(This article originally appeared in my Mixed & Matched column in the J-weekly on 12/1/15)
My mom is Jewish, my dad is Christian. Mom never had much interest in Judaism, and my brother and I were raised secular, with holidays from both our parents’ traditions. I’ve always been pulled to my Jewish side, and I made my parents send me to Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah, because by then my parents were divorced and my mom said she couldn’t afford it. I lived in Israel for two years after college and worked with underprivileged kids.
My mom loves Christmas and still celebrates it. I love being with my family and I enjoy our traditions together. But I work in a Reform synagogue school and every year feel deep shame that I’ll be celebrating Christmas. When I talked to the rabbi, he said, “It’s fine; it’s your family.” He doesn’t understand that it’s about me and how I feel. I’m now 30 years old and here we go again with Christmas. How can I get rid of this shame? — Torn Jew
Dear Torn: I am so sorry you are experiencing this shame. I want to help you free yourself from it. First, let me affirm your statement that this is about you and your feelings. Sometimes well-meaning clergy are so intent on coming across as accepting that they lose focus on the person who is seeking answers. You’re completely correct that your feelings of shame are not “fine” for you, nor should your rabbi treat them so lightly.
To start, you have to look honestly at what created this shame. Your parents were practicing two religions in your home, which didn’t work for you because you had strong feelings about being Jewish. They didn’t pick up on your intensity even after you insisted on being sent to Hebrew school. Your mom said she “couldn’t afford” a bar mitzvah, which felt like an excuse to you. So for your entire childhood, your Jewish identity was something you had to demand from your own parents. Naturally, you feel defensive around questions of identity.
It sounds as if your mother missed important cues. I suggest you sit down with her and let her know you still feel hurt. You can explain how strongly you feel about your Jewish identity and talk about ways she can support you. Perhaps you can suggest a Jewish holiday ritual the two of you can establish to help reinforce her acceptance of your choices. At Sukkot, for example, you might offer to build her a sukkah and you could spend the holiday in it together hosting friends and family.
I also encourage you to speak again to your rabbi. You should share how it felt to have your question summarily dismissed so he can avoid this kind of response with others who are suffering.
Now let’s look at Christmas. You, my friend, are a Jew with loved ones who love Christmas. It probably wouldn’t bother you so much if you in fact did not love it, too. But I think you see yourself as failing in this one regard. From my viewpoint, you are a pretty remarkable Jew! You’ve done so much to establish and grow your Jewish knowledge, behavior and, yes, identity. Enjoying Christmas with your family does not undo that.
If your rabbi’s response fails to ease your mind and you want a more traditional point of view, I encourage you to seek out a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi (I can refer you) to have a halachic (legal) discussion about honoring your parents and maintaining shalom bayit, or a peaceful home. If you can make peace with the act of sharing Christmas with your family, then I would say, dayenu, enjoy doing so as a mitzvah.
Last, I want to point out that a bar or bat mitzvah need not cost a lot of money. In my synagogue, when a mom told us she couldn’t afford her son’s bar mitzvah, the congregants offered to pay for the oneg. Also, keep in mind that Jewish boys become bar mitzvah automatically at age 13 (12 for girls). What you missed was getting called to the Torah. You can do that at any age, and I encourage you to do so. Also, tell your rabbi you’d like the congregation to be your “parents” and sponsor the oneg. You can count me in!