My family tree is loaded with tinsel
This Dec. 25, while many Bay Area Jews will be lighting their Hanukka candles and tucking into their traditional Chinese takeout, I’ll be where I am every year — enjoying Christmas dinner at my mother’s house.
Yes, my mother isn’t Jewish. And yes, I grew up with the tree, and the presents, and the stockings bulging with goodies from Santa. There were no creches, no midnight masses, no religious ritual of any kind — Christmas was family time. My memories are of crackling fires and falling snow and a twinkling tree and, above all, that gorgeous, excessive dinner where all the relatives got together to eat, drink, laugh, and reminisce.
Well, not all the relatives — just my mother’s side of the family. My dad’s parents hosted our Passover seders, which were what gave me the Jewish identity that eventually, at age 19, took me to the mikva.
Let’s be clear: I am totally, unequivocally Jewish. I always have been, even before I got that official certificate signed by the three rabbis from Brooklyn (one didn’t speak English, I swear). Going to my mom’s for Christmas takes nothing away from that.
So why does the Jewish community make things so difficult for me and the hundreds of thousands of other American Jews who have non-Jewish relatives? In this country, one out of every two Jews marries a non-Jew, and those non-Jews have parents and siblings and uncles and aunts. That’s a lot of Christmas trees.
As intermarriage increases, so will those blended families. Six years ago, a Hillel survey found that 47 percent of college students who identify as Jewish come from intermarried homes.
Look carefully at that number: It means that for today’s young Jews, intermarriage isn’t a problems, it’s who they are. Many young Jews may be committed to marrying Jewish, but plenty of their friends don’t feel the same way, even if they want to build Jewish homes. As they say, it’s complicated.
I’ve been working in the Jewish media for 20 years, and many’s the time I’ve been called upon to cover events on Dec. 25. There I am on the phone with this or that prominent Jewish organization, telling them why I can’t attend, and the reaction is always the same. The sharp intake of breath. The careful pause. The unspoken question.
Why can’t we openly acknowledge what we all know is going on?
And don’t get me started on the shame. The Jewish professional who was asked at a Hadassah lunch where she got her sweater and was too embarrassed to say it was a Christmas present. The college student who mentioned his grandparents’ Christmas tree at a Hillel dinner and heard the room go silent. Like me, these are Jews. Like me, they love their families.
Sometimes we hide the truth to avoid embarrassing a well-intentioned questioner. I’ve done that, usually when older Jews ask me how I’ll be celebrating the holidays. Why make them uncomfortable?
Maybe that shame is generational. Paul Cohen, who facilitates the Journey to Judaism course at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, says the times are changing.
“I see less of it among younger people,” he told me. “It’s almost like having an LGBT relative — in our generation, it wasn’t talked about as much.”
Karen Kushner, the chief education officer at InterfaithFamily.com, spoke to a blogger in Dallas who said she was fed up.
“There are many people in her congregation who put up trees, and they’re tired of being criticized,” Kushner related. “It’s a symptom of ‘old’ thinking. There are so many people with non-Jews in their extended families who just want to celebrate with them.”
Now I would never put up a tree in my own house. To me, a Christmas tree marks a home as non-Jewish. You can put a star of David on top of it, you can call it a Hanukka bush, but in my book it’s still a Christmas tree. And my home is Jewish.
But my mother’s home is not. And are we not commanded to honor our father and mother?
So enjoy your chow mein. Me, I’m having turkey. With all the trimmings. And afterward my mother, my sisters, and their families will watch me light the Hanukka candles. And we’ll celebrate — together.