Q & A with Ellyn Bache, from Half-Jew.com, 2001
Thanks to author Ellyn Bache, Halfies all over the world can read about, and read to their children, a half-Jewish Christmas and Hanukkah story.
Bache tells the story of Claire and Paul, a Jew and a fallen-away Catholic, and how they deal with a family crisis during the holiday season. The story is simple, the book is not thick, and the message is very clear, but Ms. Bache has written a complex book, and one long needed. Many Half-Jews will be all too familiar with the issues Bache's character Claire struggles with in Holiday Miracles.
We asked Bache to answer a few questions about the book and her family. She herself is Jewish, married [until her husband's death] to a lapsed Catholic, and the mother of four children.
Halfjew.com: What do you hope readers of "Holiday Miracles" will come away with, besides enjoyment?
Bache: Well, because this is the first holiday fiction for adults that deals with an interfaith family celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, enjoyment is certainly part of it. It's designed like a lot of other recent holiday books for adults – small, with a colorful cover and easy-on-the-eyes type, so that it's pretty to look at (and maybe choose as a gift for someone) as well as interesting to read. I like that approach because the "December Dilemma" has been pretty much taboo until now, and it's nice to see a treatment that looks very mainstream. I would have loved to come across something like it when my own four children were young, but there was nothing – just a great silence – and I felt very isolated. The story is about a family whose decisions are called into question when a child gets sick-which is something most people can identify with-and also a way to throw interfaith issues into sharp relief. I hope people will read it and think, yes, I felt that way too. I hope they'll come away feeling encouraged and less alone.
Halfjew.com: The mother, Claire, has a lot of fear throughout the time her son is ill. She seems to worry that her "superstitions," her rituals, are failing her, but at the same time she tells herself she wouldn't change a thing. Is this a struggle you have had, and a resolution you have come to yourself?
Bache: Claire is pretty superstitious, and she knows some of her rituals have nothing to do with religion. But she also worries that she's being punished for not being "Jewish enough" and for "dangling" her children between two religions, and she has to sort out what she really believes from the rites she's adopted to ward off her fears. These are certainly questions I've asked myself, that I think many people in interfaith marriages ask when they're faced with a crisis. Claire's conclusion isn't really that she wouldn't change a thing – I think her "rites" honestly do annoy her – but that she'd marry her husband all over again. I would, too.
HalfJew.com: We hung menorahs on our tree, too, when my brother and I were young, and never thought it was strange. Children seem to absorb contradictions better than adults ("Dreidle Bells," Louie's favorite holiday song, was hilarious. Are there any lyrics?) Did your children, who are now grown, become confused-as Claire worries-as adults?
Bache: Looking back, I don't think my children had a moment's confusion, then or now. I think it's very true, as Claire muses in the book, that often it's only the parents who are confused. Like Claire, I took my children to a Reform Temple. Like Paul, my husband is a fallen-away Catholic who doesn't much care for any kind of organized religion, and he wasn't shy about explaining his point of view. I think the children liked having it all put out there for them. We lived in the South where some of their friends honestly believed they didn't believe in God, and they enjoyed debating that. They were that secure. Children are tough; they can deal with difficult issues if you give them some foundation for that and then trust them. They're tougher than we adults are. As to "Dreidle Bells," just substitute "dreidle" for "jingle" in "Jingle Bells" and you're set.
Halfjew.com: The relationship between Claire and her mother-in-law, Teresa, is fascinating. I thought early in the book that some of the tension between them centered on religion, but at the end it seemed to be that Claire really wasn't able to accept another mother figure until she was done grieving for her own mother. I wonder if you would talk about how many people, especially those in interfaith homes, confuse interpersonal tension with religious issues.
Bache: There are both interpersonal and religious issues between Claire and Teresa, her mother-in-law. On the one hand, she does need to finish grieving for her own mother. On the other, she loves Teresa and knows she's hurt her by deciding to raise her children Jewish. They sit across the table from each other, eating lunch, with Claire's menorah between them, and it's like a wall between them. For me, this is the key: our "interfaith" difficulties aren't painful just because we're different. If we were just "different," we could avoid each other. The differences are painful because we love each other, or want to. And sometimes, as in the book, you can't scale the wall head-on. You have to go around it. You have to develop some "interpersonal" (but not religious) bond that will get you through the hard times. That's what Claire learns to do with Teresa. Often, that's the best we can do – and while it's not perfect, it can be pretty good.
Ellyn Bache is a journalist and fiction writer, author of a non-fiction book, five novels (including Safe Passage, which became a Susan Sarandon feature film), and a short story collection that received the Willa Cather Fiction Award.
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