Finding Light in Dark Times: An Interfaith Family at the Holidays

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter

When we were kids, my sister and I clamored for a Christmas Tree. When we asked my mother why couldn’t have one, she replied, “Because we’re Jewish!” We would then decorate the pussy willows in the living room with origami and random trinkets found around the house. When family friends came over, we would direct them to our pathetic little Chanukah Bush and ask, “Isn’t it sad?”

Then I married an Irish Catholic gal from New England and I finally got that Christmas Tree I always wanted. We shared both our traditions: Easter and Passover, Christmas and Chanukah, boiled dinner and bagels and lox. Each December, we set up an oversized Balsam Fir alongside our Menorah, which strikes me as a potential fire hazard. But these are the kinds of risks you have to be willing to take in an interfaith family.

For a number of years, my wife and I took a somewhat laissez faire attitude toward our respective religions. Courtney clung to the leftmost fringe of Catholicism, sometimes attending services at the Paulist Center on Park Street, but was otherwise repelled by Church doctrine regarding women and gays. I clung to my cultural Jewishness, regularly attending services at Michael’s Delicatessen in Coolidge Corner.

When we started a family, we felt we had to sort things out so as to not confuse the kids. Instead of tacking hard toward Old or New Testament, we cut the baby in half and became Unitarian Universalists. After some church shopping, we found a spiritual home at First Church in Jamaica Plain, where we have been active members for the last eight years.

Under the leadership of the late Rev. Terry Burke, the church was politically left and liturgically as close to High Church as a UU can be. This fulfilled my wife’s desire for the rites and rituals she remembered fondly from childhood. As a Jew, I always felt welcome and that my traditions were honored. I liked that the church was non-creedal and that services included readings from different faiths and secular sources.

First Church also reminded me of the synagogue where I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah. B’nai Jesherun was denominationally Conservative, but politically liberal. It held rallies in support of peace in the Middle East, advocated for social justice, and ran a homeless shelter where I volunteered on Sunday nights. As I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, Rabbi Roli Matelon showed me anti-war films like “The King of Hearts “and taught me about tikkun olam, the moral responsibility to repair the world.

If asked for my religious affiliation, I now say I’m a Jewnitarian. That my spirituality is best summarized with the punch line of a joke seems fitting. Jews have always been good at laughing at themselves. Our sense of humor has helped us survive centuries of oppression. In the darkest times, we defiantly shout, “L’Chaim!” (to Life!), which I have always thought of as the purest essence of Jewishness.

Last December, when our new minister lit the Advent candle, our daughter Lucy shouted, “Look, a Menorah!” Then last week, she said she wanted to watch the Charlie Brown Chanukah Special. We had to laugh, both at her and ourselves. Operation Don’t Confuse the Child was not going to be as easy as we thought.

At the end of the Christmas Eve service at First Church, we turn off all the lights and stand together in the darkness. From the flame of a single Advent candle, we light each other’s candles until the entire sanctuary is filled with warm light. Then we sing “Silent Night.” It is a deeply moving service and a reminder that we have all the light we need if we would just turn toward one another to share our love and laughter.