Being Jewish is more than avoiding Christmas

(This article was first published in my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly on Nov. 11, 2014)

Dear Dawn,
My wife loves Christmas, and it makes me so uncomfortable. I know I’m a Scrooge every December, but I just can’t help it. She doesn’t go to church, but she decorates the hell out of our home. I hate going home during the Christmas season. When I mention it, she says it’s not religious, everyone is doing it and I should try to have fun. This is becoming a bigger thing in my gut as the years go by. 
— Mad Inside

Dear Mad: It sounds to me like you and your wife are talking at cross-purposes. She is talking about her feelings about Christmas, and you are talking about yours. Neither of you is really listening to the other.

It sounds like your wife is celebrating what I call the American Folkloric Christmas — no Jesus, no worship; just Santa, elves, red and green decorations, gifts, eggnog and a two-month national party.

You are standing as an outsider, a Jew for whom the annual American party is not a party at all. For too many Jews, Judaism is about what they don’t do rather than about what they do. I’m going to propose a few options for you and you can see what fits.

First, you have to find a way to talk to your wife about what’s going on between you. That means you need a moderator who can keep the conversation on track, without sinking into recriminations.

Second, re-examine what you do that is Jewish. My guess is that you aren’t taking up much Jewish space. You may define yourself as a Jew by the mere fact that you don’t celebrate Christmas. But do you observe Jewish holidays and express your Jewish identity all year — not just light the occasional Hanukkah candle or maybe attend a Passover Seder?

Do you go to a sukkah, eat, laugh, shake the lulav and feel the sense of a shared peoplehood? Do you invite friends over for Shabbat, serve wine and give thanks to God or to the farmworkers because you are able to sit down to a meal in a warm home? Do you wear a “Yo Semite” T-shirt when you go jogging so other Jews can chuckle in a tiny, shared moment of recognition?

Now be strong, because I’m going to suggest something that may scare you. In America, Jews are a tiny minority. So when you want to go to where the Jews are, that is typically a synagogue. Most people equate synagogues with being only a house of prayer. But it is also a house of study and a house of assembly. Let’s focus on the word “assembly,” which is defined as “a group … gathered together, usually for a particular purpose.”

What I’m going to suggest is being in the company of other Jews who are “doing Jewish.” You don’t have to join. Just look at the website of synagogues near you. Do they have brotherhood poker games? Movie nights? A choir or band? A book group? One synagogue near me has a Sunday morning men’s hiking group. There are lectures, music, cook-offs and more. Look for things that you like, and do them.

I want you to strengthen your sense of being Jewish so that Christmas decorations won’t hurt so much. I’m not saying it will ever feel fine to have Christmas in your home, but by building up your confidence around your own Jewishness, I think you can lessen the sting.

This is all for you. Now, what about your relationship? Did you and your wife ever discuss what you would observe? Have you brought Jewish celebrations into your home? If you’re asking her to have no celebrations at home, your chances of success are quite low. But if you can offer her fulfilling, celebratory, ritual Jewish expressions, she may come to embrace and enjoy Jewish holiday celebrations and be comfortable toning down Christmas.

Finally, it is reasonable to ask her to see Christmas through your eyes. But then you’d have to see Christmas through hers.