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Q & A with… author Anita Diamant: Navigating the holiday season

Anita Diamant

By Stacey Dresner ~

Bestselling author Anita Diamant will discuss “Chanukah & Christmas: Navigating the Holiday Season” in a parenting conversation with Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, of Jewish Geriatric Services on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 9 a.m. during a breakfast program at the Springfield JCC and at 3:30 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton.  
Diamant is the author of 11 books including the best-selling “The Red Tent” and six non-fiction guides to contemporary Jewish life.
Born in Newark, NJ, Diamant’s family moved to Colorado when she was 12. She attended the University of Colorado for 2 years, but transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she was awarded a BA in Comparative Literature. She studied for her Master’s degree at State University, New York. After moving to Boston in 1975, she started work as a freelance journalist for publications such as the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Globe, New England Monthly, Yankee, Self, and Parenting. Her non-fictioon books include “The New Jewish Wedding,”  “The New Jewish Baby Book,” and “Living a Jewish Life.” Her first novel, the bestseller  and book club favorite, “The Red Tent,” published in 1997,  is based on Chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis, and is the story of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah.
The Dec. 4 Springfield program is co-sponsored by Try A Synagogue (a program of Congregation B’nai Torah, Sinai Temple, Temple Beth El, the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, funded by a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation), JFS of Western Massachusetts, and the Springfield JCC.  The Northampton event is co-sponsored by the Upper Valley Synagogue Collaborative (Congregation Ahavas Achim, Congregation Beit Ahavah, Congregation B’nai Israel, Congregation Rodphey Shalom, Congregation Sons of Zion, Jewish Community of Amherst, Temple Israel, and a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation).
The Ledger recently spoke with Diamant about families and their stresses surrounding the winter holidays.

Is this program for interfaith families, families where one parent has converted, or any family?
A: It is definitely for everyone. Most of the people who come to these either have non-Jewish family, which is most of us, and often they are either interfaith or conversionary families with non-Jewish grandparents and other family members where family issues can come up. But for families where everyone is Jewish, Christmas can be a real challenge emotionally and every other which way. We live in a culture – actually in an economy that is driven by consumerism and Christmas is the big event. So nobody gets out of this alive.

What are the particular stresses for interfaith and conversionary families around the holidays?
A: There are lots. For somebody who grew up celebrating Christmas it is very often the holiday connected with wonderful memories, of family coming together, of great food, of warmth, of traveling to see grandparents. If you have made a decision to raise a Jewish child in a Jewish  home, that means putting some of that aside —  if not all of that aside – at least within the walls of your own home. And that can feel like you are giving up a whole lot and not being appreciated for it. So there is that side of it. In some families where the non-Jewish partner just wants a little tree, the Jewish partner can see the tree not as a tree, but as a cross, as something very religious, while for the non-Jewish partner it is really not. It is a symbol of childhood and winter, and it is not a religious symbol.
Then there are the questions about grandparents on both sides. Jewish grandparents get very anxious at this time of year and worry if you take your children to see their Christian grandparents and celebrate in their home. They worry about that and may get on your case about that. On the other side Christian grandparents whose offspring are raising Jewish children can feel shut out and rejected, and may want to overcompensate and give their Jewish grandchildren a lot of Christmas because they are not getting it at home.
The thing is, I am making these up, and every family is different and every family is its own constellation of joys and challenges. For some people wrapping paper is a big issue, believe it or not, for other families attending church is the question with family members.
And children will bring their own two cents into it too. If they are the only Jewish child in the classroom and they are put on the spot – some kids actually like that and become the authority and center of attention, and other kids really don’t like that and want only to blend in, which means they want Christmas. So again, every situation is really dependent on personalities as well.

So what should these families do?
A: I don’t prescribe what people should do ever. I’ll  make suggestions. I have lots of stories of how other families have done things and made choices. But that comes not just from me… people in the room will often stand up and say, ‘You know what we do? And it has worked out really well…” and that kind of sharing I find very powerful and affirming. People can feel isolated this time of year, so knowing that you are in a room full of people who are facing similar questions and issues – it is good to have company.

Do you think that families with both Jewish and non-Jewish grandparents have a duty to share time with both sides of the families?
A: People make all of these decisions. Sometimes there is an attempt to give children both under their roof, so they will celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas. Of course, if that is the only holiday you celebrate all year that is sending a particular kind of message about what does it mean to be Jewish – or what does it mean to be Christian for that matter?
And then there are families where the decision has been made whether somebody has converted or who hasn’t converted, that the children are being raised as Jews and the non-Jewish partner participates in that and that means Daddy has a tree and we help Daddy celebrate his holiday, but we are not going to. And that can be confusing for a 4-year-old, but it may not be that confusing for an 8-year-old. So if you are clear and consistent I think kids can roll with it.
I think visiting non-Jewish parents at Christmas is a lovely thing to do. Some families make Thanksgiving the big family holiday – it’s not a religious holiday, it’s neutral, very joyful, with good food and great memories.

“Chanukah & Christms: Navigating the Holiday Season” is  free and open to the community. Childcare will be available during the morning event. For more information, call (413) 737-4313, ext. 121.

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  • Convert
    November 29, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Why are intermarried and conversionary families so often referred to interchangeably? (“What are the particular stresses for interfaith and conversionary families around the holidays?” and Anita Diamant’s response to that question that makes no distinction) A conversionary family, by definition, is a family with two Jewish spouses. Like intermarried families, there are usually grandparents of two faiths in the picture, which can create its own issues (although the issues may be quite different where the spouse has converted). But unlike intermarried families, the not-born-Jewish spouse has made a decision and taken actions to be fully Jewish (no judgment intended about the intermarried, simply stating what has factually taken place). When we treat the two as if they are the same, we are in effect, saying to the convert that their conversion is meaningless, that regardless of what they did to get where they are, there is no real difference between them and someone who has not converted.

    If it’s important for the Jewish community to welcome the intermarried, then it is at least equally important to welcome the convert. Acting as if the convert is still intermarried is not welcoming.

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