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Finding a Home Where the Hanukkah Candles Outnumber the Christmas Trees

As a Jewish kid surrounded by Christmas cheer, an Afterschool Special inadvertently showed me that I didn’t have to try to fit in

Rebecca Klempner
November 25, 2013
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock

The neighborhood in Las Vegas where I grew up was not a Jewish one. Christmas trees popped up everywhere as soon as the tryptophan from the Thanksgiving turkey wore off. Plastic deer and elves dotted our neighbors’ lawns. Santa and his entourage waited at the mall for the youngest shoppers to confide their Christmas wishes. At my public junior high school, my classmates hummed “Jingle Bells,” donned fuzzy red and green sweaters, and compared plans for the coming holiday over lunch in the cafeteria.

My family, meanwhile, celebrated Hanukkah quietly: My sister and I kindled our menorahs alongside our mother’s. And we’d gather at my grandparents’ house, where we exchanged gifts wrapped in blue and silver while Grandpa fried up crispy latkes and Grandma baked dreidel-shaped sugar cookies, icing them in blue and white.

By eighth grade, I was a veteran of this annual Holiday Season Fiasco, spending every December surrounded by celebrations of a holiday that did not belong to me. Many of my classmates simply didn’t understand that Jews did not celebrate Christmas; others knew but somehow failed to grasp that I was Jewish. How could I be? My last name (Miller) didn’t sound Jewish, I spoke without a New York accent, and my nose was perfectly straight.

The constant bombardment of holiday cheer left me feeling overwhelmed and excluded.

Then, on Dec. 2, 1987, I walked home from school with my sister, likely humming one of the Christmas carols that had already drilled its way into my head. I’d been looking forward all week to that afternoon’s ABC Afterschool Special: Seasonal Differences purportedly told the story of a public high school whose student body argued over the display of a nativity scene. Given my frustration with Christmas celebrations at my own school, this piqued my interest greatly. Besides, Seasonal Differences starred Megan Follows, whom I’d loved when she played the title role in Anne of Green Gables. When I had heard that the talented, red-headed, feisty Follows was going to play a nice Jewish girl, just like me, I felt it was too good to be true.

My sister and I grabbed some snacks, headed to the living room, and flipped on the set. As we watched the story unfold, Dana Sherman—Follows’ character—protested the presence of the nativity scene on campus, while her non-Jewish boyfriend Mark defended it. What started off as a civil classroom discussion rapidly disintegrated into bullying and even violence. The conflict resulted in Dana and Mark’s breakup amid yelling, name-calling, and actual physical blows.

I wanted to identify with Dana, I really did. But I couldn’t. Before their breakup, Dana went Christmas shopping with Mark, and she planned to go caroling with his family. I could understand why a nice Jewish girl would want to date a cute non-Jewish boy. I’d had crushes on several of the boys in the eighth grade—none of whom were Jewish. But did dating a non-Jewish boy mean Dana had to celebrate his holidays, too? Because despite her avowed disapproval of the “more religious” nativity scene, Dana was certainly celebrating Christmas.

In true Hollywood fashion, Dana, Mark, and their classmates patched things up amicably by the end of the special, committing to tolerance of each other’s religious beliefs. Hand in hand, Dana and Mark lit a menorah and prepared to place a star atop a Christmas tree. The credits rolled, supposedly leaving viewers with a message of hope and peace. In my home, we felt neither hopeful nor peaceful.

My sister and I exchanged glances. “What the hell was that?” I asked.

Rachel rolled her eyes. “I know,” she said. “Like that’s a happy ending?”

My family was traditional but not Orthodox. My father had converted to Judaism, but the rest of his side of the family wasn’t Jewish. My sister and I never celebrated Christmas or Easter with them, though. Instead, we spent every Jewish holiday surrounded by my mother’s tight-knit Jewish clan. We ate apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah and attended Seders every Passover. I hummed along with the haunting melodies of the Yom Kippur prayers alongside my mother in synagogue. I dressed up for Purim and ate hamentaschen after the Megillah reading. Every Friday night, Mom and Grandma lit Shabbos candles, carefully checking the correct time to do so on the free calendar from the Jewish mortuary.

Maybe Dana Sherman from Seasonal Differences only felt different one season of the year. But I felt different every day and at every season. Watching the TV special, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for other people to make me feel different; I could choose to be different. So what if my neighbors, friends, and classmates stuffed their stockings, went to Mass, and ate glazed hams on the 25th of December? I could choose something else.

When I hit ninth grade, Mom switched synagogues. My sister and I joined USY, the Conservative movement’s youth organization. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to explore my Jewish identity with peers my own age. I became convinced that God had created the mitzvos for the Jewish people, and that they were not “good deeds” but “commandments.” I no longer ate non-kosher meat nor mixed milk and meat. I learned more about the Torah and daily prayers. And, most important, I had Jewish friends who were just as different from the average Las Vegas teenager as I was.

Eventually, I chose to attend a small-town college that—at the time—had no active Hillel. If I wanted a Jewish experience, I had to pursue it. I lit Shabbos candles in my dorm and hosted Friday night dinners with both Jewish and non-Jewish guests. On Passover, I prepared meals with other Jewish students or traveled to friends and family. Halfway through college, I reduced driving on Shabbos to a minimum.

My mostly non-Jewish friends noticed that I was different, but they supported the changes in my life. Friends dropped by on Shabbos to hang out, or delayed going to the movies until after sundown on Saturday. They chose restaurants with vegetarian food on the menu.

I joined an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., when I entered graduate school. Within two years, I was keeping Shabbos strictly. A year later, I was eating only in kosher establishments, and in another, I started dressing modestly. Now, on a hot day in July, I really stick out: skirt past my knees, long sleeves, scarf wound around my head. If Dana Sherman were real, she’d wonder why I dress like a freak. But I don’t feel like a freak; I feel unique and dignified.

My kids have grown up with a very different experience from the one I had at their age. We live in a predominately Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. My kids currently attend Jewish day school, not public school. Their halls are lined with verses of Torah and photos of illustrious rabbis. (Even the local public school, which one of my children attended for a while, has a Jewish majority, and his teachers were usually Jewish there, too.) Most of our local businesses decorate for Hanukkah, if they decorate at all. They’ll be open on Christmas Day, regular hours. So, when my husband, kids, and I stumble upon a house with a tree, tinsel, and lights, we’re not the ones who are different, but the neighbors.

Every year, after my husband and children light Hanukkah candles, I watch them burn a bit, then stroll down the streets of our neighborhood, my children in tow. The kids and I admire a menorah—at least one—through the front window of nearly every home. We wave at our neighbors through panes of glass, their faces glowing in the flames. We shiver in the night air.

Inevitably, we come to the house at the end of the block, the one—the only one—decorated for Christmas. Noting the fully decorated tree through the bay window, one of my sons will often declare, “Trees do not belong inside houses.” My girls point at the twinkling strings of lights hanging from the edge of the roof. “Pretty,” they say, but then my youngest will ask, “Why is there a toy man on the roof?”

Occasionally, I find myself defending my neighbor’s holiday decorations. “Hashem gave us the Torah,” I remind my children. “Why should we expect our non-Jewish neighbors to follow something that doesn’t belong to them?” Or I ask them, “Would you want our neighbors to tell us to put away our menorah?” But I wonder how the neighbors feel, surrounded by all our menorahs during Hanukkah, all our booths at Sukkot, all the deliveries of treats at Purim. Pressured? Annoyed? Or simply outnumbered, the way I once felt.

My husband and I chose our Jewish neighborhood in order to be close to synagogues and day schools. Being surrounded by Jews allows my children to grow up without feeling like outsiders or freaks. They don’t hum “White Christmas” or know the names of all of Santa’s reindeer because they’ve been spared the Holiday Season Fiasco.

But after all these years, I’m grateful that at one time, I was the one who was different. The discomfort it caused forced me to make a choice: be Jewish or blend in. If my neighbor’s Christmas tree reminds me of that, I’m glad to have it in the neighborhood.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.