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Interfaith family makes holiday compromise

Christmas, with all its decorated trees, stockings hung by the fireplace and, of course, shopping and presents, puts a lot of peer pressure on Jewish families — and it's compounded by the fact that a large percentage of Jews are in interfaith marriages.

It leaves this dilemma: How can you balance both faiths and deal with the Christmas shopping frenzy that is not part of the Jewish tradition?

Gretsky and Micah Lieberman solve the conflict this way: they don't have a television, so their kids' consumer tastes are not fed; family members give each other only one present (plus one from Santa); they have lots of holiday social events and dinners for the whole family; and they decorate the house with symbols from both Jewish and Christian traditions.

It works, they say, and satisfies both holidays, especially with Hanukkah (an eight-day holiday that starts on a different day each year) overlapping Christmas this year.

"We're getting away from the presents. We're doing lots of eating and socializing with friends," says Micah Lieberman, who was raised Jewish. "The kids are very excited about Santa. They put out carrots for the reindeer and oranges for Santa."

His wife, Gretsky, raised Catholic, learned holiday baking and decorating from her mother and is passing that along to their delighted daughters, Maya, 6, and Asia, 3. In addition, the kids love playing with the Jewish dreidel (a top that you spin) and gelt (chocolate-filled coins) and eating holiday latkes (potato pancakes).

Lightly decorated about the house are a table-top Christmas tree with Santas hung on it, a toy set showing a Jewish family in prayer, Christmas stockings made by Gretsky's mother and a tiny Jewish menorah, holding its nine candles.

Asked about the rituals of Christmas, Maya was candid. "I like it. I like opening the presents and what you get in the stockings. Also baking cookies."

Gretsky explains that the baking and exchanging of cookies at holiday social gatherings has become a delight for both kids and parents.

The couple goes light on religion, but they're raising their kids in the traditions of reform Judaism at Temple Emek Shalom, where about half of members are interfaith, that is, married to a non-Jew, says the temple's past president Eliza Kauder.

How to honor Judaism amid a plethora of Christian symbols is a subject of much discussion in the congregation every year, Kauder notes.

"There's a lot of peer pressure around the symbols of the tree and the gifts," says Kauder. "Hanukkah was not meant to be about gifts, but now it's 'keep up with the Joneses,' so most people give gifts. Some couples decide about it before marriage and some just punt each year. The kids want to fit in."

Hanukkah, a minor holiday in the Jewish cycle, honors the rebuilding of the Second Temple of Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century BCE. Called the "Festival of Lights," it is celebrated by lighting one of the eight candles of the menorah each night. It starts this year on Dec. 22.

The Liebermans object to the focus on consumerism in a holiday they want to celebrate as community, family and love — and Micah confesses, "It's hard not to be part of the shopping madness, but we just don't need 58 more pieces of plastic stuff."

Although they have banished television from the home, they say it's amazing that their eldest child still knows all about Hannah Montana, an adolescent singer from the Disney Channel.

The family plans to celebrate Hanukkah Dec. 21 at the temple with traditional lighting of the menorah, children's crafts, stories, songs, latke judging and potluck supper. The event starts at 5 p.m., costs $3 a person or $8 a family and the public is welcome.

The temple is at 1800 E. Main St, Ashland. For information, call 488-2909.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Micah, left, Maya, 6, Asia, 3, and Gretski Lieberman celebrate both Honokaa and Christmas with their children in Ashland. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch