I grew up in a suburban town in Massachusetts that had a sizable Jewish population–enough that there were plenty of us to get together and hang out on Christmas and not feel like we were missing out on anything.
And then I went to college at Brandeis University. There are plenty of Jews there. After that, I made my career as a Jewish professional, eventually going to graduate school in Jewish education. Are you sensing a theme here? For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by Jews. That’s not to say that I haven’t had friends who aren’t Jewish (or to remove all of those double-negatives, I also have non-Jewish friends), but well, most of my friends have been Jewish.
Until now. For some reason, after having a baby, almost all of my baby-momma friends are Christian, or atheist, or Catholic, or non-practicing, or part-Hindu… but definitely not Jewish. It’s actually been wonderful. One friend has a master’s in religious studies and taught at a Catholic school, so we have really interesting conversations about religion and modernity (which tend to bore lots of the other moms, so we try not to have them during playgroup). And I love that my daughter has a diverse group of friends. And most importantly, I really value the friendships that I’ve made with these women, regardless of any of our religious affiliation. I don’t think I would have made it through the past 17 months without them.
But the Christmas season has been, well, interesting. We’ve done a lot of playgroups in people’s homes due to the cold weather, and there have been a lot of Christmas trees. While other moms are pointing these out to their children with a sense of wonder in their voices, I’m trying to remain respectful of others’ religious traditions while not cultivating that wonder in my own child. But it’s hard. Christmas trees are beautiful, the presents beneath them are enticing, and those ornaments are quite grabbable for 17-month-old hands. (And in full disclosure, I’ve always liked Christmas–it’s a beautiful holiday, a wonderful way to get through that first blast of winter, and the carols… well, I’ll put it this way. I’m a Jewish educator and I know almost all of the words to almost all of the carols. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone).
To me, distracting my child with promises of Hanukkah doesn’t do it. Hanukkah and Christmas aren’t comparable in terms of their religious importance. Christmas is the birth of the Christian savior. Hanukkah is one of those little additional holidays that didn’t even make it into the Torah–though it is also very pretty.
So what do I do? How do I gently guide my daughter away from the technicolor wonder that is a Christmas celebration? How do I teach her that though we treat it with respect, Christmas is not our holiday?
Thus far, it’s been a slow road. We go to Shir L’Shabbat (basically, tot Shabbat) every Saturday morning. Abigail knows the words to lots of the songs, and even does the hand motions for Bim Bam/Shabbat Shalom. It warms our hearts. We light Shabbat candles (when we remember). We celebrate all of the Jewish holidays as they come up. And we use Yiddish when we can (schlep, tuchus, and of course, kvell are some of our favorites).
But in truth, one of the most important Jewish lessons we’ve given our daughter is that we treat everyone with respect, no matter their religion. We’re all made in God’s image—whatever god you believe in—and so we all deserve respect. This basic Jewish value is in style year-round, but feels even more important during the Christmas season.
I don’t have all the answers yet. But I think we’ve got a good beginning. And on Christmas, we’ll be going to the movies and eating Chinese food. Because that’s our Jewish tradition. I think that one goes all the way back to the Torah.