Holiday Season Poses Challenges to Jews by Choice

by Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner

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I first encountered Christmas in earnest some time in my elementary school years at P.S. 70 in the Bronx. The music teachers taught us a host of songs for Christmas and, as a sop to the Jews, "Rock of Ages," the English version of Hanukkah's "Maoz Tsur." As a youngster, I saw a problem. All the students in my class were Jews. So what was Christmas doing in it?

Since then, I have learned that Christmas pervades the atmosphere. It is the American holiday. Except possibly for the Jewish Museum, I have never found a museum in America open on this day. By November, Christmas takes over our malls. And it is just the normal assumption that Christmas is for everyone.

It is not a Jewish holiday. In Christian theology, the holiday celebrates the birth of the God made manifest, a notion that Judaism totally rejects. But along with theology, it brings lights and good cheer and a secularized approach that proves inviting to a small minority of Jews, Jews whose contact with Judaism grows ever more tangential.

Behind the trees and stockings and "Deck the Halls," the songs and stories carry an overtly religious message. Christian leaders vigorously affirm that there is and must be Christ in Christmas.

If some Jews find the lure of Christmas too pervasive to dismiss, the holiday can pose an all-the-more-powerful stumbling block for those interested in exploring Judaism. Thousands of Gentiles find the Jewish emphasis on the absolute oneness of God and on the celebration of life through the observance of God's commandments most compelling. Yet it is not easy to affirm Judaism in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish world. To become a Jew, a potential convert must be able to sever all connections with his or her past religion and to do this without guilt or anger. Paradoxically, it may be easier to relinquish Christian dogma than the Christmas tree.

Candidates for conversion are not going to approach Judaism seriously if Jesus looms large in their lives. Those who wish to explore Judaism seriously must understand that even the most secular aspects of Christian holidays are inappropriate. If people find Christmas gift-giving a persuasive practice, then clearly they are not ready to become Jewish.

The one issue for which there is no easy resolution is visiting the family on Christmas. What could possibly be the problem? If a Jew by choice retains no Christian beliefs and does not celebrate Christmas within his or her own life, what could be wrong with visiting the family on its holiday?

We certainly make clear that in changing one's religion one should in no way disconnect from one's family. I urge my students to show their parents even more love and attention, for the family is likely to be hurt or confused by the decision to become a Jew. Even when, as in many instances, parents are supportive and respectful of their child's decision, they hardly kick up their heels in joy.

Why then the avoidance of Christmas? Christmas celebrations generally were highlights of times past. In becoming a Jew, one is wise to preserve the secularized Christmas as a family memory and not to experience it in the present, where it can be unexpectedly alluring. The Christian family may use the Christmas visit as a time for testing, to see whether their wayward scion has truly disconnected; perhaps his strange decision is a temporary aberration that gifts and Christmas
warmth can undo.

Then there are the children to consider. It is virtually impossible to tell children who know of Christmas from "Sesame Street" and department store decorations that they are visiting Grandma's home for her holiday and not have the children feel it is their holiday as well. It is far better to mark Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July as the family holiday.

Still, there are wonderful converts who return to family for Christmas out of respect for loved ones and not to celebrate the holiday. I advise them to strive to avoid those moments that epitomize the holiday, such as the distributing of gifts or carolling. It is a tightrope, but some manage to walk it.

For many Jews, new and old, the observance of Hanukkah has become the main counter to Christmas. Celebrating the rededication (hanukkah) of the sacred Temple, which had been desecrated and polluted, and at the same time acknowledging God for helping to make this miraculous redemptive act possible, Hanukkah is the main post-biblical holiday. It is a lovely and modest holiday, far less important in the Jewish scheme of things than is Christmas for our Christian neighbors.

It is wiser to observe Hanukkah as one of at least 10 celebratory holidays in the round of the Jewish year. With these observances and the Sabbath lights and table each week, an observant Jewish family, new or old, simply has no need for Christmas.

Originally published in The Record, December 5, 1996