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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2005

Blending celebrations: Toledo family enjoys Jewish, Christian traditions today

BY RHONDA B. SEWELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

So what are you serving in your home today - a fruitcake or latkes?

For the blended Shain/Short family, both dishes are appropriate because the family is a blend of Jewish and Christian faiths and today is a rare opportunity for them to celebrate both holidays simultaneously.

For the first time since 1959 and only the fourth time in 100 years, the first night of Hanukkah, which begins at sundown, falls on the same day as Christmas.

The Shain/Short family represents a segment of the population referred to as interfaith families - where merging different religious beliefs and faith traditions has become the norm.

Walk into their West Toledo home and you'll find a Christmas tree near three menorahs that rest atop a baby grand piano.

Advent candles also are lit during this season, and this afternoon the family's matriarch Susan Shain-Short will serve latkes (a traditional Hanukkah dish of potato pancakes) with sour cream alongside her traditional Christmas dinner.

On Christmas Eve, the family planned to attend First United Methodist Church of Perrysburg, where she and her husband, Roger Short, are members, to see Mrs. Shain-Short sing a soprano solo of "Ave Maria" and Christmas carols with her choir.

Mrs. Shain-Short's sons and Mr. Short's stepsons, Sylvania Southview students David Shain, 17, and Michael Shain, 15, who were raised in the Jewish faith, plan to travel to Chicago tonight to visit their father, Benjamin Shain, where they will observe Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights.

In America, statistics on interfaith marriages vary. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study reports a 47 percent intermarriage rate for Jews who wed between 1996 and 2001 versus 38 percent for Jews who married between 1980 and 1984, according to an article on the Web site InterfaithFamily.com.

Lisa Katz, a Judaism guide for About.com, reports that 33 percent of American Jewish families today represent interfaith marriages, a rise from 28 percent in 1990. More than 50 percent of xxxxx American Jews marry non-Jews.

The mergers have become so commonplace that the pop culture vernacular for combining Christmas and Hanukkah is termed "Chrismukkah" and has been popularized humorously on television through its mention on television shows such as the Fox network's series The OC. The Web site Chrismukkah.com, created by an interfaith couple, sells cookbooks, Chrismukkah greeting cards, and other interfaith items.

While the Chrismukkah site takes a lighthearted approach to melding the two observances, handling both December holidays - a term sometimes called the December Dilemma - has always required a serious commitment to teaching her sons to have "mutual respect" for both the Christian and Jewish faiths and their traditions, said Mrs. Shain-Short.

"[My first husband and I] talked to rabbis and ministers who told us that you need to pick one, so we as parents agreed to raise them Jewish, but to have respect for both observances. I raised them Jewish, but they also believed in Santa Claus from about age 2 through 6 or 7," said the part-time vocal and music teacher at St. Joseph's School in Sylvania.

Rabbi Barry Leff of Toledo's Temple B'nai Israel, concurs that interfaith families should choose one religion for their children to practice. He recently held a class at the temple for sixth-graders about handling being Jewish during the holiday season when Christian symbols are abundant.

"I'd rather have a good, solid Christian than a confused nothing," said Rabbi Leff, who adds that his own relatives represent a mix of Christian and Jewish faiths.

Still, the rabbi of the oldest Jewish congregation in the Toledo area - first organized in the late 1860s - said as it relates to the December holidays a line must be drawn.

"Even if you are raised as one religion, that doesn't mean that you can't go visit and have Christmas dinner and enjoy their holiday, so long as it is taught as their holiday and that the child still has a good identity in [his or her] own faith," said Rabbi Leff, who does not believe that children raised Jewish should have a Christmas tree in their homes.

Baltimore, Maryland-based cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff, a Jew who attends a reconstructionist Temple and is part of an interfaith family, agrees with Mrs. Shain-Short that as the world becomes more diverse, it is important that cross-cultural traditions are understood and respected, even if they vary from one's own personal beliefs and observations.

"The labels don't mean as much as this idea of faith, that's what the season is really all about. And that idea of respect is really bigger than the religions," he said.

As anthropologists, Mr. Blinkoff admits that he and his wife might be more open than others to exposing their children to various faith traditions, such as attending temple during Jewish High Holy Days and visiting Christian churches of various denominations.

"What faith does for people in practicing and observing both Christmas and Hanukkah is it enables you to mark time. Not to just see, but to take time to reflect on the true meanings of both observances," said Mr. Blinkoff.

Mrs. Shain-Short said the bottom line is that both faiths make it easy to celebrate family during the holidays.

"My feeling is that we're so busy as families and in the society, that anything that brings the family together is important. During December we find those opportunities to embrace and bring the family closer, whether it's lighting advent candles or eating latkes and sour cream both faiths are about respect, and rebirth and renewal," said Mrs. Shain-Short.

Contact Rhonda B. Sewell at: rsewell@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.



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