Throughout high school, college and my early twenties, I exchanged holiday cards with my friends every year. Christians got Christmas cards, Jews got Hanukkah cards, and Christians-slash-Jews got semi-humorous cards about celebrating two holidays at once. I never thought to not send cards; that was just what well-behaved girls did, like wearing slips under skirts.
And then, at some point, the exchanges stopped. I can’t identify exactly when it was, but there must have been a November when I walked past a Papyrus store and, for the first time, for some reason, did not go inside. Simultaneously, it seemed, neither a result of my behavior nor the cause of it, I stopped receiving cards, too.
I think in part it was because the further from childhood my friends and I got, Christmas grew in importance while Hanukkah returned to its rightful place as a minor holiday. Now that we were grown-ups, the Christmas-celebrators had to figure out how to fit live trees into their apartments and purchase grand and often difficult-to-source presents for each member of their extended families. The non-Christmas-celebrators got to look on in bemusement and eat latkes.
I’m often that person who gives books to children as gifts. They probably groan when they open them, but I’m usually out of earshot by then. As a kid, I was thrilled when a relative made a tasteful selection for me. There are a few more nights left of Hanukkah, so if you’re in need of a gift for a girl with at least a passing interest in Jewish culture — or just a gift for no particular occasion at all — here are eight suggestions culled from a 1980s girlhood spent devouring the local public library. All of them were written by Jewish women and some of them do, inevitably, deal with complex and painful themes, but none feature characters who send text messages. Did I leave out your favorite? Add to the list in the comments section below.
1) “Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself”
Judy Blume, ages 9 and up
“Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” gets all the girly attention — and it, too, carries a Jewish theme — but “Freedman” is Blume’s Jewish masterpiece. Picture a ten-year-old New Jersey girl in 1947, whisked to Miami with her family (including her Yiddish-speaking and avid Forward reading Bubbe) so her brother can recuperate from Nephritis. She imagines her next-door neighbor to be Adolf Hitler in disguise — a side-effect of having a severely over-protective and paranoid mother. Sally is clever, yearns for glamour, and is always eavesdropping on the grownups. I may have signed letters I sent from summer camp in 1993 with the valediction “Love, and other indoor sports,” as cribbed from Sally’s own correspondence, even though I had no idea what that meant.
December is a complicated time to be a Jew in America. I annually find that once the holiday season hits full swing, all the Christmas gushing, tree-trimming, “what do you want this year?” asking and red and green everything makes me a little… bah humbug. I start getting more sympathetic to Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge than an Occupy-friendly writer should. But I’m not strictly Scroogish: I frequently vacillate over just how strongly I want to signal my nonparticipation in Christmas. Do I want to say an emphatic “Happy holidays” back to the presumptuous “Merry Christmases,” because I’m in a defiant mood? Usually. Conversely, do I say “Merry Christmas” back to peoples’ gentle “Happy Holidays” if I’m feeling conciliated and ready to grant joy to others in exchange for their acknowledgement of me? Or do I just smile and act aloof about the whole thing overall?
I want it on the record that Christmas is not my tradition or holiday. I get grumpy when the seasonal aisle is all red, but I also laugh at the excesses of those blue, star-of-David displays. I don’t want people making the same kind of fuss over Hanukkah that they do over Christmas; that makes me feel dishonest about a minor holiday. While I dream of my dad’s latkes and enjoy lighting the menorah, I can’t pretend that Hanukkah for us is as huge and insane as Christmas is to our non-Jewish friends. It isn’t. You give each other diamonds and huge toys, at least according to the thousands of commercials I see on TV. We give each other gloves and books. You squeal over fruitcakes and puddings; we say “pass the applesauce” and kvetch about work the next day. (You want to make a giant fuss and give me time off for Passover? Go for it.)
I’m not even certain of the year, but it was sometime after the tattoo and before the death march. Aron Lieb was in his early twenties, but he felt elderly. He was working in a coal mine, forced by the Nazis to supply fuel for their war effort. Every night after he emerged from the earth, guards sprayed the black dust off him and his co-workers with powerful hoses. The burst of water was so sharp that he had to hold his head down to keep from being blinded or drowned. One day he realized he couldn’t bring his head back up after the assault. That was the day he decided to die.
His younger brother was at the mine, too. It was close to Birkenau, close enough that they could both see the smoke of burning people in the sky. Lieb wanted to go anyway. He didn’t think he could work another day.
“You’ll die,” his brother said.
“I know,” he replied.
His brother begged. They knew he would be grouped in the next selection with the weak — those chosen to go to the gas chambers. Lieb asked to leave anyway.
Hanukkah begins on December 8 this year, but you probably don’t need to have it on your calendar to know that. As in recent years, the onslaught of corny holiday song parodies will have already tipped you off.
Perhaps the forerunner of this genre was Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” which debuted on Saturday Night Live way back in 1994. Though the idea was a little tired by the time parts two and three rolled around in 1999 and 2002, the original song was unexpected and fun. It was also not particularly about Hanukkah. Sandler’s lighthearted catalogue of Jews gently mocked a potentially controversial Jewish behavior (collecting the names of people we can “claim”) and allowed Gentiles to safely laugh at something they may or may not have fully understood. The songs hinted at non-Jewish fears (They’re everywhere!) as well as Jewish ones (*We’re everywhere, and they have the list!)
Though the “Hanukkah Song” dominated the airwaves, it wasn’t alone. Hip Hop Hoodios’ 2002 release “Ocho Kandalikas,” for example, cleverly gave a sweet Ladino counting song a new attitude while avoiding anything cringe-worthy … at least until the girl with the bagel-bikini-top floats by.
What makes this Christmas different from all other Christmases? For the first time, I have had to explain my typically unspoken understanding that this all-encompassing holiday is not ours.
Whenever my 7-month-old daughter, Lila, and I take walks, I name and explain everything we see. In recent weeks, that has included the pretty Christmas lights adorning our neighborhood stores. My daughter is dazzled by the decorations, especially our building’s Christmas tree. It’s ironic, since Lila’s musical taste skews incredibly Jewish, from “Tree of Life” to “Oseh Shalom.” Then again, perhaps it’s logical. Lila is enthralled by shiny objects, and she’s always loved lights. She’s never seen a Christmas tree before, and it must be confusing that all trees live outside, except the one in our apartment building’s lobby. So, I do my best to explain everything in terms an infant can understand. This tree is pretty, and we can admire it, but it’s not our tradition.
Dear Susan Katz Miller:
Most of the points you make in your recent HuffPo piece, “8 Reasons My Interfaith Family Celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas,” make so little sense, from where I sit as a Jewish mother, that I feel compelled to respond. I am aware that by doing so I am wading into the roiling waters of touchy issues around intermarriage and the choices interfaith families make.
1). You write that you see “no theological conflict between Judaism and acknowledging the birth of a Jewish spiritual seeker who stood up for the poor and oppressed and changed the course of history (that would be Jesus).”
Perhaps you ought to brush up on some of what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism. Where to begin? All of mainstream Judaism says that there is a conflict between Judaism and accepting Jesus as the redeemer. Jesus and his disciples departed from Judaism so radically, in their rejection of Judaism’s basic tenets, that they birthed an entire new religion. How does that not count as a theological conflict?
A post-Hanukkah, pre-Christmas epiphany has guided me to a new understanding about Jews and gentiles: While we both love a deal, there’s a difference in how we snag it.
I arrived at this inter-religious realization at the tailend of this holiday shopping season, when newspaper circulars, emailed promotions and Facebook ads tell us to buy, buy, buy. As if we actually needed any instruction in that department. Sales promotions attempt to take the pain out of holiday spending with a promise of free merchandise — stuff we really want but really don’t need — if only we first jump through a number of hurdles.
I was ready to jump through those hurdles for three free pairs of socks offered by an outdoorsy retailer. And yes, I said socks.
I did something last night that I’ve never done before: Serve store-bought potato latkes to a gathering in my home. I was not raised to serve store-bought anything to guests, and rarely have deviated from that central teaching, driven home in childhood by a mother who not only made all of our food, but a sizable amount of our clothing, too. My husband was raised the same way, which is why he stood over a hot stove last weekend to fry up dozens upon dozens of potato latkes for a group from our synagogue, whose members then devoured every last, crispy shaving in, oh, about a minute and a half.
But last weekend, in the beginning of the eight-day festival, we were in our sprawling home, just outside of Philadelphia — with a massive frying pan I purchased years ago just to make latkes, and with all the other equipment that make this annual task a little less, well, thankless.
Last night, on the seventh night, we hosted my wonderful staff from the Forward in our New York apartment, a cozy one-bedroom that has none of the space or the accoutrements of a well-stocked, suburban kitchen. So I swallowed hard (especially at the price) and ordered in a couple dozen, quite tasty latkes that needed only to be warmed in my tiny oven.
They also were consumed in about a minute and a half.
For Hanukkah, what do you give the woman who has everything? According to CBS, a pap “shmear.”
As part of a CBS Cares public service announcement program, the station has recently begun running 10-second spots suggesting just that. Two Hanukkah- and two Christmas-themed public service announcements urge viewers to get their wives, or their “women,” the gift of Pap for the holidays.
“Want to do something special for your woman this Hanukkah?” a man asks in one of the announcements. “Schedule her a Pap smear. Just a shmear could save her life. Give the gift that will light up her menorah.”
Watch the promo here.
My wife caught the spot for the first time the other night and couldn’t believe her ears. “Light up what?” I heard her asking. She thought she had accidentally tuned into “Saturday Night Live.”
There is no more Jewish holiday than Thanksgiving.
It’s my second-favorite Jewish holiday. (My most favorite is Sukkot, because it’s so much about culture and history, welcoming friends and family to our temporary “home,” having time to cook, and it’s focused on the intangibles rather than the material.)
I love Thanksgiving because a) there’s no yontif involved so travel is guilt-free b) there is time to sleep in because you don’t need to be at shul and c) because it celebrates our freedom of religious expression.
And considering the state of affairs for our people worldwide these days, even, sadly, in Israel, leads to the conclusion that there is no place anywhere where liberal Jews enjoy greater freedom of religious expression than right here in the United States of America.
Ironically, those Jewish people who exercise the greatest expression of our religious freedom are the least likely to celebrate Thanksgiving — the American Festival of Freedom.
Agudath Israel of America, which represents the haredi community, has its annual convention over Thanksgiving weekend, starting on the holiday itself. It’s convenient because almost everyone is off from work on Thursday and Friday, so people are available to attend. This year it’s being held Thursday through Sunday at the Hilton Hotel in East Brunswick, N.J.
I went several times, a number of years back, when they held it in a hotel near where my mother lived, so I could both cover the convention and have Thanksgiving with my family.
I always found it odd that, while I personally know a few haredi families who mark Thanksgiving in some way, because it is a secular holiday the Agudah specifically does not.
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