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Holiday dilemma Local grandmother's book helps Jewish parents and children navigate through the Christmas season

When she was a child, Lois Miller Weinstein was part of the only Jewish family on her block, Hazeltine Avenue in Kenmore. Perhaps on many blocks.

So she couldn't help but notice how different things were in her house, come December. There wasn't a tree to decorate and she knew that Santa Claus wouldn't be stopping on her rooftop.

When she asked her parents why they didn't celebrate Christmas, she got a three-word answer: "Because we're Jewish."

"You weren't going any further with that question," said Weinstein. "There was one answer. It was the answer."

No one had ever taken the time to explain Christian beliefs about Christmas to her. Or what a Jew believes about Jesus, about a Messiah, about the meaning behind the holiday.

When Weinstein was rearing her four daughters, they posed the same questions she had asked her parents. "I brushed the question aside," she said. "But our kids were too bright and too inquisitive to stop with that."

There was one week, she recalls, when the questions couldn't be ignored any longer.

First, she saw a song sheet in her daughter's school folder with the song "Let's Celebrate Christmas at Our House." Then, when she was with her daughters at a mall, a friendly salesperson asked them if they'd been good and what they wanted Santa to bring them.

"Well, they had been good," said Weinstein, "But still Santa wasn't going to bring them anything. So they were upset. And here were these nice little girls and it was so unfair. They'd say, 'Why can't Santa come? I've been good.' "

"At that time, I wasn't equipped to give an answer," she said, "and in trying to find a way to do it, instead I found a void."

Nothing had been written that would give a complete and thoughtful answer.

So Weinstein, who was director of the Bureau of Jewish Education for three years, and executive director of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo New York for eight years, decided she'd do it.

To gain perspective and to make sure she was grounded in her own faith, Weinstein did a considerable amount of reading and also interviewed Jewish and Christian believers and clergy, who also reviewed the manuscript before she published it.

Then, she wrote a first-of-its-kind booklet "Explaining Christmas to the Jewish Child," which came out in 1981. Since then, 10,000 copies have been sold and are in use in temple schools and synagogue libraries in most states, as well as in Canada, Israel and Japan, with sales spreading since she started a Web site (www.explainingchristmas.com.)

Weinstein used the symbols of Christmas when she spoke to her daughters.

"I brought in a Nativity scene, with all the figurines," she said. "We listened to Christmas carols. We looked at pictures and discussed signs and decorations they saw in the world around them. It worked. They understood."

Now, as a grandmother to six, and with two Christian sons-in-law, Weinstein finds the information she researched so many years ago useful because it includes easy-to-assimilate central Jewish beliefs.

"The book is really written for Jewish parents, but now it can be used by the interfaith family, so the Christian member understands," she said.

Over the years, Weinstein has been invited to speak at conferences of both Jewish and Christian teachers and she gives tours of Temple Beth Zion to Christian groups.

When she speaks to them, Weinstein said, she makes the point that except for Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday, there wouldn't be a Christmas.

And that makes everyone take notice, she said.

"In 165 B.C., the Greek Syrians occupied the Holy Land and placed statues and idols in the Jewish temples," she explains. "For the Jews, God is an invisible God and they refused to bow to the idols. For the first time in history, the Jews fought back in a battle for religious freedom. They fought for the right to worship God and they won. Had they not done that, Judaism would have died. And if Judaism dies, then 165 years later, if the math is correct, Jesus is born.

"But he's not born as a Jew. There's no manger, there's no Bethlehem, there's no Paul to start Christianity.

So except for the resistance of the Jews, Jesus might have been born a Greek Syrian."

Weinstein said the most profound experience that she's had in putting the booklet together and sharing it with others is a deepened understanding of other faiths, while simultaneously strengthening her own faith.

"I taught my children to respect all religions and all people," said Weinstein. "I think that's the greatest gift I could give them."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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>Keeping the faiths

Tips from the Web site Interfaithfamily.com:

1. For interfaith families, experts say that it is OK to participate in the Christmas holiday as a way of respecting the spouse and family. You can tell your kids, "Today we're going to Grandma's house for Christmas because that is their holiday. We'll help celebrate, just as they help us celebrate Hanukkah.

2. Keep the focus on the children's needs. What kids most love about Christmas is not the presents but the family togetherness. Help children understand that they can enjoy Christmas and Hanukkah activities without betraying either parent or their religious upbringing.

3. If you are raising Jewish kids and they feel uncomfortable about singing Christmas carols in school, should you complain to the school or reassure your kids? Our experts say you can do both. You might speak with the principal about broadening the song repertoire to include singing Hanukkah songs.

4. Should you tell your in-laws that they shouldn't give your children Christmas presents (if you are raising them Jewish) or Hanukkah presents (if you are raising them Christian)? That is up to you. Some parents ask the grandparents to give gifts wrapped in paper that indicates the holiday the children celebrate.

5. If your children want a Christmas tree in your home and your Jewish spouse refuses, how should you handle it? Perhaps you had an agreement to celebrate Christmas at the grandparents' home, but now your kids (and you) want to celebrate in the home. Situations do change over time. Perhaps it is time for you and your partner to sit down for a talk. It would be important for each of you to explain what the holiday means to you. Share memories of when you were a child. Be clear about what the underlying issues are.

6. The main concern is how your family will live religiously throughout the year, not just for the month of December.

7. Allow your decisions to change as you and your family evolve. But pay attention to your inner feelings, to whether or not you feel comfortable with the practices your family evolves.

8. Work together to develop new traditions while recognizing each partner's needs. Denying a need will breed resentment, whereas negotiating a mutually acceptable way to meet it will validate what is most important.

9. If you are in a relatively new blended family, it is most important for children to have a sense of continuity and of traditions being preserved.

10. If you are in a blended family, your own children may not want to visit the parents of their new stepmother or stepfather for Christmas or Hanukkah, especially if this is not a holiday they have celebrated. If that is the case, it is probably not a good idea to force them. And if you are celebrating a holiday in your home that is new for your stepchildren, expect that the holiday may be awkward and uncomfortable for the first few years, until it becomes a tradition.

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