The Jew Who Loved Christmas | a story of assimilation
For those who know me now, the idea that I, a devout Jew who spends her free time writing a blog on Jewish mysticism and plans to head to rabbinical school, could ever have loved Christmas is, frankly, ludicrous.
But it's true.
For a few years in my early teens (roughly 13-16), I was obsessed with Christmas. It had nothing to do with Christianity--far from it, as a Jew, Christianity freaked me out, but I was enamored with the Christmas ideology that I had been spoon-fed from birth in the United States.
I grew up in Los Angeles, across the street from my local shul, in a relatively observant family. We were the ones who hosted 30+ people Shabbat dinners and went to shul by 10 am the next morning (walking, of course). We had a custom-built, 7-foot tall Channukiah outside of our home (we still do!) that we lit every single year. I went to Hebrew school off and on, and my Israeli father ensured that I could say every Bracha (prayer) without an American accent.
But I was lonely.
Through elementary school, I had a few Jewish classmates, but none that practiced, and the overwhelming majority of people in my life were "secular" Christians. And to me, "secular" meant ordinary. Ordinary meant Christmas.
Growing up with Jewish parents, and spiritual ones at that, meant that I felt ostracized. My mother did the absolute best she could to give me Judaism in a meaningful way. My shul was lovely, and I loved my Rebbe's daughters, with whom I practically grew up, but something was missing. I craved a sense of community that I saw my peers partake in during the season of Christmas. The shared experiences that I didn’t get to be part of.
In third grade at a public school, I was made to color in pages of baby Jesus lying in the manger. I learned more Christmas carols in French alone than I ever did Channukah songs. We drew Christmas trees and made ornaments for a tree that I would never have. And while my parents were always the ones to bring in latkes for Channukah (on the old green camping stove), it was never enough.
I wanted to be ordinary.
I couldn’t relate to the kids who sat next to me and discussed their Christmasses, who talked about how they were going to go for sleepovers on Friday nights as I had to stay home for the Shabbat ceremony. None of their parents wanted to make the drive to my home, so Saturday-Sunday sleepovers were a rarity, and I felt deprived. When they did make the trip, they would smirk as we sang Lecha Dodi, and groan at how long the ceremony was. I squirmed as they laughed, shrugging it off and joining in on the teasing of my favorite part of the week.
Looking back, these qualms seem minimal at best, but at the time, it felt like a knife to the heart to be one of the only kids in the class who was different when what I longed for so badly was to be ordinary.
There was a girl in my class who was Coptic Christian, but at some level, she could relate with others. And even when she wasn’t in school, she attended a Coptic Church and sang in the choir with her childhood best friend. My best friend, however, was a “cultural Christian,” whose maternal grandmother had fled Austria during the Holocaust. Judaism stopped with her. I had no Jewish friends whose families practiced. I felt, in many ways, alone.
So, just as I sat and stared at airbrushed images of impossibly beautiful supermodels, I stared at LL Bean catalogs and yearned for a family as perfect as the one within its pages.
To me, my life would be perfect if my family was like the one in those pages. If we all wore matching flannel pajamas and gathered around a decorated tree, and tore open our perfectly wrapped presents, we would be the quintessential family. My problems would be torn to shreds as I tore into green and red gifts, containing the latest Webkinz or American Girl Doll.
It was the escapist fantasy of a traumatized child who wanted nothing more in the world than to feel accepted.
I suffered a great deal of trauma as a child, much of which I related to my Jewish identity. Coupled with the already present feelings of ostracization by my majority Christian (even secular) classmates, I began to idealize the catalog version of Christmas. The gingerbread and hot cocoa version of Christmas.The version that didn't mention Jesus save for in a Christmas carol that you could blast in the background.
If I were to celebrate Christmas, I would be normal. Normal children did not suffer the trauma that I suffered. Normal children did not feel the anger, the pain, the hurt that I did. Normal children did not have complex PTSD as 10-year-olds, nor did they suffer from disordered eating patterns by age 12. Normal children did not have the trauma that I did.
So by middle school, all I wanted, more than anything in the world, was to be normal. And that meant Christmas.
My wonderful mother indulged the teenage me. She took me to Ikea, and we bought red and gold ornaments, and she used her Martha Stewart-like skills to turn our home into a red and gold winter wonderland.
The theme of our "fake Christmas"? Mushrooms. Specifically, red and white toadstools.
In Germany, my mother's birthplace, red caps are a symbol of good luck. In fact, they are commonly known as gluckspilz, which translates to "Lucky mushroom."
She even helped me accomplish my one goal: matching pajamas.
My entire family woke up on the 25th (which happened to be during Channukah) and met in the living room. The fire crackled in the hearth, and we opened the gifts we chose for each other. We then feasted on sushi (which became a happy tradition).
I felt happy.
That night, as we lit the Channukiot, I felt blissful.
The next year, my mother's decorations went even further. Her talent for decorating cannot be understated. While there were no explicit Christmas decorations, the red, white, and gold decorations felt whimsical. I can't imagine how my Orthodox Rebbe and Rebbetzin felt walking into our home during that two week period.
Again, that year, I felt joy. I felt happy.
But, the year that I turned 17, something changed. I had found the joy in Judaism again. It wasn't through Torah study or tzniut, but through community. I had joined what is known as "JTwitter," the active community of Jews online who discuss all things Judaism.
I lit up (like a Christmas tree) about Judaism. It brought me a joy that I thought I had lost forever through trauma, and while my family still put up the red and white decorations, it had nothing to do with Christmas, but rather with my own acceptance of my existence as a Jew.
My mother and I talked about it on a long drive home from the further-away-than-normal-kosher-market, and I cried to her at a stoplight, choking on the words that I felt like I was home again. That the joy I thought I could only find through being "ordinary" (read: Christmas) had been found within my own community the whole time.
I remember telling her, my heart pounding, that I was grateful that she had indulged me, but I didn't need "fake Christmas" anymore. I didn't need to be part of the norm. I no longer feel ashamed of being Jewish. No longer afraid of my roots, of my truth, of my home within Judaism. And that truth has lasted.
This year, I celebrated Channukah in my own home, but I will pull out the red and white mushrooms and place them around my house because during this time of miracles, we can all use a little luck, and I have been more than luck to come home to Judaism.
Notes: I just want to make note of how frightened I was to post this. We often fall into the hole of being 'perfect' Jews and expressing the journeys we have gone through to find our spirituality can be taboo. I proudly embody Judaism in my every moment, even writing about how Chanukah and rituals are a means of resistance to assimilation (which you can read here), but I think that nothing is more important than actually discussing this journey so that no one feels alone as they walk their path.
I am extremely happy about who I am, grateful to my mother for bringing me up this way, and for the place that I have arrived.