Thirteen years ago, I attended a welcome meeting for incoming students at the University of Toronto, where I was about to start my graduate studies in linguistics. The conversation turned toward Jews and Israel and kosher food. One of my future professors, an observant Jew, announced: “In Israel people don’t keep kosher very much because they think they are Jewish enough without it.”
As the only Israeli in the room, I wasn’t sure how to react to that. Apart from the condescending undertones and the awkwardness of your people being referred to as “they” in your presence, I didn’t find anything offensive in her statement. Of course they feel Jewish enough without it, I thought; communities outside their home environment have to work harder to maintain their sense of identity.
I’ve witnessed it many times. Serbian immigrants in America refuse to have ketchup on their pasta because they think it’s not Serbian enough, while their former compatriots in Serbia have long adopted it as their staple food. Native Ojibwe speakers in Toronto avoid using English loanwords for fear of “contaminating” their language, but those who live in isolated northern communities spit out sentence after sentence full of English nouns (Kiwii-miicin na pork chops naanta toast-and-butter?). Russian immigrants in the U.K. favor music and movies from the Soviet era, whereas Russians back in Russia have long moved on from those. Language, food preferences, traditions—everything stagnates in diaspora. Back at home, because the sense of belonging is taken for granted, people feel freer to develop as they like, unconstrained.
When I lived in Israel, I could afford to be pretty relaxed about Jewish traditions. Forgot to buy matzo for Passover? No worries, you can get it anytime, anywhere. Thinking of lighting Shabbat candles this week? No need to think too hard: They hand them out on Fridays on the streets in Jerusalem. On Jewish holidays, people say chag sameach to each other casually and there are decorations to remind you what chag it is. You can participate or just watch, or ignore it all if you like. But it’ll still be there, and it makes you feel like you belong.
Feeling Jewish in Israel is so automatic and mundane that one rainy December evening 15 years ago in Jerusalem, my future husband and I, along with some friends—mostly bored young students in search of the exotic—didn’t think twice before going to a nearby church to listen to the Christmas service and enjoy the holiday spirit. There was a fireplace and a piano in the front room, plaid blankets and woven throws on the comfy couches—all things completely alien to the Jerusalem environment. It all felt very cozy and wintry and thrillingly foreign. My husband played the piano, we warmed our hands on mugs of hot tea, listened to the Mass, and sang along to Christmas carols.
A year and a half later, on a warm August afternoon, while exploring the University of Toronto campus—the place that would become our home for the next five years—we were excited to come upon a Protestant church, and on the first opportunity went in to listen to the service. But within minutes it became clear that we were outsiders there, completely out of place. The church wasn’t filled with cool, progressive-thinking and bored students looking to break away from the mainstream, but with regular people of Christian faith. It felt hypocritical, even disrespectful (toward ourselves and those people) for us to be there. We left before the service was over and never went back. We were in a foreign country now, we thought, so we should start behaving like Jews.
Since then, the realization firmly took hold on us that we’re not “Jewish enough” outside Israel without actively asserting our Jewishness in some way. We didn’t grow up religious or even observant, but we both felt that the least we can do in diaspora to maintain our sense of Jewish identity is not casually walk into a church to attend a Christian service. And after we had kids, it became all the more important to us to teach them to differentiate between what’s ours and what isn’t.
That is never more true and never more challenging than during the Christmas season. Over the years spent in diaspora, I’ve honed my Christmas-avoiding skills to perfection. I’ve become something of a Christmas-avoiding-virtuoso, if you like. I order groceries and gifts online. When out and about, I take a long detour to avoid the glittering town center and any Christmas-related festivities. I hole up at home and wait till this detour from the normal—this break between November and January that makes me feel like I’m swallowed by the mainstream while at the same time intensifying my feeling like an outsider—is over.
That’s how it was last year, too. I spent the entire first three weeks of December doing everything, as usual, to avoid the Christmas crowds, the consumerism, the noise. I stayed clear of any shopping areas larger than a corner store and changed routes if I knew of any Christmas-related gatherings ahead. I was able to uphold my no-Christmas policy until the day we boarded the plane to Israel for our winter vacation. That was the first time in 15 years that we were going there in the winter, and I was excited at the prospect of meeting wintry Jerusalem again.
The moment we disembarked in Ben-Gurion airport, I sighed with relief because I was finally safe from the Christmas madness. We passed security, gathered our suitcases and wheeled them to the arrivals area relieved at the absence of Christmas decorations.
At arrivals, we were met by my sister, who enthusiastically announced our plan for the day: We would drive to my parents’ place, drop our bags there, and immediately head to the Christmas fair that had just opened up in the YMCA at the city center.
I was about to open my mouth to protest but suddenly felt that I had no excuse not to go. In a matter of five hours and 3,000 miles, Christmas became cool and exotic again. An event that only the most open-minded and liberal-thinking outliers would dare to go to.
And so we went. Through the beautifully decorated Hanukkah-themed city center, we drove to the YMCA in central Jerusalem, where we found an unobtrusive indoor makeshift Christmas fair. A tall thin blond woman dressed as Santa Claus was having a smoke break at the side entrance to the building when we arrived. I got to do all the things I successfully avoided doing in England: admire the decorated Christmas tree, walk along aisles laden with Christmas goodies, listen to Christmas carols and drink Christmas-themed hot drinks. It all would have felt very advanced and unconventional and European had I not just come from England, where I could have attended a much better and authentic Christmas fair and met the real Santa who doesn’t take smoke breaks (or at least not during visiting hours). As it was, I felt like I was in the midst of a strange anthropological experiment—only I wasn’t sure if I was its leader or one of its subjects.
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Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Forward, CBC and other outlets.