Merry (Jewish) Christmas
So. Christmas Eve already, huh?
Having grown up Jewish, I harbored mixed feelings about Christmas for many years. Even now, after fifteen years of marriage to a Christian woman whose mother pastors an evangelical church, Christmas doesn’t come naturally to me.
As a child, my family did its best to ignore Christmas even though it was, of course, happening all around us. We had candle-lighting and latkes on Hanukkah, but we kept it very low key. None of this eight nights of gifts stuff that is so popular now.
We lived in a suburb of New York City that had a very large Jewish community. The public schools remained notably neutral, with holiday decorations almost nonexistent.
Then, in my junior year of high school, my mother took a job in the central Hudson Valley. We had only moved about fifty miles away, but it was a bit of a culture shock. Suddenly, I was in a high school that had tinsel draped across the hallways, colored strings of blinking lights, Santas, reindeer and the whole shebang. I was a little uncomfortable at first, but my heart sang. This was just so beautiful and it made me smile.
This was a huge high school (it was a quarter of a mile from one end to the other and was populated by well over 2,000 students), and I had heard a rumor that there was one other Jewish student in attendance other than my sister and myself. I never did meet him.
I kept running into walls that I didn’t know were there.
When a fellow student asked me which was my favorite Christmas carol, my answer was something along the lines of “Um…” Does Maos Tzur count?
I tried out for and was accepted into the school’s musical theater production. One day I noticed that everyone seemed to have disappeared before a rehearsal. As I went around looking for my cohorts, I opened a door and found them all crammed into a room holding a prayer meeting.
I made an effort to explain about being Jewish, but it was too foreign of a concept to resonate with my fellows. I did my best to fit in, which wasn’t too hard since the holiday season was upon us and I was thoroughly enjoying the Christmas spirit. I tried to remember not to mention this at home.
When my wife and I were married, we made a conscious decision to “keep things neutral.” No crosses or Stars of David. No Christmas or Hanukkah decorations. This worked out just fine for a number of years. Then my wife’s niece came to live with us while she was in high school. My wife felt she had to give her a Christmas and I completely agreed. We unpacked my wife’s boxes of tinsel. We found a tiny artificial tree that fit well in our apartment. And I caught myself smiling again.
I have long believed in the value of multiculturalism. When I first moved from the east coast of the United States to California, I didn’t know what a tortilla was. But I learned. Somewhere along the line, I also learned most of the words to “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night” and a lot of other Christmas songs. And I don’t think anything of eating tacos with my kugel.
But you know what? This past Sunday was the second consecutive year that I was present for the annual Christmas service at our humble little church. And this was the second consecutive year that I represented our extended family by singing songs in Hebrew. Last year, I stuck to Maos Tzur, but this year I performed an Israeli folk song and a much-beloved melody from our Sabbath synagogue service. By the comments I received, everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I traveled to the Central Valley to spend Hanukkah with my family. And tonight, family and friends will gather at my sister-in-law’s house (with its beautiful Christmas tree) for popcorn, hot chocolate and Christmas movies. Don’t be surprised if the board games come out and someone cranks up the karaoke machine. In the morning, we will open gifts while the Christmas music plays from the docking station in the living room. Later on, we will have Christmas dinner.