My Sunday struggle

Of all the tasks of being a single mom, I never once considered attending church would become the most taxing.When my darling daughter hit 18 months, she ceased to find zip-lock bags filled with gold-fish crackers or kid-size containers of sliced bananas enough to hold her attention through a complete Sunday service. The smiles and goofy looks of other attendees, seated behind us at Unity of New York, no longer held the mystery they once did. You see. Dear Reader, Julia had found her voice. And was set on using it.

As a championship talker myself, I respect anyone making their voice heard. However, two weeks ago, when, in the midst of Paul Tenaglia’s talk, Julia chortled out a loud and long “HEYYYY!!!!!” to the delight of everyone in attendance at the service – except her mortified mother.

“Yes, there’s one of God’s amazing gifts right there in front!” the minister said.

Laughter and applause rolled down from the rear of sanctuary, the balcony, from my right and my left. And Julia applauded too. But as I watched her tiny palms crash together in delight, I knew my days in the main sanctuary were numbered.

I tried taking Julia on a walkabout in the back area where the books and fliers and welcome table are set up. After thirty minutes of watching her roll like a log across the carpet during the meditation, by the end of the service, I knew there was no going back. Toddlerhood had hit.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Carla, my church pal, said. “ Sure, babies talk, everyone accepts that. At least you weren’t that woman with the crying baby. Did you see they asked her to step out?”

Carla always sees the Unity side of things. Problem was, although Julia typically keeps her wailing to a minimum, I feared she’d have a sudden change of personality. After all, every time the minister asked us to “go within” Julia went without, with a yodel, a yelp, or a “HELLO!” to our nearest neighbor.

“You know, I just didn’t go out when all of you were young,” my mom said later, all the way from Michigan. “And when you guys became old enough for Sunday school, I sat down there with you.”

Funny, I don’t remember Mom sitting in Sunday school, but I do clearly remember my brothers and me housed in the basement of New Bethel Baptist Church– me with the itchy crinoline biting into the backs of my thighs, wishing I could spend the money my mom had allotted for the collection plate on candy after the service.

Church vs. Child Behavior

Since the days of having an Easter speech to memorize and spring dresses to wear (and bear) in the lukewarm spring days of Michigan, the act of attending church, for me, has become vitally important. Unity Church of New York is my spiritual and creative haven. Lead by the magnetic and frequently hilarious Paul Tenaglia, church is a weekly event I rarely miss. Aside from the sense of community, it’s the one place in New York City where if you tell a member you plan to the write the next great American novel that will break all downloads records on The New York Times, Amazon and Barnes and Noble – combined! –  then they are happy to affirm that vision with you. We run a can-do church.

My not attending service wasn’t an option. However, attending church wasn’t working out either – with the wee lass.

Maybe there’s hope. Last week Julia did half the touring around she did two Sundays before. And a lot less yodeling. Maybe because I had already given up something: my preferred seat, of eight years, down in front, first row, left hand side. Lately I made camp in the back of the church, near the restrooms, in the Baby Ghetto, where the other parents of small, new walkers, new talkers, tiny explorers setting out to see new lands, were gathered. I kept my ear cocked to hear the word of God, picking up fifty percent at best.

So far Julia, Jesus and God are neck and neck.

Only fourteen more months to go until my kid can attend Sunday school. Until then, I’ll keep prayed-up, as the old folks say. After all if Jesus could turn water into wine, he can help me find a way to keep Julia entertained, at least between the hour of 11:00 and 12:30 on Sundays.

Well, it’s 10:45. Time to mount up.

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Our son has a Christmas tree at his dad’s. Am I OK with this?

For parents of different faiths, December often brings holiday challenges. In a family affected by divorce, challenges can be amplified if parents have joint custody.

Before we married, my ex-husband and I decided we would have a Jewish home. He grew up in a secular family who celebrated Christmas with no religious significance, so we decided we’d spend Christmas with his parents but would not observe it ourselves. He agreed — but he really wanted a Christmas tree, the seasonal decoration that reminded him of his favorite childhood memories.

Though I knew some Jews who had Christmas trees in their homes, this was not the tradition in my family. In fact, I was raised with the precept that it was inappropriate to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. I didn’t feel jealous of my friends who had a tree, but I did enjoy the tradition, helping my friend Andrea and her family decorate their tree and sipping hot cocoa next to a cozy fireplace with the smell of fresh pine in the air.

But when we were getting married and thinking of starting a family, I couldn’t reconcile my need to assert my Jewish identity with the idea of having anything remotely Christian in my home. I stubbornly insisted there be no tree, and he reluctantly gave up, embracing the traditions of candlelight and latkes instead.

Now that we’re divorced, our son spends four nights a week with me and three nights with his dad. He attends a Jewish pre-school, where he learns all about Jewish holidays and traditions — and, in keeping with our pre-marital agreement, spends Christmas with his father and grandparents. Since our separation, my ex-husband has resumed the tradition of having a Christmas tree in his home. However, he has also been dedicated to observing Hanukkah, putting up equal amounts of blue and silver stars as he does red and green holly. He even lights a menorah with our son whenever they’re together on Hanukkah; this year, the three of us lit candles to commemorate the first night.

While I appreciate the equity with which my ex-husband observes the holidays, I worry that our son will become confused about his religious identity. Recent conversations with him have magnified these concerns:

“Mommy, why don’t you have a Christmas tree like Daddy?”

“Because I’m Jewish and Daddy’s not. I celebrate Hanukkah, and Daddy celebrates Christmas.”

“But Daddy celebrates Hanukkah, too.”

How can I explain why his father celebrates both holidays but his mother doesn’t? I expressed to my ex-husband my concern with how we’ve been discussing the holidays and my desire to be unified in our approach. I told him I feel uncomfortable saying he is “Christian” because he’s not, really — and I don’t want to define him as “not Jewish” because it’s odd to define someone by what they aren’t rather than what they are. He responded thoughtfully that these discussions should be centered around diversity, suggesting that we should say:

“There are all different kinds of people in the world, who have different beliefs and celebrate different things, and that’s what makes the world so interesting… and everybody has a right to believe in what they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.”

I liked this answer, which was keeping with the values I hoped we were instilling in our son.

He continued, “We could explain that you don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate Hanukkah, and you don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas. If a friend or family member observes any holiday, it’s nice to help them celebrate.” He compared this to helping someone celebrate their birthday, even if it’s not your own — an idea I knew would make sense to our almost-4-year-old son.

Our conversation made me doubt my previous stance. Had my thinking been too tribal? After all, the origins of the Christmas tree are neither Jewish nor Christian, per se, but an amalgam of traditions translated across centuries. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.”

Why couldn’t we, as he suggested, simply commemorate one another’s rituals? And if my Hebrew ancestors had beautiful evergreen trees in their homes, why couldn’t we? Though I had hoped to have a singularly Jewish home and family, the reality has played out differently, as is the case for so many families in this diverse landscape of modern life. My ex-husband’s approach is idealistic at its core — to live in a world where we can all maintain our individual beliefs and traditions while celebrating our differences.

But can we celebrate our differences without diluting the traditions we hold dear? This is the question most interfaith families face, especially in December. I have started to think that observing a secular Christmas will not diminish a lifetime of Jewish education and rituals. The most vital thing to me is that my son values his Jewish identity while respecting others’ traditions. Maybe decorating a tree at his dad’s house won’t take that away from him, after all.

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