By Amy Taylor
Sponsored by Congregation Ner Shalom
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein shares with us what it’s like to be Jewish at Christmas Time. Growing up in New England, she came from a different background than her congregation here in Prince William, so she polled her board to get answers other than just her own perspective. The following are a collaboration of thoughts from Rabbi Goldstein and the board at Congregation Ner Shalom.
How does it feel when people assume you celebrate Christmas?
“We understand that those who celebrate Christmas are in the majority. For the most part, Jews don’t mind a simple, ‘Merry Christmas’ at check-out counters or people asking what we’re doing ‘for the holidays’ when Chanukah is already long over. We, like many others, do tend to take our vacations between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, because that’s when schools and many businesses shut down, and it’s a good time for us to spend with our families, too. So, we get it. But it is nice when people try to be more inclusive and say, ‘Happy Holidays,’ or offer options of decorations in December, and it’s really bothersome when others declare that attempt at inclusivity as ‘a war on Christmas.’ That’s when the assumptions about our holidays and religious differences start to feel deliberate and abrasive.”
How do you feel about all the Christmas-themed commercialism that takes over much of November and December?
“It can feel a bit much. When the Christmas carols start the day after Thanksgiving, but there’s no sign of Chanukah in the public sphere, even though it is already Chanukah and Christmas is still over a month away, it can feel a bit like being erased. There’s been a lot of discourse this year, in particular in Jewish circles, about Chanukah trying to compete with Christmas in that way. Some Jewish people resent it, because Chanukah is a minor holiday and they don’t want it to be over-commercialized as a token thing.
Others really appreciate the attempts to include their holiday in the zeitgeist of the season. But to be fair, Jews contributed a lot to the commercialism of the season. Many Christmas carols are written by Jews, and the country’s first and foremost maker and seller of Christmas ball ornaments was a Jewish-owned company. ‘Chanukah bushes’ were in fashion for a stint in the mid- to late-20th century, and increased intermarriage rates in the Jewish community means many Jewish families do celebrate Christmas now as well.”
How do you spend Christmas day?
“As mentioned, because of intermarriage, blended families, ‘chosen families,’ and other arrangements of loved ones with whom people celebrate holidays these days, many non-Orthodox Jews do celebrate Christmas now with their friends or extended families (just like those non-Jewish friends and extended families now join us for our Passover Seders and Rosh Hashana dinners). The ‘tradition’ for Jews on Christmas was always to go to the movies and eat Chinese food, because the movie theaters are always open, and the Chinese restaurants were often the only ones operating on that day.
“Even now, a lot of Jews will joke about Dec. 25 being ‘Chinese food and a movie day’ or assume that’s what others are still doing, even as less and less of us are. As a teen, I [Rabbi Lizz] was invited by friends from my Jewish summer camp to go skating in Rockefeller Center’s famous skating rink on Christmas, because the crowds would be less that day, and we’d have no problem renting skates or getting into the restaurants in the area. The teen organizing the outing assumed we’d all be free that day, because we met at Jewish camp, but I knew I’d be spending the day with my mom’s side of the family, who were raised Catholic.
There was also a tradition in some Orthodox communities to stay in the synagogue and study or pray all day, because historically in Europe, Christmas and Easter were often flash points for pogroms against the Jewish populations. So those that were more isolated in the Jewish community kept the habit of huddling in together on those days.”
Do you attend social gatherings that are geared toward Christmas? If so, what is that like?
“Many offices and communities have ‘holiday parties’ that are decorated entirely in red and green, a tree in the corner, maybe Santa shows up, and often these parties happen at the end of December, which means some years that Chanukah has already passed (the Jewish calendar is mostly lunar, so our holidays don’t fall on the exact same date on the Gregorian calendar every year). These parties are generally great, and again, most non-Orthodox Jews will have no problem enjoying themselves. Who doesn’t love poinsettias and lights and gift-giving and eggnog? It’s just that, like with the commercialism question, it can feel a bit erasing.”
If you have children, how do they feel about Christmas?
“Some Jewish kids do celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish extended families. They are raised on Santa and everything else, and they love it. Some Jewish kids are not, and it can be a delicate situation. Some take the responsibility of knowing ‘the truth’ about where the Christian kids’ presents come from very seriously, and they enjoy their own holidays and families. Others may feel left out and cynical at this time of year and are likely to be the ones to burst the bubble of the other children in their elementary school. It is important for parents to navigate carefully to ensure their own kids are resolute in their beliefs and sensitive to others!”
Do you ever watch Christmas movies? If so, what is that like for you?
“No one loves ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ more than Jews and remember that ‘White Christmas’ was written by Jews. But we tend to separate from the Christmas element. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is about a man who puts his family and community before himself, who struggles with his faith, and who finds redemption through suffering, which are also Jewish values and themes.”
What is your advice for people who celebrate Christmas to be more inclusive of Jewish people (and really all others) at Christmas time?
“The best way to be more inclusive is just to avoid assumptions about who is celebrating what. There are a lot of festivals of light and solstice at this time of year, and some religious traditions that don’t celebrate any holidays at all. Sticking with ‘Happy holidays’ or politely asking people what they celebrate and how, can not only feeling more embracing to minority religious people, but will open up conversation for more understanding between all people!”
To read some of Rabbi Goldstein’s contributions to Prince William Living, click here.