Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Holiday Spirit

I used to be a Jewish chauvinist. When I was a teenager, I refused to go to two cousins' weddings because they were marrying non-Jews. One relative, a first cousin of my father's, was making a commitment with someone who'd stood with her through the death of her mother.

But I sent her a note explaining why I couldn't attend her nuptials and felt I was doing the right thing. Well, they've been happily married for more than 35 years, both are wonderfully sweet, and, after I met and married a nice Catholic girl in the early 90s, I've apologized for my myopia several times in letters and in person.

Interestingly, after Verna and I got engaged someone sent me an article that said intermarriage finishes the work of Hitler. I'd love to say I had my interfaith-we-are-the-world epiphany before the ugly responses to my mixed marriage. But that would not be true.

I grew up in a very Jewish household. My maternal grandmother, who was never dogmatic, even tore her toilet paper before the Jewish Sabbath so she wouldn't violate the Biblical and Talmudic directives against work on the day of rest. My mother once threatened serious illness after I asked out a non-Jewish girl when I was 19.

But when I fell in love with someone who was not Jewish and I encountered varying degrees of hostility, I realized, shamefully, that my teenaged behavior had been unbecoming. It was easy to criticize those who seemed so narrow-minded, but my response when I was about 15 was certainly on the spectrum of insularity. So who was I to criticize?

On the other hand, many in the Jewish community continue during the Christmas holiday to wax religious about the Christmas dilemma. What should Jews and Jewish parents do when all things Santa, reindeer, elves, present, jingle bells, carols and more are splashed across every inch of our culture? Can we truly preserve our faith with a little Chinese food and a movie?

Obviously it's different for me now. As Maya likes to say, "Dad, you're Jewish, but Miguel and I are Jewish and Catholic." And that means we do celebrate both holidays. We have a Christmas tree and each light a menorah.

After my early dalliance with Jewish chauvinism, I can easily admit that I like Christmas, and have always liked the spirit of the holiday. Like many Christians, my biggest issue with Christmas these days is that we've allowed the holiday to become way too commercial. Even Maya responds that Christmas is about "getting presents," which I know is normal for an almost six-year-old, but I don't want that idea reinforced much longer.

So we go give as much as possible, to each other, to strangers, with time and money. Last year we bought Starbucks gift cards and handed them out to people on the streets. It was a small (and maybe token) gesture, but I want Miguel and Maya to be exposed to giving. And I try to model that all year long.

I do see how people devolve into confusion and outright nastiness towards cultural and religious differences at this time of year, and it's not good for us as Americans or as people of the world. Several years ago, the local Jewish paper, which I've freelanced for since 2003, ran an article about an Orthodox rabbi who forbid his congregants to read from the Torah (first five books of Moses) on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, saying it was a mark against God. When Verna and I read that, I cringed and she railed against the prejudice of some of my religion's adherents.

"Now you know why I would never convert," she'd said.

Judaism and Catholicism are part of my religious and spiritual life now and will be for a long, long time. And that's a good thing. I am Jewish, but I do enjoy celebrating Christianity with my loved ones. And learning more about faith from different perspectives.

I wish the fringe religious group in Florida who pressured Lowe's to pull it's advertising from a reality show based on Muslim Americans could have absorbed some of the wisdom I came to later in life. I finally learned that if there is a God, then we are all that Deity's children. Instead of railing against people who worship and celebrate differently, why don't find time for tolerance, respect, inclusion, and sublime wonder at the diversity of our country (and planet)?

If I had to do it all over again, I'd attend both weddings, celebrate with abandon, and share familial joy. But maybe my early chauvinism and later renunciation of that behavior has helped me become more sensitive to my interfaith family and to solidify a commitment to preserving that appreciation (and all that entails) for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Way Past The 3 Rs

Well, I haven't hunkered down to work on the memoir, so I might as well blog and write something. Life's been great and busy, which I imagine it is for many of us.

A few weeks ago I tried to rouse Miguel from his usual teenaged state of nighttime inactivity.

"C'mon, Miguel, brush your teeth, put in your headgear, and then we can watch some Dick," I said.

"Dad, that doesn't sound right."

"Dick Van Dyke. Dick Van Dyke," I said, referring to the classic TV DVDs we'd been viewing before bed. We'd started with Andy Griffith. "Why does it always have to be about that?"

"Because I'm 13," he responded.

And then I was thrust back to my own hormonally driven adolescence and I remembered, with all too much clarity, the irreverent humor and endless joke about sex, sexual acts, bodies, breasts, and the like that I shared with my friends.

So I realized I can use some of his reactions as teachable moments. This morning, for example, while I'm home with laryngitis (proving that God does have a sense of humor) and general malaise, I watched Miguel play one of his PS3 games, in which he skateboards through urban settings. His self-designed character was shirtless and sported a bikini-clad babe tattoo across his ripped abs.

"Miguel, what's up with the tattoo?" I asked. I am sure at this point he would've preferred I'd gone to work.

"It's just a tattoo," he said.

I then launched into a brief discussion (OK, I did most of the talking) about what it means to objectify women. I am pretty sure the concept of objectifying anyone went over his head, as it would've mine all those years ago. But I hope my message will eventually seep in.

"Miguel, I just don't want you to see women as functions of their bodies," I said as he manipulated his toggles.

For him, it's a game; for me, it's about life and values and how we position ourselves in the world. And, as he finishes eighth grade and enters high school amid a flurry of social interactions and experiences, I want my voice to be a prominent guide.

While I willingly accept the opportunity to help mould my teenaged son, I am not ready to explore sex education or anything related with Maya. Sometimes, though, I have no choice.

Last night, as she was getting ready for bed, she looked at a photo of Verna, Miguel, and me and said, "I was still in Mommy's tummy."

"Well, Maya, you were still with God in Heaven," I said.

"I was an angel?"

"Yes, you were an angel," I said.

"What happened to my wings when I was born?" she asked.

"God took them," I answered.

"Before I came out of Mommy's tummy?"

"Yes," I said.

"Is that how babies get born, from the tummy?" she asked.

"Some babies do," I said. "But most babies come out from the vagina."

Her eyes widened and she looked at me. "Really?"

We then had a discussion, with her asking most of the questions, about how God helps push the babies down the canal and then the doctor or nurse helps deliver them.

I was almost about to tell her about the stork and just make it easy on myself. Eventually we stopped talking about babies and birthing and she picked out of book for me to ready before bed, Fancy Nancy. But sometimes it's easier to deal with a slightly somnambulant teen versus a highly inquisitive kindergartener.

Parenting. Oy. I mean, joy.