"Mama, I don’t want to be Jewish. I want to celebrate Christmas,” exclaims my 4-year-old from the backseat of the car this summer, while we listen to “Henai Rakevet” on repeat on our favorite PJ Library CD. Though we live a very Jewish life in Seattle, there is no escaping Christmas, even in July. Last year was the first year my daughter, Charlotte, understood that Christmas was a thing. A thing that involved songs, candy, a big guy in a red suit that sort of looked like Zayde (z”l), presents (lots of presents), and the fact that we were NOT going to have Christmas, because we are Jewish.
Charlotte has been attending the early childhood program at Congregation Beth Shalom since she was a baby. I work at Temple Beth Am down the road. We spend a considerable amount of time at synagogues and Jewish social events around town, celebrate Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays, and my sister is a rabbi. And yet, Charlotte apparently would trade it all in for Christmas. The December dilemma is very real, whether you are part of an interfaith family or both parents come from Jewish backgrounds. How can parents strengthen a budding Jewish identity within the dominant American culture of Christmas? December is a doozy.
For my family, this season begins another round of why we don’t celebrate Christmas. I try not to emphasize that we have Hanukkah instead, because I don’t think making it an equivalent holiday captures the essence of what our religious and cultural identity is about. I try to focus more holistically on all the great things that encompass being Jewish, like family, food, speaking Yiddish and Hebrew, and a connection to Israel. After Charlotte has asked yet again to get a Christmas tree while shout-singing “Jingle Bells,” I hear my dad’s voice in my head when I was a kid and wanted to go out before Shabbat dinner or had to miss the first day of school for Rosh Hashanah: “Sometimes, it’s not easy being Jewish.”
In Seattle especially, I find one has to be intentional about Jewish engagement and creating a Jewish community. There are many opportunities to connect through synagogues, schools, and programs, but with a spread-out Jewish population it’s easy to feel like the odd Jew out during the Christmas season.
I get it. Christmas trees are pretty and smell good. I sing quietly along with all the carols, we’ve been making an annual pilgrimage to drive through Candy Cane Lane (wearing our Magen David star glasses) for over 20 years, and I am a sucker for an eggnog latté. I appreciate how random people you interact with are in a festive spirit. My Jewish identity is piqued during Christmas.
It is a rich time of year to talk about all the things that make people different. And still, I understand why a Jewish kid would trade it for a day of lots of presents after having Christmas directly marketed to them for months. So we’ll keep talking about all the wonderful ways of being Jewish. As Charlotte grows up in our Jewish community, one of these years, the holiday season will be upon us and she’ll just ask if it’s going to snow in Seattle this winter.