By Daisy Alpert Florin
I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular?
We were in New York to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and my nine-year-old daughter was confused.
“Why are we going to a Christmas show when we’re not Christian?” Ellie asked me, twirling her penguin earring with two fingers.
I gripped her hand tightly as we made our way through the busy midtown streets. “It doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not,” I told her. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”
Before the show, we walked over to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Sam, Ellie’s older brother, was blunt: “Why are we here? We’re Jewish.” Later, her 5-year-old brother Oliver declined an invitation to sit on Santa’s lap at a pre-show luncheon. “We celebrate Hanukkah, remember?” he said, loud enough for our whole table to hear.
The show itself was pure Christmas kitsch: high-kicking Rockettes, dancing Santas and speeches about believing in the magic of Christmas. It was the visual equivalent of eating a bag of gummy bears, and I loved it.
On the ride home, I asked Ellie what she thought of the show.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I just don’t like how people make such a big deal about Christmas. There’s no show like that about Hanukkah. I mean, the only show I’ve ever been to that had anything to do with Hanukkah was at camp. It’s not fair.”
“That’s because Christian people dominate,” Sam said from the back seat. “If they made a show like that about Hanukkah, it would be a waste of money because no one would go.”
Ellie looked out the window, a pensive frown on her face. I sensed she was grappling with issues of identity that had been brought up by the winter holidays because just the week before she had been upset after visiting the school book fair.
“Did you know there were twelve books about Christmas and only four about Hanukkah?” she told me when she came home. Her eyes were bright behind her blue glasses.
I told her that Hanukkah is probably the only Jewish holiday the book fair would have any books about and that was most likely because of its chronological connection to Christmas. (This kind of nod to religious equality always annoyed me. I felt the same way when the school orchestra felt the need to play a Hanukkah song at its winter concert, and it was always the Dreidel song. “Thousands of years of history reduced to the Dreidel song,” I would gripe.) Plus, I said, in light of how many Jewish kids went to her public school, I thought four books was a lot.
“It shouldn’t matter how many people there are,” she said. “There are more girls than boys in the world but that doesn’t mean girls are treated any better than boys.”
I could tell she considered this an injustice, and who was I to tell her it wasn’t? If this was her nine-year-old version of identity politics, more power to her.
But it got me thinking about what it meant to raise Jewish children, especially at Christmas. Ellie’s nascent sense of persecution was not something I could relate to because I had grown up celebrating Christmas. I was raised by a Jewish father and a Swedish mother but was not really part of either culture; we didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays or speak Swedish. Neither of my parents was religious, so our version of Christmas included a tree, gingerbread house and stockings, not Jesus or the Virgin Mary. (Easter was much the same: no resurrection, just jelly beans.) My husband, Ken, had grown up in an observant Jewish family and when we got married, I converted to Judaism and stopped formally celebrating Christmas.
Ken and I wanted our children to feel connected to religion in a way neither of us had growing up. We wanted being Jewish to mean something to them so, from an early age, we encouraged them to self-identify as Jews and sent them to Hebrew school, Jewish preschool and Jewish camps. I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? That was something I hadn’t considered.
When the kids were younger, they had asked lots of questions about Christmas, wondering why Santa Claus didn’t come to their house and why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree. What made it more confusing was learning that I had celebrated Christmas as a child. “You mean, you get to choose?” Sam asked me once.
I didn’t always know the best way to answer these questions because, to be honest, I was also grappling with what it meant to give up the traditions of my childhood. I had no model for celebrating Hanukkah so for a few years, I kind of winged it. But with time, I thought we had created Hanukkah traditions that were meaningful and joyous, while keeping the holiday in perspective. I never tried to make Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas” because such comparisons felt phony to me. I wanted just being Jewish to be enough for them, and for me.
Now that the kids are older, they have accepted that we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a better understanding of their identities as Jews. But it seems that with that process has come a kind of hardening toward Christmas. Instead of viewing it with wonder, they see it as something they have to resist. If Ellie sees Christmas as an aggressive force that could lay bare her identity as an outsider, I could understand how watching the Christmas Spectacular—and her Jewish mother smiling and clapping along—could be destabilizing.
That feeling I could relate to. As a child, I had often been confused by my dual identity. I wasn’t really Christian or Jewish but somewhere—or perhaps nowhere—in between. I had wanted something different for my children which was why I had chosen to give them a strong religious identity, at least to start out with. But while I was able to embrace the parts of Christmas that weren’t religious, like Santa and the Rockettes, Ellie found this difficult because she was still understanding what it meant to be part of a religious minority. Maybe one day she would be able to enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but today was not that day.
Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at www.daisyflorin.com.
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