On being Jewish, and jolly, during the Christmas season...

'Tis the Season

Giant snowflakes danced across the ceiling. Bells rang joyfully from the orchestra pit. Long, slender legs kicked in unison, as a palpable cheer filled the Radio City Music Hall. Barely 20 minutes into the show, my 6-year-old leaned in close and whispered, “I think we should be Christian now.”

I expected nothing less from a child who proclaimed last October that we were half-Halloween and half-Jewish. And his desire was certainly nothing new. Every year, as fake snow (and real) blankets our nation, as classic rock stations change over their format to holiday tunes, as jingles jangle across the airwaves imploring us to celebrate the season of giving in the nearest department store, my children beg to convert.

They’re not the only ones. November and December are tough months to be a Jewish kid in America.

And so it was with a twinge of misgiving that we took our boys to see the famous Christmas Spectacular last year – nothing less than pressing their noses up against a window shining with a world they’ll never get to enter. But my husband works to promote the show, and who in their right mind would pass up free tickets to any opening night in New York City? Certainly not these Jews! Besides, I was excited to stroll my sons through midtown Manhattan, sparkling and alive on a crisp, cool night, and introduce them to their first theater experience.

It was truly magical, albeit in a 1950’s kind of way. And the look of wonder on my boys’ faces was worth every query that would follow. Questions like, “Daddy, are any of those dancers Jewish?” or “See that circle of green leaves with all the gold? I want one on our door” or “Are all the Santa’s fat in real life?”

I’m woman enough to confess that my eyes glistened when the Rockettes broke out into their first kick line. It sparked something dreamlike from my childhood – perhaps an awkward girl’s desire, from way back when, for a life of glamour. (The truth is, I should have cried after the show when my 10-year-old said, “No offense mom, but those dancers were way better than you. If you were skinnier, you could be like them.” Bah humbug.) And in the spirit of full disclosure, I must also admit to tensing a bit during the nativity scene, not sure how I would be able to respond quietly and appropriately to inquiries of a theological nature. But all I got was, “Is that a real sheep?”

As we walked out of the theater, showered by a blizzard of white confetti, I thought about the lengths I would have to go to this holiday season to make Hanukah even one-tenth as exciting as what Christmas must now seem to my boys. Because no amount of grated potatoes fried in oil can make up for the fact that the jolly fat guy in a red suit, who brings toys to good girls and boys everywhere, will fly his reindeer and sleigh right past a house with a mezuzah on the doorpost.

And then I realized something.

If going through life marveling in someone else’s magic, if feeling both giddy at the splendor yet removed from it all – if this is the burden my sons must carry as Jews today, then gey gezhunt! Go in health. Because lord knows, Jews have suffered much worse for being just a little bit different.

Besides, life isn’t always fair or equal. There’s always going to be someone prettier, someone more popular. Some other 5th grader may win the student council election; someone else may make the varsity cheerleading squad. And one day, someone else is going to get a bigger salary, and he’ll buy a bigger house and fill it with better furniture. So what if my holiday isn’t the glitzy one? I have a family to share it with, and the freedom to celebrate. That’s what I want my kids to appreciate … someday, when they stop believing in Santa.

Faith is a journey. And the connection and understanding my boys have now is completely different from what they will feel a decade from now, which will then grow and morph and be redefined repeatedly throughout their lifetimes. I’m certainly not standing around cocktail parties today saying, “Yeah? Well Hanukah lasts for 8 days.”

Yes, I feel a few steps apart from most everyone else in the month of December in a way I don’t during the rest of the year. But I don’t begrudge the beauty of this season. Driving past homes adorned with strings of colorful lights fills me with a Normal Rockwellian nostalgia. I imagine fires crackling and wine glasses tinkling, laughter mixed with the sweet smell of cinnamon, family dysfunction disappearing up the chimney. I believe that the spirit of goodwill to all is one to be embraced, no matter whether a ham graces the dining room table, or Chinese take out. Whatever inspires us to collectively greet each other with blessings for another year of health and happiness, it’s all good.

During the final number of the Christmas Spectacular, when gold and red ribbons arced out across the audience, my kids’ eyes shone with wonder and their smiles lit the room. They hungrily gathered up 80 yards of tinsel, turned to us and said, “This can be our first Hanukah treat!”

December, 2011