Christmas confessions of a Jewish girl
NEW YORK — The first holiday decorations to go up around New York City this season were menorahs - menorahs in just about every business window whether Jewish-, Christian- or Muslim-operated. The biggest one I saw was erected on the square in front of the Plaza Hotel where, despite the hotel's part-Saudi ownership, the Israeli flag still waves prominently among a select few others.
Every new December sees the Judeo part of the country's Judeo-Christian foundations get more prominent celebration, an inclusion that is all the more generous given that Hanukkah isn't considered the high holiday in the Jewish religion that Christmas is in the Christian religion.
It's gotten to the point that New York public school policy allows for a menorah ("not a religious symbol") to be displayed, but not a Nativity scene ("too religious") - as a current lawsuit against the city has brought to light.
It's even gotten so that non-Jews have acquired a complex, wherein today they worry that saying "Merry Christmas" to someone will offend, and follow with an immediate apology: "... or is it Hanukkah? I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Which means we Jews have actually succeeded in making Gentiles sound Jewish.
At the same time, imagine that last week I found myself at the annual Konigsberg Christmas party. Note the last name. She's half-Catholic, half-Jewish. He's fully Jewish. That makes the couple three-quarters Jewish - celebrating Christmas.
I can understand why. As a little girl watching "The Sound of Music" every year, I felt left out during the Duracell battery commercials where a family would be gathered around a Christmas tree opening presents.
Hanukkah gift-giving, which for me culminated in a lump sum of $15 on the first night, felt like a consolation prize. I was ever green with envy.
Finally one year, I exclaimed to my father, "I want to be Christian!" I don't remember what he answered, but the family didn't convert. I began to contemplate, how might a Jew steal Christmas?
Thinking back with nostalgia to when I was an even younger child living in Russia, I recalled the Decembers when there would be a "New Year's tree" in the apartment. Since Jesus Christ was illegal in the Soviet Union, Russians kept New Year's trees instead of Christmas trees, and "Old Man Frost" gave children presents in celebration of winter. I longed to have that experience again.
Of course, later I grew up and discovered the joys of assimilation. So too, apparently, did my husband, who in recent years has ended up being the chief decorator of the tree at his work. The equivalent of the "Sabbath Goy," he calls himself the "Christmas Jew."
My mother recently lamented a decline in the world's Jewish population (one of her many back-handed attempts to get a grandchild out of me), citing a new report by the Jewish Agency that showed American Jewry is down by 300,000 in the last decade, and the downslide promises to continue. Reasons offered as key were low birthrates and assimilation, but I contend that the lure of Christmastime is primarily to blame.
After half a century of political battles fought to exempt our kids from saying the Lord's Prayer or singing Christmas songs in school - where Hanukkah songs are now being sung, too - let's be honest: Jews love Christmas.
Now that they're entitled to opt out, secular Jews want in on the caroling. Many have dropped the pretense of the "Hanukkah bush" (there's no such thing) to make room for the fully decked Christmas tree (albeit with dreidels dangling).
At a time when Christians are trying to bring meaning back to a very commercialized Christmas, it's that very commercialism that is drawing the new celebrants, who manage to divorce the holiday from its origins.
We Jews don't mind honoring the Savior as long as we can skip accepting him as such.
And really, who could resist the infectious, if secular, spirit of Christmas? Certainly not my doctor's Jewish neighbor, whom she told me she spied reading "The Night Before Christmas" to his toddler under the Christmas tree in the building lobby. Or her Jewish patient who announced that he and his wife would be doing some belt-tightening this year - spending $2,500 per child instead of the usual $5,000 on Christmas gifts.
No doubt more Jews have visited the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree than the huge brass menorah on Fifth Avenue.
I used to think it was somehow cheating for Jewish people to take advantage of the Christmas sales. But today I ask, hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew senses, affections, passions? If you offer us a discount, will we not spend? Or a Christmas vacation, will we not take it?
People often ask why there are so many Jews in New York. Maybe it really is because there's nothing lovelier than a New York Christmas.
• Julia Gorin is a stand-up comic and contributing editor to JewishWorldReview.com.