I’m just going to say it, I’m circumcised.
In other words, I’m Jewish.
I was raised Jewish. I married my Jewish husband under a chuppa (Google it). We’re raising our son Jewish. I love a good bagel. I eat gefilte fish and sweet kugel more than once a year. I was Bar Mitzvahed not once, but twice. (Oh, the joys of divorced parents.) I know to bring a jacket no matter what the temperature. Every diner in the tri-state area that serves good matzoh ball soup is on my speed dial. And if there’s still any doubt of my Jewish-ness, I have every Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Billy Joel and Barbra record to prove it. But the truth is I’m more than just culturally Jew-ish. From a very young age, my parents shaped my Jewish identity with thought, care and enlightenment. And the foundation they’ve instilled in me will never go away.
The question is: can I be Jewish and still expose my 5-year old son to the joys of the Christmas season?
When I was growing up in my family, the answer was no. We were Jews and Christmas was for Christians. Who can argue with that logic? My parents did everything they could to create special Chanukah memories for us with fun childhood rituals. I’ll never forget the taste of mom’s just-greasy-enough potato latkes, lighting the menorah, spinning little wooden dreidels and finding golden Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins) at the bottom of my gift bags. But as much as they did to make “The Celebration of Lights” exciting for us, realistically, it is impossible to outshine Christmas.
It was an unfair competition. The Christmas spirit was everywhere, even at school. Red and green decorations dangled from the ceilings of every classroom. A large decorated tree outfitted the main hall and a smaller one greeted students entering the cafeteria. In art class I made Christmas tree ornaments, in English class I wrote Christmas stories and in music class, I sang Christmas carols. But while Christmas fever swept through almost everyone I knew, in many ways, it passed right by me … because while I participated in all these festivities, I wasn’t really supposed to enjoy them simply because I was Jewish.
There’s always been two types of Christmas — the age-old religious celebration and the modern, more inclusive, secular one. For me, as a young Jewish boy, Christmas was clearly never about commemorating the birth of Jesus; it stood for something entirely more significant and inspirational. It symbolized all the festive traditions associated with the holiday season … like time off from school with no homework, snowball fights, door-to-door carolers, dinners with family, advent calendars, Claymation TV specials, writing letters to the North Pole, parties with friends, and of course wishing for world peace. It evoked the feeling of crisp winter weather, freshly baked cookies, nutmeg-y eggnog and crying on rent-a-Santa’s lap at the mall. It was decorating fragrant trees, wrapping presents and putting gaudy lights all over your house … and of course it all happened to the tune of Whitney’s “Do You Hear What I Hear” blasting from the speakers. It represented all these happy things for everyone.
Everyone, it seemed, but me.
Once I became a father, my husband and I began to think about how we’d explain to our son that he doesn’t get to celebrate Christmas, as was told to me when I was his age. It was hard for us to imagine looking him in the eye and telling him that he doesn’t get to sit on Santa’s lap like the rest of his friends from school, or set out a variety of cookies and milk for Santa’s busy night. How could we deliberately break his heart in two when he asked for a holiday tree filled with presents like he saw on the Mickey Mouse Christmas Special? I mean, at this rate we should’ve just had our names legally changed to Grinch and Scrooge.
The more we thought about it, we wondered if there was a way to have the best of both worlds. Could we take part in these non-religious traditions without threatening our Judaism? Is there a way for us non-Christians to take the concept of Christ out of Christmas? These rhetorical questions are not about being politically correct. I’m in no way trying to marginalize the biblical side of Christmas that’s important to many people in my life; I just don’t see what’s so offensive about us Jews embracing the joys of the holiday festivities. Isn’t celebrating diversity and inclusiveness really about using the holiday time to be with friends and family to build understanding and awareness about others?
So back to the question at hand — can I be Jewish and still expose my 5-year old son to the joys of the Christmas season?
There’s no right or wrong answer. It may be difficult for some families to celebrate certain traditions without making a strong statement of faith. And I totally respect and understand that. But for me and my family, the holiday season is about instilling a deep-rooted understanding of our Jewish heritage — and the true meaning of Chanukah — while also explaining to Max how other people celebrate their holidays. We want him to realize that everyone has different ideas, thoughts and beliefs about their religion and the traditions that accompany them. So while Max will probably never see his Daddy kissing Santa Claus, he will certainly be allowed to experience the joys of the holiday season and partake in aspects of Christmas without any shame or guilt. And by doing so, Max will have a greater respect for our differences by being able to share in other people’s traditions. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying Mariah’s Christmas albums (all 37 of them) or indulging in a few green and red wrapped Hershey’s Kisses by the fireplace. It doesn’t make us any less Jewish. Nor do I think bringing a Chanukah-themed holiday tree into our home should be considered sacrilege. Every family needs to find its own balance. We’ve found ours. Please don’t judge us for it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, The Preacher’s Wife is on Showtime.
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