Dilemma? What Dilemma?

‘Tis the season to celebrate family and to share traditions

By: Hilary Parker
   When Mary Borchers was a little girl, she would wake up early on Christmas morning and sit on the stairs excitedly with her brother and two sisters. They could barely sit still as they waited for their parents to give them the go-ahead, and the four little Borchers would tumble down the stairs, tripping over one another and their bathrobes. Then the race to the Christmas tree would begin and they would take it all in: the presents and the magic.
   When Steve Weinstein was a little boy, he would savor his special gift each and every night of Hanukkah, eagerly looking forward to the eighth night when he’d open his biggest gift of all. His parents would steady his and his sister’s arms, helping them to light the candles of the menorah. The potato latkes with applesauce were the perfect combination of savory and sweet, a taste combination he loves to this day.
   The years passed. Mary and Steve fell in love and got married, and they now have three little Weinsteins of their own. The kids are unique combinations of their parents’ traits and characteristics — Ben is creative like his mom and quiet (until you get to know him) like his dad, while Cecily and little Jimmy look just like the Borchers, but with Weinstein eyes.
   Likewise, their holiday celebrations are a combination — two faiths coming together for one very happy holiday season.
   "Both holidays give a similar message of celebration and warmth, giving and enjoyment," Mr. Weinstein said. "That’s what we try to celebrate."
   The Weinsteins are members of the Jewish Community Center of Belle Mead, a Reconstructionist synagogue, and while they are raising their children in the Jewish tradition, they celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. They have a wreath and a menorah in their Princeton home, and Ben, Cecily and Jimmy eagerly wait at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning — at their grandparents’ house in Westfield.
   "They get to experience both holidays and they love it," said Ms. Weinstein. On Christmas Eve, she and her children spend the night at her parent’s house, and she is thrilled that they get to share in the magic of the season on Christmas morning as they race down the stairs to open their presents. Later in the day, her husband joins them for Christmas dinner along with his parents, who, coincidentally, also reside in Westfield.
   "Both families have gained the benefits of sharing family for all the holidays," Mr. Weinstein said, explaining that his parents have enjoyed the chance to learn about the Christian faith from his wife’s family, while at the same time teaching them about the Jewish tradition. The three generations of both families will gather at his parents’ home in Westfield for a traditional Hanukkah celebration.
   The Jemas family of Princeton celebrates the holiday in a similar way. Jane is Jewish, and her husband, Bill, is Catholic. Their two sons, A.J. and Jake, are Jewish, but their mother said they come with the tagline that they celebrate both holidays.
   "I like being raised with both traditions because it gives me a sense of both faiths," Jake said. "We celebrate most of the Jewish holidays with ourselves and with friends, and for Passover we go to relatives, and for Christian holidays we go to the other side of our family, so it’s kind of nice."
   While the Weinstein and Jemas children celebrate both holidays, they are being raised Jewish. The Middlekauff boys, Jacob and Noah, are being raised in both traditions. Their mother, Nancy Golden, is Jewish and their father, Brad Middlekauff, is Methodist. They are members of two congregations in Princeton — String of Pearls Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue and the United Methodist Church.
   "For us and for our family, choosing one religion over another really was not a decision that we, as the parents, were comfortable with," Ms. Golden said. "We felt for us that this was the right choice and so far it is working out."
   The family typically alternates spending the holidays with his parents and her parents, and Ms. Golden has an easy solution to those years when they happen to be at the Middlekauff family Christmas celebration during Hanukkah — she simply brings a menorah along.
   "We make a concerted effort to expose them to both of our traditions, and we feel like there’s actually a lot that they share. We try to highlight some of those similarities."
   The Christmas and Hanukkah holiday seasons have been dubbed the "December dilemma" for interfaith families. His faith or hers? Tree or menorah? Latkes or Christmas cookies? Yet these families show that combining two faiths needn’t pull families apart — indeed, it can even bring families from both faiths together.
   "In a weird way, it’s usually easier than what most people have to deal with," Mr. Weinstein said, referring to same-religion couples who struggle with deciding where to spend Christmas or Hanukkah when both sets of grandparents celebrate the same holiday. "We’re not fighting over who’s at whose house when," he said, since Christmas and Hanukkah often don’t overlap.
   This year, however, is different. Hanukkah begins at sundown on Christmas Day.
   And so the Weinstein’s have found yet another reason to embrace the differences in the traditions — especially the fact that while Christmas is usually celebrated on one day only (the original tradition was 12 days), Hanukkah is eight days long.
   Taking it in stride, they will continue their tradition of two holiday celebrations. On the 25th, it will be a very merry Christmas. And they wouldn’t miss the Hanukkah gathering at his parents’ house for the world.
   "We’ve decided on the 26th," Mr. Weinstein said.