Three weeks ago, my 4-year-old came home with a sheet of instructions for her preschool’s “holiday book exchange.” The idea was perfectly harmless: Every child brings in a gift-wrapped book for one of their classmates. Then they all sit down and open them together. It was apparently also key that the name of the giftee was written out on a paper yule wreath and that the exchange itself would take place underneath the classroom Christmas tree, which was also a thing.
I wasn’t upset. I didn’t feel persecuted, excluded, or fearful for my daughter’s Jewish identity. If anything, I was baffled. I do a lot of work in the vast, nebulous field of branding, where we spend a lot of time helping clients either say exactly what they mean or sedulously avoid it. Where people get into trouble is when they do one when they should be doing the other. Christmas, no matter what form it takes, is still Christmas. And I wish people would just own that.
I did what any intellectually responsible person—Jewish or otherwise—might do in the situation: I wrote a polite email to the teacher, her second-in-command, and one of the parent liaisons, pointing out that this was a Christmas event. Why not just call it that? Whether they realized it or not, in this case striving for inclusiveness could come off as insulting or condescending. I made it quite clear that I wasn’t offended but that someone else easily could have been.
I thought I was being helpful, if a little snarky. I certainly didn’t expect the long and anxious email back from the teacher. She assured me that the school acknowledged every single winter religious celebration, even some that I hadn’t heard of. She invited me to the classroom’s Hanukkah demonstration that week (I was out of town, which was probably for the best). I would have felt bad for putting her on the defense. But one sentence in her note seemed at odds with everything she was trying to accomplish: “In my 17 years as a teacher, I have never known of a Jewish family that did not keep a Christmas tree in the home for the enjoyment of the children.”
Never mind that I was raised Conservative and never had a Christmas tree, or that at the time, I had trouble thinking of a close Jewish friend or colleague who grew up with one. I don’t begrudge anyone their Christmas tree. What galled me was the goy-splaining—a non-Jew trying to set me straight about how Jews behave.
That seems to be the way these things so often go. Non-Christians ask for simple transparency around Christmas and instead get further obfuscation. I am by no means a foot solider in the War on Christmas. My email wasn’t an attack on a holiday; I hadn’t asked for Christmas to go away. I’d specifically tried to avoid a skirmish in the War on Christmas or to force a larger conversation about the school’s philosophical bent. On the contrary, I wanted Christmas to be more explicit.
But now, she’d put me on the defensive. I wasn’t being asked what Jews thought—I was being told by an outsider how I was supposed to think. As a Jew, you have to pick your battles this time of year, and I almost invariably choose to keep my mouth shut and save everyone the unnecessary hand-wringing. But I never suspected that doing otherwise would lead to a challenge. I was mistaken: I was a non-Christian being asked to knuckle under and accept some watered-down version of Christmas as my own.
What do I know about being Jewish, anyway? I grew up a faculty brat in the South, in a place where there were enough Jews to sustain two synagogues. I was raised Conservative-lite; pork was a strict no-no, but shrimp was OK outside of the house—usually at Chinese restaurants. I had a bar mitzvah and made the obligatory high-school trip to Israel. But I’ve always felt shaky about my ethno-religious identity. I’m not hard to identify as Jewish, whatever that means; I used to invoke Woody Allen, but that’s off the table these days.
There’s nothing concrete for me to point to that makes me definitively Jewish. I’m not involved in a formal Jewish community, I’m not a regular synagogue-goer, and I couldn’t name a single Saul Bellow novel. My Jewish identity is all smoke, mirrors, and innuendo, and it fills me with—surprise, surprise—guilt.
Since I became a parent, it also fills me with dread. While I married a non-Jew, my infant daughter was legit converted in a ceremony involving five rabbis, a mikveh, and a cameo by a Holocaust Survivor. (This sounds like the set-up for a joke, I know, but there’s no punch line.) Her mother was always more proactive than I was in making sure our child was exposed to Jewish ritual and made some inroads into the local community. Then I got divorced, leaving the dangling question of well, now what? I had to figure out how to raise a Jewish child without the efforts of my former spouse.
No matter what I’d like to believe, osmosis is only part of the answer; I am the way I am because of how I was brought up, as well as what I was simply exposed to. And I guess I haven’t exposed my daughter to much Judaism. But whether I’m being haphazard or lazy about my daughter’s Jewish upbringing is beside the point. I don’t want anyone else arbitrating what is or is not Jewish—for her or for me. That seems to come up a lot at this time of year.
The holiday season itself isn’t the enemy. It’s a chance to hold up a mirror to your identity. No matter what form it takes, Christmas is going to be Christmas. But decrying Christmas as a War on Jews is every bit as reactive as the notion of a War on Christmas. Instead, there’s something to be said for circling the wagons, turning inward, and taking stock of exactly what it is you have going for you in place of all this looming goyishness. Even if you wanted to take a stand, doing so without a proper sense of what you’re working with (and where you’re coming from) is a baseless assertion. Christmas is very much about Jews—not as a provocation or a way to describe what we aren’t, but as an opportunity to shore up exactly who we are as Jews. And in my case, do some soul-searching about what that means for me as a parent.
For the first night of Hanukkah this year, we lit candles hastily, ate latkes, and played dreidel until the kids ran off to eat all the gelt. I barely scratched the surface of the holiday, but my daughter didn’t seem to have much interest in hearing about the Maccabees anyway.
My shrink is fond of telling me that single parenting isn’t a series of decisions about parenting. It’s negotiating your relationship with your child on a decidedly first-person level. Like many people in my position, Jewish or otherwise, I end up with an unpredictable cocktail of what I’m wont to do and I think I should do. It’s scary sometimes, hovering in the vacuum with some portion of your child’s future in your hands. So, when there’s an assist thrown your way or an opportunity presents itself, you jump on it.
When I saw my ex-wife again mid-week, I found out that she had been celebrating Hanukkah with our daughter, too, and probably more effectively than I had. She now knew the brachot and and the basic overview of the story. I could’ve felt threatened—I supposed I had done a pretty half-assed job, especially given my background—but instead, it was heartening. It gave me something to build on; I filled out the Hanukkah story for my daughter with snide commentary about how “everyone is always out to get the Jews.” One night I ran through “Maoz Tzur” with her. No sentence should ever include the phrase “the gravity of Hanukkah” but thanks to Christmas, it’s a very real thing. My daughter happily surmised that “Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Jewish. But my mom celebrates Christmas, so it’s OK if I do.”
When the school’s latest newsletter showed up in my inbox last week, the “holiday book exchange” was now called simply a “book exchange.” The tangled “holiday” euphemism was gone. Then, the next day, I noticed a fully stuffed menorah displayed prominently at the entrance to the building, even though Hanukkah had ended a week before. Reluctantly, I had won the War on Christmas.
Or not. There’s still a Christmas tree in the classroom. And a few days ago, my child was sent home with an art project she’d made in class: a glitter-strewn tree ornament with a darling photo of her in the middle.
At least no one had referred to it as a “holiday ornament.”
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Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com. He has contributed to GQ, Salon, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter @freedarko.