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Monday, December 16, 2013

What Do You Do When Your Jewish Children Feel Left Out at X-mas?

This is a festive season for families of so many backgrounds and religious practices. There's no escaping it even if one wanted to. Neighborhoods and skylines are keeping their local electric companies in business with the amount of lights strung about.  Seemingly every radio station has been broadcasting X-mas songs since Thanksgiving. They're playing when you walk into any shop. Store shelves are stocked to overflowing with the season's hottest trends and deals you simply won't want to miss out on. But what do Jewish parents and families do when presented with the generations-old challenge of Jewish children who feel left out at this time of year? How do you address some of the tougher questions that arise? How do you respond when your child's Girl Scout Troop/Boy Scout Troop/4-H Club/School Class does an activity specifically geared toward X-mas? And what happens when your previously proud yarmulke-donning/Shabbos candle lighting child announces he/she no longer wants to be Jewish since we don't have a tree/get presents from Santa/have stockings hung from the fireplace mantle? How do you handle these challenges when other members of your extended family do celebrate X-mas or aspects of it?

These are tough questions that arise each year, and are in the forefront of my mind this year now that I am married. How will my husband and I address these questions when, G-d willing, we have children of our own? It's a subject we already talk about at length and can both relate to having experienced these challenges when we were growing up ourselves. I can remember very well coming home from public school in kindergarten very upset because a little girl had said that her holiday (X-mas) was better than mine (Chanukah). I can recall wanting a LOT of things this time of year when toy commercials increased exponentially on my afternoon television lineup. However, among the things I wanted most were brightly colored lights to illuminate the front of our house and a dead fir tree to sit in the middle of our living room filling it at once with the sweet smell of pine and brown, dying needles. I never outright wanted X-mas in and of itself, I just wanted a version of it suitable to our traditions. Not at all realizing the irony of such a concept when it comes to the meaning behind Chanukah, I thought that perhaps a tastefully laid extra large dreidel container could be mysteriously filled with treats by Yehuda HaMaccabee while I was sleeping one Chanukah night. Now over 20 years later, I am very grateful my parents did not give in.

My parents, in fact, handled these issues very well. We were not an observant family by any means, but we had a strong pride in being Jewish and keeping certain traditions. My parents addressed our feelings of being left out, ostracized, jealous, and curious all with sensitivity, patience, and compassion. I think in many ways and like many parents in diverse communities, they overcompensated with the amount of presents they gave us at Chanukah, really encouraging and reminding my sister and me that while our peers got presents only on one day, we got them for eight nights! But the most important thing they did was stand their ground all while paving our way to become proud Jewish women, wives, and at the right time, mothers. Our questions and complaints were met with answers and kindness. We may not have always liked the answers at the time and we never did have a tree or Santa or lights and stockings filled with candy. What we did have that we still have today (and I'm guessing most of our peers from back then aren't still holding on to that same tree or candy cane) is our pride and identity in being Jewish. And this time of year, as in many times of year, that does mean being a little bit different than some of our peers.

My parents also allowed us to participate in holiday themed activities at other people's homes. We did go to tree decorating parties (and, let me tell you, the only two people decorating that tree rather than scouring the cookie table were the two Jewish girls from South Colonie, NY)! We made cards for our friends and baked cookies for neighbors. On December 25th, we met the vast majority of our Jewish friends at the local movie theater and Chinese food restaurant. I can't say that when the opportunity arises my husband and I will proceed in exactly the same manner, but I can say that I hope our children will be blessed the way I was to have sensitive, patient and proud Jewish parents like I do.

My husband and I have already talked about some of the things we feel are important to remember at this time of year.

  • We know we may not always be able to mitigate feelings of jealousy and being left out when it comes to the commercial aspects of this time of year. But some of the core aspects of the holiday season are ones that we can embrace and not just once a year. For us, keeping Shabbos and making a special time for family each week is really important. We see the value in sharing a special meal and playing games and learning together without distractions in whatever way a Jewish family chooses to do so. While we are shomer Shabbos, we also see from experience how special and beneficial it is just to even light the Shabbos candles and have a nice meal together on Friday night.
  • We both know that disappointment and not getting everything you want when you want are a part of childhood and a part of life for that matter. Why is it harder at this time of year to say "no" than, say in March, when little Moishy wants that overpriced toy at the checkout stand? Perhaps it is that sweet smell of generosity in the air this time of year? Or just those cinnamon scented pine cones at the front of the store?
  • In that merit, generosity is a huge part of this season that we can all embrace. While we should hopefully focus year round on acts of chesed (kindness) and tzedakah (charity), picking out an act of service on some nights of Chanukah or to fill the hours of downtime during winter breaks can be a great way to be less self-minded and more other-focused. Taking advantage of some of those "great bargains" to help clothe, feed or provide toys/books for families in need can be a great activity for any age.
  • Don't make it what it's not. Chanukah isn't "Jewish X-mas." And that is OK! Even if we did grow up with a few therapy bills here and there, none of them were from not having a tree with presents underneath and sitting on the lap of an exceedingly happy overweight man in a red velvet suit (who even wears red velvet suits anyway?)! Learning about and teaching about Chanukah as well as about other holidays and Jewish topics are things we can do year round. When we really understand and experience the joy of keeping Shabbos, of celebrating holidays, of reaching life's milestones through the beautiful lens of Torah and mitzvos we are left with nothing to compensate for. Our lives and our spirits are full and the gifts we receive
    continually are greater and far more meaningful than whatever the hottest trend was in 1995. (Tickle Me Elmo??) 

But I really open up the question to you, my readers, at this point. How do you address these issues as they arise in your home and with your children? Whatever your reason for celebrating this time of year, I wish family and friends all a season of joy.