Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Jewish holidays matter to me

OK, I think I need to elaborate a bit on the whole religious holiday thing from yesterday. A lot of people wondered why, if we're not religious, we would choose to celebrate holidays of a specific religion. Why not just create our own traditions and "holidays"? And I think that's a totally reasonable question. But here's the thing. I don't see it as an either/or. I fully intend to create traditions and family gatherings that have nothing to do with any specific holiday, religious or otherwise.

But even though I don't relate to the religious aspects of my Jewish heritage, I do relate to the cultural aspects. And one thing that I didn't make clear in the rather flippant way that I discussed this yesterday is that I do want to pass that culture on to our kids. And I do want our kids to know about different religions, and the traditions associated with them, and know that if at some point they find a particular religion, whether it's one of our ancestral religions or not, that speaks to them, that will be totally OK and we will be supportive. I don't want our kids to be in the dark about religion.

But, the flip side of not being religious but still identifying culturally as Jewish is that yeah, I do think that I can, to a certain extent, pick and choose which aspects of Judaism I want to embrace and celebrate with my kids. If there's a holiday that I know nothing about, and don't identify with, and don't feel compelled to celebrate with my kids, then I won't, and that's OK, the same way that not every Christian family celebrates the Epiphany, for example. I don't feel compelled by any religious standards to adhere to every tenet of the Jewish religion. But I do want my kids to grow up with some understanding of Jewish culture, and to participate in traditions and rituals that other Jewish people also participate in.

The other thing is that yeah, I was being flip when I referred to Passover as a special Jewish Thanksgiving. I mean, I love Thanksgiving as a holiday and I think that it encourages positive behaviors--a day of rest, a day of gathering, a day of making an effort to be with those we care about, a day to sit back and take stock in all the good things we have going on in our lives. I see no problem with celebrating Passover similarly, or with drawing the comparison.

But, when I made that comparison, I didn't mean that I was going to announce, "Hey! It's Passover! Let's all spend awhile stuffing ourselves full of food we don't eat very often!" and leave it at that. I was not raised religious but I still learned the story of Chanukah, and understood the gist of what I was singing in the blessings, even though I don't speak Hebrew. Similarly, I think it's entirely possible to share the background behind the holidays, discuss the stories and the reasons why we're observing the holiday together, talk about the different ways that different people celebrate those holidays, explain what a seder is and where it came from--but not necessarily spend a day analyzing religious texts. We can have a Sabbath dinner and talk about its origins and the meaning of the day of rest--without incorporating the Torah.

I don't mean for this to be offensive for people who are religious and who do feel that there is a certain way that holidays should be celebrated. I personally do not feel that way. But I do feel that being Jewish has to do with a lot more than just your religion. And I like that culture, that solidarity. I think the shared history, good and bad, is something that you can't escape and something that I don't want to escape. It's something that I want to share with my own kids in a way that I feel comfortable with, in a way that feels right for us, even if it isn't the way that other people choose to share that same background with their own kids.

So yeah. Non-religious family traditions like game night and celebrating milestones and all the rest? Absolutely. But I do want to raise my kids knowing a bit about what it means to be Jewish in a non-religious sense, and knowing about many religions as faiths that exist and options that may call to them. And I don't see a problem with observing those holidays, both Christian and Jewish, in a way that fits our family.


  1. I'm going to refer friends, family and in-laws to this post when the questions eventually are slung our way. =)

  2. "And I do want our kids to know about different religions, and the traditions associated with them, and know that if at some point they find a particular religion, whether it's one of our ancestral religions or not, that speaks to them, that will be totally OK and we will be supportive. I don't want our kids to be in the dark about religion."

    This - you said it perfectly. We're raising Madeline as a Christian, Lutheran specifically, but she will know about everything else, too. It's not only a matter of choice, but of respect for other cultures.

  3. I wonder if you might feel differently if there was a community of Jewish families near you. Perhaps even a synagogue. Having that sense of community is one of the pillars of Judaism, and it adds so much fun and excitement to the practice of holidays and also the mitzvahs.

    Judaism is quite easy to practice - and I would imagine that a great deal of your life is already in line with its teachings. It's a lot of Golden Rule, doing good deeds, retelling our history, and being grateful for all we have and all we're able to share.

    I think the sentiments and the community are some of the best parts - I'd keep that way above Chanukah.

  4. Im not religious but i celebrate all the jewish holidays anyway too. Its a family thing. Once upon a time my parents lived in Ukraine where you had to hide your religion so its important to feel free to be jewish in the United States. Even if its bootleg jewish.

  5. I completely agree with you. I think religion is more cultural than religion realizes it is, if you follow me. That is, I think sometimes when religious participants are participating in what they think is religion, they're actually participating in culture---which is why they get so twisted up if they see non-religious people participating, and also why they shouldn't.

  6. Maybe someone will find this offensive too, but I have always secretly wanted to be Jewish. I love their holidays!

  7. My mother tried desperately to raise me to be religious. Unfortunately, I was super-rebellious and wound up getting kicked-out of Hebrew school and never made it to my Bat Mitzvah. The town I grew up in was not diverse at all, and I was one of two Jewish kids in my school. At that time, I was embarrassed to be Jewish. When I turned 18, I moved to Philly and began to embrace my heritage. I become more and more connected to it as the years pass.I spent last month in Israel. I am thinking of joining my local Jewish community center. I am even considering a program for adults to get Bat Mitzvahed.