For A number of years now, books have been available for American Jewish children which reflect simultaneously on Christmas and Hanukkah. In days not quite beyond recall, the authors of such books would take pains to stress the importance of Jews remaining Jews–showing, for instance, how a Jewish child could rejoice in the holiday season without celebrating Christmas, or how a Jewish parent could preserve the integrity of Judaism without feeling like a Scrooge.
Thus, Kathryn Lasky’s Pageant (1986) portrayed a Jewish girl who revolts against playing a shepherd in her school’s annual Christmas drama. Similarly, in Eric A. Kimmel’s The Hanakkah Tree (1987) we learn that “only in Chelm” (a fictitious city comprising stupid Jews) could a peddler get away with selling such a non sequitur as a Hanukkah tree, while in Barbara Cohen’s The Christmas Revolution (1987) the young hero and heroine opt out of caroling to put on a play about the Maccabees. And in Susan Sussman’s There’s No Such Thing as a Hanukkah Bush, Sandy Goldstein (1986), the young Jewish protagonist finds the lines drawn very clearly by her mother:
“Can we have a Hanukkah bush?” I asked
softly. I felt warm tears float up into my eyes.
“There is no such thing,” she said. Her
knitting needles clicked quickly. I pushed the
candles around some more. I decided to try
“But Sandy Goldstein has….
“What Sandy Goldstein has is a Christmas
tree. And you know Jews do not believe in Christmas.”
Admittedly, Judaism in these books is a rather empty sort of religion, basically reduced to that which is not-Christian. At least, though, a child a decade ago would have gleaned from them a sense that Judaism was in fact different from Christianity; that this difference might matter; and that it might matter enough to require taking a stand.
Yet those were still the days when the full force of Jewish intermarriage patterns had not yet registered on the consciousness of American book publishers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Today, if the statistics are to be believed, more Jews are marrying Christians than Jews, and the stories on offer to the actual or prospective children of such unions have been suitably updated to reflect the new reality. In brief, where effort was once directed at justifying the costs of a necessary difference, now it is directed at celebrating the rewards of a mindless amalgamation.
For example, Susan Gertz’s Hanukkah and Christmas at My House (1992) and Margaret Moorman’s Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah & Christmas (1994) ask what it is like to grow up in a home where both Judaism and Christianity are practiced. The answer: children get to have double the fun. They can make latkes and spicy gingerbread; they can light the menorah and decorate the Christmas tree; they can tell the story of the Maccabees and the story of baby Jesus. Best of all, they get twice as many presents.
From the point of view of anyone even mildly concerned about the future of Judaism (or, for that matter, Christianity), this portrait of religion as basically so much candy in a candy box may be worrisome enough. But in some quarters of the new dispensation, something more aggressive and even more troubling seems to be developing, and it has been made a little clearer in this past year’s crop of interfaith children’s books.
Consider Joan C. Hawxhurst’s Bubbe and Gram: My Two Grandmothers,(*) which follows the daily routine of a young girl as she learns what it means to be Jewish and Christian at the same time.
“My dad’s mother is Jewish. I call her Bubbe. My mom’s mother is Christian. I call her Gram.” So begins a fascinating tale of alternating faiths. For every mezuzah of Bubbe’s, Gram has a picture of Jesus; for every story about baby Moses who “saw miracles happen,” there is Gram’s story about Jesus and how he, too, “saw miracles happen.” When Bubbe ups the ante, Gram matches her, bet for bet. Bubbe coaxes the little one to play dreidel with her at Hanukkah time, but she is all Gram’s at Christmas, when she is allowed to “play with the little stable with baby Jesus inside.” “Sometimes Bubbe says the Shema out loud to me”; “sometimes Gram says the Lord’s Prayer out loud to me.”
So far, so vanilla. Wonder of wonders, moreover, both Bubbe and Gram assure their grand-daughter of their serene indifference to the fact that she is being simultaneously exposed to a second set of choices, and their no less serene acceptance of any decision she will eventually make between them: theirs is a sporting competition. But wait: although the text does scrupulously take turns, now Bubbe, now Gram, now Gram, now Bubbe, the illustrations are another matter. Gram, it emerges, is lithe and slender, Bubbe short and fat; while Gram sports not a trace of gray in her fashionably bobbed do, and wears sexy stretch pants and attractive zippered jackets, Bubbe has frizzled gray hair and spectacles, and is clothed in a frumpy yellow house-dress. Down to the details, Gram does better, her high heels and briefcase contrasting sharply with Bubbe’s ancient tennis shoes and huge old-lady handbag. In brief, Bubbe, who looks 40 years older than Gram, could be Gram’s Bubbe.
These wildly inequitable pictures reach out through the cloying narrative to tell a different and perhaps truer story. The author of Bubbe and Gram is a Methodist, married to a Jew. Can it be that what reason forbids, emotion has permitted her (through the medium of an illustrator) to do: namely, to make a direct visual appeal to her own child? “Pick me,” say the illustrations, “pick me!” And who in his right mind would not?
Some such message appears to be conveyed not only in children’s stories but by at least one segment of a growing industry catering to the phenomenon of interfaith marriage. According to a recent account in the weekly Forward, “a well-spring of new products and services is bubbling up to meet the needs of this burgeoning market,” now estimated at about 1 million households with about 1.3 million children. Among the products are special holiday greeting cards, special certificates “designed to imitate a ketuba” (Jewish marriage contract), special newsletters, even special trips to Israel. Particularly active in the industry is a company called Dovetail Publishing, responsible (as it happens) not only for Bubbe and Gram but also for a bimonthly interfaith magazine named, appropriately enough, Dovetail, and a book, Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies: Samples and Sources,([dagger]) to be followed later this year by Interfaith Naming Ceremonies.
Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies turns out to share more with Bubbe and Gram than the same author and publisher. In its pages we learn that each and every intermarriage broadens “the circle of love and understanding in this world.” If so, however, it is only by a willingness not merely to falsify the differences between Judaism and Christianity but radically to distort the entire history of their relations. Thus, in one “sample” wedding ceremony, a priest tells Karen and Dan:
One of the most blatant denials of [the divine]
image has been the enmity between
Jews and Christians. There has been hatred
and rancor and spite and almost everything
else between Christians and Jews–almost
everything else except love. Your marriage is a
small and yet gigantic step in the reversal of
that trend . . . a sign, a very precious sign, that
nothing–not even 2,000 years of enmity–is
One does not know whether to laugh or to cry at this portrait of mutual and reciprocal persecution: are we now to expect revisionist histories of the Crusades, of the Spanish Inquisition, and all the rest, with the Jews on the offensive against hapless Christian minorities? It would be easier to laugh if there were not, in fact, rabbis who, in their zeal to defer to the intermarrying tide, have begun to issue what look suspiciously like apologies for Jewish existence–if not, quite yet, for millennia of alleged Jewish crimes against Christianity. Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies provides a glimpse into the souls of such rabbis, one of whom reminds us how important it is to be “warm” and “inclusive” rather than “exclusive”–exclusivity being defined in this context as wedding practices that can offend those “put off by the Hebrew” or by anything else that might once have been considered to express the heart of Judaism.
What, then, passes for a suitably “warm” and “inclusive” ceremony? Well, Nancy and Harry, for example, had a priest officiate at their wedding: no Hebrew, certainly, but a sprinkling of “songs from Fiddler on the Roof” (presumably not the one that goes, “who would’ve thought that I’d be wandering so, far from the home I loved?”). Helen and Tom had just a minister, while Kathryn and Lance went for a minister-rabbi team, under a huppah (canopy) with a large brass cross next to it; in the interests of “inclusiveness,” Lance, the Jewish groom, saw to it that no liturgical references were made to the Jewish attachment to Zion. As for Patricia and David, they had a priest and a rabbi, “unity candles,” one prayer of St. Francis, and seven wedding blessings, matching those recited at a Jewish wedding in number but most assuredly not in content.
In the bimonthly Dovetail, too, Judaism comes across less as an equal contender than as the (compliant) object of a friendly takeover. While the magazine’s official position is “that there are no definitive answers to the questions facing interfaith families,” nondefinitiveness always seems to end up favoring Christianity. Not that the Jews involved seem particularly conscious of the fact; for them, nondefinitiveness is the name of the game. Here is David Howard, who is married to a Catholic Hispanic and who chairs the education program for a Jewish community in Ojai, California:
To be a Jew and a Christian you needn’t
resolve the mysteries of the Holy Trinity or
accept Jesus as your own personal savior, or on
the other hand accept some Orthodox
halakhic point of view; you only have to live
your life involved in both communities. You
may or may not have a bar/bat mitzvah, keep
kosher or take communion; you even may or
And here is Oscar A. Rosenbloom, cantor of an “interfaith community” in Palo Alto, who has composed his own prayer for the harvest festival of Sukkot:
Some of us gather in the name of
Some of us gather without either
Some of us gather influenced by
And whomsoever [sic] we are
To experience the Sense of
Divine Presence in Each of Us
The Many Meanings Carried
Just as with Bubbe and Gram, however, some of the “Many Meanings Carried/In the Rituals We Celebrate” turn out to have rather a sting in their dovetail. Thus, Reverend David Matthew, a Presbyterian minister, tells us (Dovetail, February-March 1996) what he likes most about interfaith worship. It is that Christians, through their new proximity to Jews, can be warned against human habits to which they, too, are susceptible: “Are there no Christian Pharisees? Are there no Christian legalists out there. . . ?” For their part, Reverend Matthew goes on, Jews can be reminded that “Paul was himself a Jew, a Pharisee, a legalist, who turned to Jesus in the middle of his life, and then found himself being sent to prison by the Jewish leaders….”
In a similar if somewhat less noxious vein, a set of guidelines for interfaith worship “developed through a cooperative effort of the National Council of Churches and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations,” and reprinted in the August-September 1996 Dovetail, recommends against “pointedly Jewish prayers” in interfaith services but for “the nonpolemical use of Jesus’ name and teachings in readings from Christian scriptures.” And in the same issue of Dovetail, the celebrants at an interfaith Thanksgiving service interrupt their main order of business–“Gracious God, give us the power . . . to recycle our waste, . . . to build more fuel-efficient means of transportation, to develop environmentally safe sources of fuel and power…. Hear our prayer”–to proclaim that although “we are all part of one global village,” it is especially distressing that “Palestinians continue to suffer under the occupation of Israel.” Hear our prayer.
Which brings us back to the precursors to today’s interfaith books for children. There was, to be sure, much to criticize in them–most especially, the notion that Judaism defines itself primarily by what it is not. In retrospect, one might say that a Judaism so flimsy that it could only think to object to singing Christmas carols in school was not a Judaism armed against the lure of the intermarriage canopy. But who could have guessed that so few years would pass before there would be reason to yearn for the simple, stunning clarity of There’s No Such Thing as a Hanakkah Bush, Sandy Goldstein?
(*) Illustrated by Jane Bynum-Nwulu. Dovetail Publishing, 32 pp., $12.95.
([dagger]) Selected and with an introduction by Joan C. Hawxhurst. Dovetail Publishing, 93 pp., $19.95.
Wendy Shalit, whose articles in COMMENTARY include “A Ladies’ Room of One’s Own” (August 1995) and “A Feminist Seder” (January 1995), is a senior at Williams College.