the gregarious homebody

Monday, December 29, 2008

Growing up Jewish in The Christmas City

Every year I am sensitive to the fact that my children are two of only a few, comparatively, Jewish kids in our town, beseiged by the Christmas trees and Santa of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Do they feel left out? Are they sad they don't have all the trimmings? Will they abandon their Jewish roots when they get older and have a choice? I've asked my kids the first two questions (afraid to even approach the 3rd) . Their answer? That yes, they wish that Christmas day meant something more to them, but mostly because their friends aren't available to spend time with them and because we don't have people at our house celebrating.

We do make a big deal about Hanukkah every year, inviting tons of friends (mostly not Jewish) to join in our own celebration. The kids love it. I think they like being different because, so far, being different in this way is way cool to their friends. As in: Eight days of presents? Awesome. Getting days off for Jewish holidays AND Christian ones? So lucky. Having a bar mitzvah party? Wow.

And, as I've found with most of the parenting issues I've come up against so far, the "problem" is really my own. My kids are growing up with being Jewish as much a part of them as having curly hair or being tall. It's just a part of who they are. Not something to really think/worry/agonize over. Some of their friends have straighter hair than they do. A lot of them are shorter. Most of them aren't Jewish. No big deal. But for me, it is a big deal because I chose to be Jewish.

I grew up, not as a Christian really, but as a Christmas Celebrater. Both my parents were questioners of faith at the very least, but very into the secular part of the holiday season. My dad who was at times when I was little, a difficult, surly man, became a complete mush at this time of year. While he did very little to involve himself in the daily grind in the lives of his children, every year he dressed up as Santa Claus and tapped on the windows of not only our house but all my friends' houses so that we could get just a glimpse of Christmas magic. He loved it as much as we did.

So when I made the decision to convert at 21 years old, it was a huge deal. I was very dedicated to my decision. I loved Judaism at once--for the traditions, for the reason that it was a part of the religion to question everything. My parents were totally supportive of my decision. They didn't particularly understand why I felt the need to make the change because of their own ideas about faith and organized religion, but they respected my choice because it was mine. The only snag was when Christmas came around and my dad, aka Santa, would say "I don't know why you can't have a tree. The Hafetz's had one!" I'd carefully explain that even though our family didn't think of Christmas as a religious holiday, I did. And as for the Hafetz's? I had no idea what to say (other than bursting out a few times "They're not real JEWS!"--whatever the hell that meant).

That was hard for me, but my dad didn't say it because he was cruel. He knew that I cried the whole ride home from their house those first five Christmases. I WANTED a tree. I WANTED all the pomp and tradition. But I knew deep down that it would be harder to give it up again once we had kids and besides, I'd made my decision anyway. And even though it was annoying at the time when I'd say to my husband, "Can't we have one just this year?" I'm glad he was firm in his opinion that even though he was completely fine with us celebrating with my parents at their house, he didn't want a tree or any other Christmas stuff in his house.

So 17 years later, I feel about Christmas the same way I guess that other Jews do. It's beautiful in our city with all the decorations. I like the music for the most part, penned mostly by fellow members of the tribe, by the way, and hey, of course I look forward to the food. But it no longer really makes me feel sad when I think about how my son, when he was small, would play Guess Who's a Jew by Finding the House with No Decorations (it used to go something like this: "Oh look, Mommy! That house must be Jewish! Oh, darn. They have a wreath..."). We're lucky to have eight beautiful nights of lighting the candles and making our own traditions that our kids will remember if they have children of their own.

AND we don't have the pressure of making it all fabulous and meaningful and special for one single day. We get to spread it out. Not too shabby.


adozeneggs said...

Hope you have a Happy Hanukkah.
Very interesting that you converted. You can still have a buche can't you, it's more a sign of winter than anything religious, no?

jen said...

absolutely! I usually buche it up but this year didn't have time. My sorority girls LOVE them.


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