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Dec 6 2012

I Never Liked Hanukkah, But I Do Like Tzedakah

By at 9:43 am

So–it’s almost Hanukkah, just about everyone’s favorite holiday. Gifts, gelt (Yidd., money), no fasting, no standing in shul for hours, no cooking for big family meals, nice lighting-the-menorah ritual.

Well, I never liked it. Despite the gifts, I didn’t like it even as a kid.

As a first generation American on my father’s side (especially grateful to this country since everyone who was not here were killed by the Nazis,) and a third generation American on my mother’s, I am a very patriotic American with a strong American identity.

But every Hanukkah, I felt like the “other.” Read the rest of this entry →

Jun 11 2012

Shielding My Kid from Christianity

By at 9:49 am

rudolph the rednosed reindeerWhen E was younger I was determined to treat Christianity as a secret I could keep from him. This would be no small feat in our neck of the woods. Churches abound. Billboards and bumper stickers Praise Jesus! Grocery clerks tell customers to have a blessed day. In the heart of the south, where upon learning your name, the next question many ask is: “Where do you attend church?”

E was born in Boston where I was heavily entrenched in the Jewish community. Six months after his birth, we moved to my hometown of Atlanta and I found the pervasiveness of Christian messages overwhelming. After living in Boston for nearly eight years, I had forgotten just how much Jesus rules the South. Read the rest of this entry →

Jan 17 2012

We May Need to Switch to a Jewish Preschool

By at 12:48 pm

little girl with paper snowflakeI love my daughter’s preschool. It’s gentle, the director is an expert at firmly getting kids to do their best while encouraging them to be themselves, and I seriously get a huge charge out of being on-site one afternoon a week to help in the classroom. I get to watch my daughter in action with her friends, and enjoy the cheerful cacophony of a roomful of kids being amazing, curious little creatures.

But the runup to Christmas seriously threw me off, and I don’t know if I’ve done her a disservice by not putting her in the Chabad-run day school nearby.

We’re Reform. Compared to my parents, we’re pretty religious, but compared to Chabad, we’re barely on the radar. Still, their school is beautiful, fun, and well-run. Many families that send their kids there aren’t even Jewish. It’s mostly just a school that has, you know, Shabbat on Fridays and a baracha here and there.

Our school is completely unreligious and, in fact, pretty crunchy-hippie-granola. Our dance teacher is a Burning Man aficionado, we only offer organic snacks, and the kids help us rotate the compost bin. But holy crap, people. In the 24-day runup to Christmas, every single art project, every single story read at story-time, and every single CD played during open-play was Christmas, Santa, Christmas.

Wait, not EVERY one. One time, after like 3 Christmas CDs in a row, the music switched to an awful, shrieking dirge that was, of course, the omnipresent “Oh Hanukkah.” Why does it sound so freaking ominous when they sing “and while we… are playing … the candles are burning low,” as if what we really meant was that while we were playing, bodies are rotting in the shed and the moon is about to crash into the North Pole?

“What the hell is that,” the afternoon teacher muttered. “Oh. I guess someone put the Hanukkah CD in.” Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 22 2011

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love (Tolerate) My Kid’s Christmas Play

By at 5:25 pm

“Cause we neeeeeed a little Christmas!” my second grader goes around singing at the top of his lungs, prompting his 4-year-old sister to join in a chorus of: “Roll out the hollyyyy….”

So far, he’s committed the above show tune from Mame, along with The Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, to memory. He’s also being fitted for a pair of antlers.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time when little Jewish children are recruited into class plays. That all seem to circle around a certain theme.

This isn’t my first (or last) time at this particular, seasonal rodeo.  I have a 12-year-old in seventh grade, and another one heading to Kindergarten next year (God willing, see earlier blog post).

In the beginning, the mandatory, school-sanctioned December revelry used to bother me.  (And no, I was not appeased by the fact that, one winter crafts period, they also glued together some Jewish stars out of Popsicle sticks. The sticks were bright yellow, and when the boys came out of school wearing yellow, Jewish stars pinned to their navy blue blazers, well… you can imagine.) Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 21 2011

In Soviet Russia, Christmas Celebrates You

By at 10:06 am

What's the deal with these spinny thingies?

Both my husband and I grew up with presents, a jolly, bearded man in a red suit, and a festively decorated pine tree come December-time.

The only difference was, he was a little African-American boy in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. And I was a little Jewish girl in Odessa, Ukraine, then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (You might remember it as Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire, while Sting wondered, “Don’t the Russians love their children, too?”)

Unfortunately, at the time, the Russians – who, full disclosure, do, in fact, love their children, too – had a bit of a problem. Communism had banned all religious practices, religion being an opiate of the masses and all. But, darn it, if the populace didn’t still want their symbols and their holidays and their celebrations, to go along with owning the means of production and throwing off the tyrannical yoke of capitalism.

So the trappings of Christmas: Santa, trees, gifts (themselves originally pagan, but I’m really getting off topic here) were summarily moved from January 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas, to December 31 and January 1, New Year’s Eve and Day, the biggest party on the calendar.

Little Soviet children went to sleep on December 31st with visions of Napoleon desserts dancing in their heads, and awoke to community celebrations featuring Santa and presents and a big, green “yolka” festooned in tinsel and twinkling glass orbs.

All little Soviet children. Even Jewish ones. Because this, remember, was a national holiday, not a religious one. Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 16 2011

The Great Hanukkah-Christmas Debate Roundup

By at 2:24 pm
menorah and christmas tree

Can't we all just get along?

Let’s be honest: this was a week of emotional whammies. And it’s no surprise, since the holidays are just around the corner and what is more stressful than celebratory holidays? The talk of the town seemed to be about the dos and don’ts of Christmas and Hanukkah, and here’s what we came up with:

First, Jordana Horn told us that you can’t celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Or you can, but it isn’t logically consistent. With Hanukkah, we celebrate the Jews triumphant fight to practice Judaism–only Judaism–so throwing a Christmas tree into the mix seems to go against everything that the holiday is about. To read her full take, click here.

In the other corner is Jennifer Arrow, a self-declared athiest from a family of “Santa Claus Christians,” who wants to bring her husband’s Jewish heritage into her children’s lives. Focusing more on the culture and less on the religious background of each holiday, she finds a happy medium in serving latkes with ham. Read her full story here.

Lastly, daughter-of-a-rabbi Adina Kay-Gross recounts her fondest memories of spending Christmas with her Roman Catholic grandmother, and how it made her a better Jew. For her, compassion for everyone reigns supreme. Get the full story here.

In conclusion, you’ll never get everybody to agree on everything, but as long as people are willing to stand up for their opinions, we’ll be willing to hear them out. And that’s kind of beautiful, right?

Dec 15 2011

Christmas Made Me a Better Jew

By at 2:12 pm

blue christmas treeFor most of my life, Christmas was spent at my grandmother’s two-family house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. She was Roman Catholic, and she made homemade pizza on Christmas Eve. We’d devour it at the kitchen table after accompanying her to midnight mass. Her home was decorated with tinsel and a tiny Christmas tree that she placed atop a card table in the enclosed porch at the front of her house. Like the electric menorah at our house in the suburbs, her tree sat in the window for all to see. Its tiny lights seemed to whisper, a person who cares about a holiday lives here.

The specifics: I was raised Jewish. Completely, totally, My-dad-is-a-Rabbi Jewish. My mom’s a convert to Judaism, and a super involved Jewish educator. But despite that, despite my Bat Mitzvah and conservative Jewish Day School education, despite years spent living in Israel, fluent Hebrew, Shabbat dinners and sukkah building —I am sure that I learned more about being a good Jew from my Roman Catholic grandmother and our time spent celebrating the holidays together, than I did from any Talmud class I took.

Agnes D’Amico, a faithful churchgoer until she became too old to leave the house, sprinkled grated cheese in her non-kosher chicken soup and tried to serve us Italian bread on Passover. And even though she’s been gone for ten years, each December, as the 25th approaches, I miss spending Christmas with her.

There were many years when Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped. When that happened, we piled into the blue Pontiac with the bumper sticker that read “Hang in there, Shabbos is coming” and we’d take along our menorah and ingredients for latkes. Agnes liked latkes. She liked matzah balls too. She liked to sing along at our Passover Seders and eat matzah and drink wine. Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 14 2011

Actually, You Can’t Celebrate Hanukkah AND Christmas

By at 9:18 am

girl lighting menorah on hanukkah*Warning: There is a good chance that this post will make you hate me. I don’t want to be hated but feel I should put this out there. Please do comment and do not take this post as insulting you: it is simply my viewpoint. The fact that I feel the need to put a warning on a blog post is, in and of itself, terrifying.*

A few years ago, my younger son R. was in nursery school. The girl he was in love with, S., was a lovely little girl approximately a full head taller than R. This did not daunt him, and they made a lovely pair…until December rolled around.

Come December, S. came over for a playdate. When the conversation turned to Hanukkah, S. told R. that she, S., was lucky, because she got to celebrate both Christmas AND Hanukkah.

Now, R. was a bit of a pedant, even at age 4 (not sure who he got that from), and this sort of threw him for a loop.

“But you can’t celebrate Christmas AND Hanukkah,” he told her. “Are you Jewish?”

She looked at him. “I don’t know what I am,” she told him.

They went off to play blocks in the basement. After an hour or so elapsed, the playdate was over and S.’s mom came to pick her up.

As S. was being buckled into her carseat by her mother, R. pushed past me and leaned out the open door into the cold twilight.

“I know what you are, S!” he yelled, in what must have been a bizarre non sequitur for S.’s mom. “You’re Hindu! You worship many gods!”

True story. The kid’s kind of a genius, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point of the story, of course, was to serve as a humorous anecdote, which would edge us sideways into the horribly prickly point that no one wants to really acknowledge. You see, around this time of year, everyone is afraid of offending people, especially people that they know, like, or love. But I feel the need to say this: you can’t celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Read the rest of this entry →

Dec 6 2011

The Hanukkah Tree Topper is Oh So Wrong

By at 10:28 am

I don’t have any particular opinion on how you should celebrate Hanukkah.

In our humble abode, we do Hanukkah and Hanukkah only. Always have, always will. No Christmas tree, no Hanukkah bush, just eight nights of fried potatoes, singing songs about the Maccabees, and maybe a new toothbrush and some stickers for our boys.

I know there are mixed religion families who do both Christmas and Hanukkah and I also know that some Jews like to have a Christmas tree “even if” they don’t “believe” in Christmas. That doesn’t work for me, but I don’t want to get into that. Here’s what I want to get into.

hanukkah tree topperWhat is wrong with this ad? Oh, so many things. Here are my top 3:

1) It says this is the “perfect” way to celebrate both. Is it really!? Last time I checked, one of the hallmark features of celebrating Hanukkah was lighting a hanukiah for eight nights. Making a blessing over it? Better yet. How on earth does placing a Magen David on top of your Christmas tree satisfy the celebrating of Hanukkah?! Maybe topping your Christmas tree with a lightable hanukiah would be in theory the “perfect” way to celebrate both. But that would be a fire hazard so you didn’t hear it from me.

2) Is this truly honestly a “must-have” for interfaith families?! Really? A “must”!? See #1 and note that I don’t know that there is any “must have” for interfaith families except maybe a book entitled, “How to Incorporate Multiple Religions into a Household” (which may or may not have even been written) because if anything is a must have for an interfaith family, it sure as heck is not this gigantic silver Magen David that you place on top of a Christmas tree.

3) The Magen David is a 6 pointed star which has mystical properties and a lot of meaning. It’s a very powerful symbol but it’s not something we tend to place on top of things. Sure, there are hospitals with giant Magen Davids on them, but for the most part, this is a symbol worn around people’s necks or in Jewish artwork or on the stained glass windows of synagogues. We don’t tend to use it as adornment or decoration. In addition, the star typically placed on top of Christmas trees is reminiscent of the Star of Bethlehem which reportedly indicated that Christ had been born and directed the Magi to search for him.

Whether you choose to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or both, I hope you will take this opportunity to read the traditional text of the Hanukkah story and find the beauty in the story of sacrifice, freedom, and miracles, whatever that may look like for you.

And if all else fails, place a Magen David Christmas Tree topper on your dining room table for 8 nights. It’s the “perfect” centerpiece and a “must-have” for all Chanukah-celebrating families.

If you’d like to get some less-controversial Hanukkah must-haves, check out our Hanukkah Gift Guides for him and her, and read why sending out “holiday” cards might not be the best idea.

Nov 30 2011

Christmas + Hanukkah = ???

By at 3:13 pm

Making an interfaith family work isn't always easy.

This year, it felt like the “holiday season” started really early. I specifically went to Starbucks on October 31 to get a pumpkin latte, in fear that by the next day they’d have switched to the “holiday drinks” and I was right. November 1 was the unofficial start of Christmas music, Christmas shopping, and Christmas decorations (and by unofficial, I really mean official).

Now, though I enjoy some aspects of the “holiday” (read: Christmas) spirit, I truthfully just ignore most of it and live in my little Jewish-world bubble in November and December.

But the other day I was talking to friends of mine who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah who are trying to navigate how to teach both holidays to their 2-year-old. It’s not always as easy as just buying a tree and lighting a menorah. I was really happy that I could tell them about this program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage coming up THIS SUNDAY to help with the dreaded December dilemma. Not only is the program free, and not only will there be music for the kids at the beginning, but then parents can listen to columnist Julie Wiener from The Jewish Week give insight on how she and her family navigated their interfaith challenges. And the kids have babysitting. WIN-WIN.

Museum of Jewish Heritage

36 Battery Place | New York, NY 10280 | 646.437.4202

Sunday, December 4, 11 am.

Don’t miss it. (Again, non-New Yorkers, I’m sorry.)


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