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I love my Jewish, Christian traditions at holidays: Susannah Gal

Posted 12/13/17

I might have mentioned previously that I come from a mixed family religious tradition. My father was Jewish and my mother Christian.

My parents met when they were at the University of Texas at …

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I love my Jewish, Christian traditions at holidays: Susannah Gal


I might have mentioned previously that I come from a mixed family religious tradition. My father was Jewish and my mother Christian.

My parents met when they were at the University of Texas at Austin in the theater program. My mother had a last name that was hard to pronounce and somewhat long. When she saw the three-letter last name Gal on the marquee for one of the actors (my father), she thought “that’s the last name I want.” Gal is actually a very common name in Hungary and no, it’s not shortened from anything.

When my father took my mother back to meet his mother, my grandmother hid in her bedroom and would not come out to meet her new Christian daughter-in-law. I think that was in part because he was her first son and she felt she’d “lost him” to the religious tradition. Her younger son also married a Christian woman, but by then I think my grandmother had gotten used to the idea.

In Jewish tradition, children of mixed marriages like my parents’ can only be considered “Jewish” if the mother is of that religion. Thus, my siblings and I were not automatically going to be Jews. My parents decided that we each should make that decision for ourselves. We weren’t baptized or encouraged to go through bar/bat mitzvahs as we were growing up.

But our childhood was not devoid of religious activities. Far from it. We actually celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays. On the Jewish High Holy Days, we were taken out of school and went to temple, or went on a trip as a family to spend the day together. I remember being hauled into the principal’s office in my rural high school in Michigan and having to explain why I was absent on one of those days. Needless to say, we were the only Jewish family in that school system.

We also attended Jewish services and took Hebrew classes for a few years when we lived in East Lansing and Kalamazoo, Michigan. We also attended church services where my mother was active for several years creating dances to be done in the church as part of the service. We gathered as a family regularly on Friday nights for the Jewish Sabbath, lighting candles, and having bread and wine (much like the Christian communion service). I still remember the Hebrew prayers we would say.

We also read the entire Bible as a family, one chapter or section each Friday night. And when I say the entire Bible, I mean the ENTIRE Bible. All those battles in the book of Kings, and so and so begat someone, on and on in Chronicles. We read both the Old and New Testaments completely. It took many years. It got harder to keep up these Friday night traditions when my brothers were playing football in high school, although we did follow this for a long time.

As I said, my parents allowed us to decide for ourselves what religion we would follow by not forcing us to do a bar/bat mitzvah — a sort of rite of passage for boys and girls 12 or 13 years old in the Jewish tradition. We also were not baptized as infants or children.

My older brother was the first to marry, and his wife was a good Jewish girl from Long Island that he’d met at the University of Michigan when he was in college. In order to marry her, he had to go through a bar mitzvah, and they had a pretty lavish Jewish wedding with the chupah (a fabric overhang above the bride and groom) and the stamping on the glass together (to symbolize the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem).

So for me, the holidays around December are actually multiple holidays. We would light the Hanukkah candles in the menorah, sing dreidel songs and play with this four-sided top. In fact, my father wrote several dreidel stories that involve multiple insights into his upbringing in the mostly Jewish area of Shaker Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland.

We would also set up a Christmas tree, sing Christmas carols and go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Of course we had presents for both holidays (lucky us!).

Occasionally we had some issues with this dual religious life. Like the time when my younger sister was asked at her Hebrew class what her favorite holiday in December was. Her answer? “Christmas!” She then caught herself when there were all the stunned faces, and said “If I were Christian, of course.”

While I may have grumbled at all the extra religious activities as a kid, I now value my upbringing so much for giving me a richer understanding of those traditions and where they come from. I wish everyone a happy holiday season regardless of your orientation or family traditions.

Also, we are hosting another English Dance at our house from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16. Please join us. Email me for details.

What New Year Resolutions are you considering? If they include getting more exercise, come dance with us in 2018! In the New Year, we’ll have monthly contradancing in Middletown at The Events Place. The first dance will be from 8 to 11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26. Come join us!

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at