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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
dreidels

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.)

Nov 29 2011

Why Do Jews Send Out “Holiday” Cards?

By at 11:37 am
happy holidays

Which holidays are we celebrating, exactly?

This is around the time of year that people want my address. I am always reluctant to give it to them, because I know why they want it. They want to send me a holiday card, which is really nice. However, they won’t be getting one from me, and that makes me feel bad.

As you may recall, I love mail. I love thank you notes. I check my mail ardently every day to see if there is anything being delivered for me that bears a human touch, as opposed to mean notifications from LabCorp or Verizon (am I the only one who thinks bills are inherently nasty little critters?). So you would think holiday cards would be right up my alley.

But they’re not.

First, let’s not beat around the Hanukkah bush anymore. These are not really “holiday” cards we’re talking about. The reason people send cards around this time of year is to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And that makes sense. Christmas is an extremely important holiday for Christians. But not for me.

You can dance your way around this one, of course, by saying your card says “Happy Holidays!” or “Happy Hanukkah!” or “ Happy New Year.” Well, “Happy Holidays” means more than one holiday – and I’m assuming you’re not talking about Hanukkah and Shabbat. You’re talking about the “holiday season,” i.e. the fact that Hanukkah happens to fall around the same time of year as Christmas. But those two holidays could not be less alike, and shouldn’t be equated. Christmas is a sacred holiday for Christians. Hanukkah is a historical commemoration that is pretty minor in the scheme of things. They’re not the same at all. You want to wish your Christian friends a happy holiday? That’s nice – but why is it that Christians feel secure enough in who they are to wish me a Happy New Year in September without sending apples and honey to my house?

Okay, how about a card that says “Happy Hanukkah”? Well, maybe I’m just not a card person, but that seems weird. All those Sukkot and Simchat Torah cards you guys sent me got lost in the mail. Also, again, Hanukkah is meant to commemorate not assimilating – so why appropriate a Christian tradition to celebrate it? And a “Happy New Year” card? Eh. I’ve got much more invested – my identity, history, culture, and ethics – in 5772 than I do in 2012, which will just be something I fail to write on my checks until April.

I’m going to alienate lots of people, I’m sure, by saying this, but when I see Jewish families sending out “holiday” cards, I wonder if they’ve given enough thought as to why they’re doing it. As I’ve written before, Hannukah is not one and the same as Christmas – in fact, Hannukah’s entire purpose is to celebrate Jews who refused to appropriate other people’s traditions as their own. Read the rest of this entry →

Nov 1 2011

No Hanukkah Love From the Biebs

By at 1:24 pm
justin bieber with a menorah

This is photoshopped, in case it's not obvious.

Here’s a joke for you: what do a Jewish manager, a Hebrew tattoo, and the Shema have to do with Hanukkah? Apparently nothing, if you ask Justin Bieber, whose debut Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe drops today. And according to his inappropriately blunt manager, his testicles have dropped too, rendering him deeper than ever! Yay?

Justin sings two octaves lower on his new album, but for you pre-pubescent falsetto lovers, he’s also belting it out in his girly voice with Mariah. He’s a favorite amongst tribe members, but overlooking even a driedel mention could be detrimental for his rep in the holy land.

Me? I’ll be adding JB’s holiday mash up to my collection alongside Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers Once Upon A Christmas and NKOTB Funky, Funky Christmas (don’t judge).  When I converted to Judaism, I surrendered three boxes of snowman ornaments, my Jesus cookie cutter (because Jesus cookies are delicious), and our annual tree-cutting – on ONE condition – I was able to keep, AND LISTEN TO, all of my holiday music.  I am totally THAT PERSON who programs my car radio to the Christmas station the day after Thanksgiving and belts out jingle bells with the car windows down in the middle of a snow storm. I’m hardcore, people. You couldn’t pry my precious holiday CD collection out of my steely grip if you promised me chocolate hands and painless childbirth.

I can’t tell you the number of people (including my husband) who have tried to tell me, “There really is some beautiful Hanukkah music out there, you should try it.” Does it include a boy drumming? Perhaps a serene chariot ride through the woods to your bubbe’s house? Does it talk about winter or snowy wonderlands? No. No it does not. And while there are a lot of things about Judaism that are just as special, if not better than Americanized Christian celebrations, winter holiday music ain’t one of them. Admittedly, I do own a few Hanukkah albums, including the Adam Sandler classic and my favorite Hanukkah song is by far, “Ocho Kandelikas” (I dare you to listen to that song without shaking your hips!) but there really isn’t a comparison and probably explains why my husband plays The Maccabeats “Candelight” on repeat for eight nights. Read the rest of this entry →

Oct 10 2011

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Sukkot

By at 11:35 am

Sukkot is one of my favorite Jewish Holidays, and it is wonderful and fun for kids.  You get to build a club house and decorate it with all of your awesome art and crayon creations. You can eat, play, and sing in it, and, if you are lucky, camp out under the stars.

From a farmer’s perspective, the holiday makes lots of sense.  Sukkot falls during the peak of the fall harvest. I find it very natural to feel a direct connection to our ancestors who built sukkot long ago. And from a mother’s perspective,  shifting meals outside is a welcome relief because there is no need to pick up all of the crumbs that fall to the ground.

Sounds a little too perfect, right? What’s the catch?  For us, it’s a bit unusual.  Over the past year, my 4-year-old has shown his first real signs of Christmas envy.  Every once in a while, he will start wistfully talking about candy canes, ornaments, and, of course, Christmas trees. (His main exposure has been friends talking about it at preschool, and the glimmering trees we have stumbled upon here and there.)

Whenever he talks longingly about Christmas, it sends me into a bit of a panic. How will we manage to impart a solid, joyful Jewish identity to our children, with all of its complexity, hard questions, and devastating history — when shimmery, happy, easy going Christmas seems to be hidden around every corner?

In the midst of one somewhat desperate Jewish sales pitch, I  recently found myself saying that during Sukkot, we get to decorate an entire hut–not just one tree.

“You mean with pretty lights and candy canes?” He asked. “That’s one way to decorate,” I said.

We’re in the process of building our sukkah now. All of the pieces from the branches for the frame to the corn stalks on top will come from our farm.  And once it is built, it will be time to decorate.

I am not sure I will be able to find candy canes this time of year (plus I don’t allow my children to eat artificial colors), but I think I will look for some healthy, natural treats to hang from the ceiling.  And if we make some decorations, I guess we can call them sukkah ornaments, because technically they are.

I’m doing my best to make sure that my children have a fun Sukkot this year.  Come Christmas time, we’ll hopefully remember how we played, sang, danced, ate treats, and even got to build and decorate an entire sukkah.

Photo: Aaron_M

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