Family Differences

By Naomi Geschwind


As I write this I am sitting in my mother’s living room looking at a Christmas tree.

Admittedly, it is only a small tree, a mere foot high, shipped–pre-decorated down to a miniature string of lights and gold paper partridge on the top–by a catalog company in Oregon. But its essential message is in no way diminished by its small stature. It is a Christmas tree, a tannenbaum, a pagan symbol adapted by Christianity and associated virtually worldwide with the celebration of the winter festival of Christ’s Mass.

More interesting to me though, is the way it illustrates the varied individual identities that develop within intermarried families. Families, after all, usually share ties of blood, culture and spiritual orientation. Whenever any one of those ties is dropped, or severed, a healthy family adapts its behavior to compensate in the same way that some who lack the power of sight develop acute hearing.

As an illustration, consider that left to her own devices my mother would not have installed this object. So, the fact that it is here at all–flanked by a pair of large poinsettias, a flower she has never liked–leads me to see this tree as a form of compensation. It is actually strengthening the cultural tie because the bond of religion does not exist.

At this point I know that there are Jews out there thinking that intermarriage is the natural result of such religious laxity as permitting a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. Anyone who has jumped to that conclusion however needs to know a little more about the facts in the case. The most specific and telling fact being that my mother was not the Jew in my parent’s marriage.

No, it was my father–a product of 1930’s and 40’s Borough Park Orthodoxy–who “married out.”

“But what were you raised as?” people ask.

My answer is, “nothing,” but “American” or “secular Jew” might be more accurate.

Organized religion had no appeal to my parents. They felt it was more important to do acts of tzedakah, justice; tikkun olam, the repair of the world; and g’milus chesed, loving kindness; than to spend time in services praising a God of questionable existence. And, of course, they did not describe these things in those Hebrew terms, but that is what they amounted to.

We lived in a town that was 60 percent Jewish. We went to seders at my cousin’s home every year. We thought of ourselves as Jews because we knew that Hitler would have done so, too. But still, we celebrated Christmas.

I think that my parents found it easier to take the Christianity out of Christmas than to separate Judaism from even a minor festival such as Hanukkah.

So we put up a tree every year. But since we weren’t Christians, we topped it with a soft sculpture parrot rather than an angel or star. We also got and gave gifts, including a few every year ostensibly from Santa. Fluffy and Terry, the two longest-lived family cats, were quite generous, too.

That was normal, as far as we were concerned. What I now see as less usual is that we did all that despite the fact that my mother hated the holiday.

Any Jew could understand my father hating the holiday since it is forced upon everyone in America regardless of individual religious convictions. Then too, there are all those idols in the form of creche sets, which will not stay decently tucked away in homes but spill out into the streets. But my father was capable of ignoring things that did not matter.

My mother, however, cannot. And, when confronted by false sentimentality and kitsch, whatever the season–Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Mothers Day being similarly intrusive–she refuses to get involved.

Passover was important to her, though, and doing a seder with my father’s cousins was more eagerly anticipated than any of our familial Christmas get-togethers.

I was well into my adult life before the irony of that sank in. It was even longer before I recognized the effect of that paradoxical situation upon me.

For years I had explained my attraction and conversion to Judaism as an outgrowth of my father’s upbringing and influence. Thinking it through in the light of my mother’s feelings about religion made me see that my decision to be a Jew also grew out of my mother’s respect for Judaism.

So what is that Christmas tree doing over there by the window you ask? Who is it that requires this compensation?

I have a younger brother and sister. We were all raised in the same home and with the same parents, so we certainly share those ties of blood and culture I mentioned before. Yet, I am the only Jew in the immediate family.

I look at my secular upbringing and see the positive influences of religion. My sister, on the other hand, won’t even recite the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing that it violates the separation of church and state.

Yet, of the three of us, she is the most smitten with the appearance of Christmas. She even puts up a tree of her own every year, even though she is always far from her own home visiting my mother or her in-laws on the day itself.

My mother admits that the tree is a “pathetic attempt” to strengthen the familial cultural ties surrounding Christmas. She suspects that her son-in-law, although extremely polite about it, is nevertheless disappointed. Overall I would venture that it has been less successful than what she does for me, keeping a box of Shabbos candles in the house.

My brother-in-law is even more attached to the appearance of Christmas than my sister. Having been to his parent’s home at this time of year, I can say that I am not surprised, since I’ve been to department stores that do less than his mother by way of decoration.

Despite these differences, I know that we are much closer as a family than many I’ve seen who do share the same religion and holidays. That closeness may even have developed of necessity, because we lack support as a group. I cannot absolutely say, but I do suspect that I am a more tolerant person for having come from an intermarried family, and a person who worries less about the future for having become a Jew. It is a blessing to be able to recognize that I can live with that.


About Naomi Geschwind

Naomi Geschwind relocated to Philadelphia from Manhattan four years ago in search of a larger apartment and she is open to another move (if undertaken with her as-yet-unidentified bashert (sweetheart).) A graduate of Vassar and NYU, she is a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Jewish Exponent.