Remembering Rose: Being Jewish at Christmas time can be tough
Editorís note: The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins at sundown today. In memory of longtime Post columnist Rose Post, today the Post is reprinting a column of hers, first published Dec. 22, 1987.
Potato latkes are the greatest, but they canít match Santa Claus. And no matter how much I loved to watch the children in years gone by and grandchildren now light the candles of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that (begins) tonight, I have to admit in my heart of hearts that the glow of the menorah is no match for twinkling lights on a Christmas tree or stockings hung by the chimney with care or the sound of Christmas carols on a cold, clear night.
Nor can the story of a fight for religious freedom or the miracles of oil compare with the story of no room in the inn or a babe in swaddling clothes.
Itís tough to be Jewish and admit that you love Christmas with all its religious significance and its secular trappings.
But I do.
Itís tough to confess that my urge every year is to go the whole nine yards, with a tree and stockings and gifts and carols and fruitcake and dreams of snow and chestnuts roasting on an open fire except on blackened, smoking grills tended by scroungy characters on the sidewalks of New York. But Bing Crosby brainwashed me years ago, and Iím convinced theyíre part of Christmas, part of the Christmas I want to be a part of.
But thatís beside the point.
The point is that whatever we are and whether we want to be or not, we are a part of it. The minute the last bit of leftover turkey is put into a casserole after Thanksgiving, if not before, Christmas takes over ó at school, in the stores, on the streets, in the newspapers, on television, on the lawn and beyond the windows of homes as you drive through town….
When I was very small, my brother and I were the only Jewish children in Marion, Va. Christmas was always a puzzle. We knew Santa Claus wasnít going to visit our house, but we wanted to be a part of it all. So while our parents worked late, we always took the holiday into our own hands and did what everybody else did in that place at that time ó we went over on the hill behind our house and cut our own tree and trimmed it with chains of red and green construction paper.
The real puzzle was not that our parents allowed the tree, once it was up. It was that we didnít get spanked for using the kindling ax.
I guess Mama and Daddy didnít
know what do to with us. I remember one year when Daddy decorated our store window with a Christmas tree, beneath which were a few toys. One was a doll bed with a tiny green and yellow silk quilt he made himself on a machine. When he no longer needed it in the window, he said, it was mine. And it was.
At that season, when everyone was getting dolls, I got a doll ó but not on Christmas Day because Santa didnít come to our house. I was Jewish. The doll came two or three days before Christmas the year I was 7. The bed disappeared long ago, along with the doll that slept in it. But I still have that quilt, which makes me think of Christmas ó and the confusion.
I was never ashamed of being Jewish. Itís an ancient and proud tradition. My son Jonny casually asked me once when our family had come to this country, because a friend of his could trace his family back several hundred years.
ěYou can trace yours back thousands of years,î I said. Jewish children are generally named for relatives who have died, as a piece of immortality, and our sonsí names are David, Samuel and Jonathan. Who knows? Maybe they go all the way back to King David in the Bible.
A few years later when Jonny was in the seventh grade, we were riding down Statesville Boulevard talking about school. Bible, he said, was his favorite subject.
I almost wrecked the car. Bible classes, like Christmas, were always a problem. Bible in the schools is taught by Protestant teachers who understandably know it from their own perspective, so a Jewish parent has to wonder whether to exercise the option of not letting his child take that class. We always opted for Bible on the theory that everything you learn is good for you.
But I couldnít believe his answer.
ěBible?î I asked. ěWhy is that your favorite subject?î
ěBecause itís about my family,î he said.
But we still didnít know what to do when Christmas came. How do you say no to Santa Claus in the here and now? And why should you when heís such a happy bit of magic for such a short time in a childís life?
So we didnít ó and caused as much confusion as weíd felt ourselves.
Being a Jewish child in a Christian world leaves you with a sense of isolation, alienation, being apart, different, a nobody ó for at least a few years. And it doesnít matter whether it happened years ago when being Jewish meant it was hard to get a job or more recently, when people got interested in ethnic identity and roots.
I did a quickie poll. A friend who has moved away said she felt alone while growing up, sure hers was the only Jewish family here.
So did our children.
Much of it, my friend said, is social. She had a stocking on the fireplace, but she wanted to be a member of the Luther League, along with the rest of her friends.
Itís confusing, our son Sammy says. He felt like a hypocrite, to have gifts without religious significance. Jonny admits he was into presents and hated to give up Santa Claus. David, with a Christian stepson and a Jewish son, must live in both worlds.
Their children will be just as confused as they were and we were. Like their daddies before them, they got their gifts on Hanukkah ó and are waiting for Santa Claus.
But now that Iím old enough to make some decisions based on what feels best, Iím willing to say we accepted the best of both worlds for our family. Iíd do it again, without apology.
When Hanukkah arrived on the Jewish lunar calendar, we told the story and lit the candles and gave the daily gifts and ate the traditional latkes which are so loved at our house.
But when Christmas came, so did Santa Claus and turkey.
Now that the children are grown, I wonder what all the fuss was about anyway. Whatís wrong with good, wherever you find it?
It pleases me at Easter time to find that my Christian friends are interested in Passover, and many of the churches are producing their own Seder suppers. And, I hope, finding the message of tolerance and freedom.
Iím perfectly willing to share the depths of Yom Kippur, with its emphasis on our need to beg forgiveness of those weíve hurt or harmed before we go to God for forgiveness of our sins. So Iím sure no one begrudges me Christmas or demands that I convert to savor its blessings.
In a world in such desperate need of peace, what better for all of us than to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is the very symbol of ěpeace on earth, good will toward menî? …
Weíre all Americans in a melting pot, stronger because we can share with one another. …So, come share with us Hanukkahís message that even one candle can light the darkness. And if you want the recipe for potato latkes, crisp and wonderful grated potato pancakes fried in deep oil to remind you of the oil that kept the candles burning for eight days, Iíll promise theyíre easy to make.
But weíd better hurry. Christmas is coming and I havenít finished my shopping yet.