hours they would sit in the treehouse, discussing batman and popsicles and all manner of important things.  One Sunday, the little boy asked my daughter if we might join him for a movie at his house.  We were swinging on a hammock under a big maple tree in the back yard, a warm June wind gently rustling the freshly mowed grass.  “Sure!” my daughter exclaimed.  The boy was slightly older, and this was a big deal, being invited to an older kid’s house. 

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“Oops,” he said, frowning.  “I forgot that it’s Sunday.  We only watch movies about Jesus on Sunday.”

“Who’s Jesus?”  My daughter asked.  She hadn’t heard of any of his movies.

The little boy stopped the hammock from swinging and stared at us as if he were seeing something new and strange.  “What do you mean, 'who’s Jesus?'”

My daughter giggled.  She really had his attention now.  “Is he a super-hero?”

Well, sort of, I thought, but I kept this to myself.  Self discovery is too rich to be thwarted by sardonic adult irony.

The little boy’s eye’s widened.  “How can you not know who Jesus is?”  Our neighborhood has a large Mormon population, and it hadn’t occurred to my daughter’s friend that we might not be members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  

“I dunno,” my daughter responded.  

“We’re Jewish,” I explained to both of them.  My wife and I had decided when we married that our children would be raised Jewish.  “We don’t go to Church.”

“Who’s Jesus,” my daughter repeated.  She was clearly perturbed at the lack of a clear and concise answer to what seemed like a simple question.

And, in this manner, my daughter was introduced to formal religious indoctrination.  For the rest of the summer, the little boy told my daughter all about Jesus, and when my wife and I announced to her that we were due to have another child, she told us that if it were a girl she’d like us to name her Christina.  

“Sweetie, Jews don’t usually name their children after Christ.” I told her.

“But why not,” she responded.  “He sounds like a pretty great guy.”

And he was.  

So, here I am, now some 5 years later, a tree in my house, a menorah on my table, a couple of religiously confused daughters under my roof, and  I continue to try to shake off the lingering discomfort that comes from this melting pot of rituals and mixed beliefs.

I have heard pundits call families such as mine the Death of Judaism.  I have heard others call my family the Future of Judaism.  My goodness, this religion thing can be loaded and contradictory.

Then, two days ago on New Year's Eve, my youngest child was tossing a blue balloon into the air while we listened to an old hippy sing Woody Guthrie songs at a First Night festival in downtown Boston.  The balloon would slowly float down, like an angel I suppose, and she would squint her eyes and concentrate, her tongue slightly out of her mouth as she adjusted her movements to match the balloon’s quixotic descent.  Every time she caught it she would smile and jump with glee at her accomplishment.  And, though it is cliché, I felt chills run down my back.  There is something bigger, I realized, some kind of magic that gives meaning, and the magic starts to make sense when you watch your child catch a balloon.  

On the drive home my older daughter commented on the beauty of the Christmas lights.  My mother comments on the same thing, I thought.  From generation to generation.  L’dor Vador, in Hebrew.  Connection, meaning, and feeling.  

Plus, the tree smells nice.  

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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