The December dilemma: Navigating Christmastime as Jews

Photo composite by David Stuck and Mike Marshall. Christmas Tree from Getty Images.

It’s the time of year when you can’t go into a store without hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Frosty the Snowman.”

Ornaments and wreaths are lining the walls of every building you pass. So how do Jews feel about navigating this Christmas-filled space during the last month of the year?

We spoke to five Washington-area Jews who say that while they do experience the frustrations of seeing Christmas everywhere, they also acknowledge that Jews are a minority at this most wonderful time of the year.

Leah Kocsis, of Springfield, was frustrated a couple of weeks ago when she ducked into the supermarket to buy stamps. The cashier had already rung up two sheets before she handed them to Kocsis. Santa Claus stamps.

Kocsis checked three other registers. Nothing but St. Nick.

“I wouldn’t mind an evergreen tree or holly,” Kocsis says, pointing out that trees could just be trees. But Santa? “It really, really bothered me.”

But Kocsis tries to keep a positive outlook on situations like this, and treats them as educational opportunities.

“I’m a huge fan of educating, I think that it’s the only way to get rid of stereotypes,” she says. “I think society has almost flipped too far to not wanting to mention any holidays, and I try to take the opportunities to just mention a different holiday and let people learn and ask questions.”

Rabbi Aaron Potek, of Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, also likes to educate others and point out assumptions — but he says the pointing out must be constructive.

“Assuming that wreaths or mistletoe is ‘holiday’ themed and inclusive of all faiths, wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’ — these are educational moments,” he says. “But in order for them to be educational moments we have to be able to stand without anger or without resentment. Or just to say, ‘I’m Jewish, and the assumption behind this is one that makes me not feel included.’”

Kocsis, who grew up in Connecticut without Jewish neighbors, says there does seem to be a bit more awareness in Virginia.

“Something I really do notice here, it may be small, but there is a Chanukah display at the Target or the CVS,” she says. They might also be putting out matzah at Chanukah, but that recognition is meaningful, she says.

“They don’t always get it right, but I appreciate the acknowledgment that something different is happening.”

Some Jews don’t mind the Christmas spread this time of year. Jayna Roscoe, of Washington, says it doesn’t bother her because she’s been around that kind of Christmas display all her life. She says when people wish her “Merry Christmas,” she believes they mean well.

Potek agrees, and says sometimes he’ll just wish the person a “Merry Christmas,” as well.

“If someone wishes you ‘Merry Christmas,’ of course it’s frustrating where everyone assumes one is Christian,” he says, “but I choose to interpret it as a nice gesture of trying to spread good wishes.”

Washington resident Jackie Nurit says she enjoys seeing the Christmas lights and decorations on display.

“I’m a traditional Jew and I love Christmas time. I think it’s a really gorgeous holiday — even if it’s not something I celebrate — and brings cheer and happiness to a lot of people, including myself,” she says.

Potek says he’d like to push Jews to be more compassionate and understanding. When people complain about Chanukah sweaters, he’s not too sure it’s something they should be worrying about.

“I don’t think every attempt to blend in is a loss for the Jewish people on a big scale. I don’t think every ‘Merry Christmas!’ is an attempt to wipe out our identity,” Potek says.

He points out that assimilation has been a big part of Jewish history.

“Putting it in context and perspective and realizing that for the vast majority of our history we have been a minority in the country that we’ve lived in and we’ve figured out year round how to navigate that,” he adds. “That’s not a solution, but I think it can provide a little comfort knowing that this isn’t foreign to our experience as Jews throughout the millennia.”

Potek emphasizes that context is important — no country has figured this out, he says.

“Ideally it would be great if people were aware of the many different faiths here in America and offering alternatives that reflect that diversity but again I think … if we’re trying to make Chanukah like Christmas, that endeavor is already misguided,” he says.

Parents who are raising their children as Jews may worry that their children feel left out of the Christmas festivities.

But Potek thinks children are much smarter than adults give them credit for, and they’d be able to understand separate cultures. It works for Kocsis, who is raising her children as Jews with a Catholic husband.

“How we’ve always worded it is [that] we celebrate Christmas with daddy’s side of the family,” Kocsis says. Her children will say, “My daddy has a Christmas tree,” but understand that it’s not something they do as Jews.

“So far it’s really, really worked out well. If everything is approached with respect, then you can be different and still be respectful,” Kocsis adds.

Jennifer Rafael, who runs the Facebook group Jump into Judaism NoVa, says parents are always asking each other for advice on how to handle what’s been called the December dilemma.

Some say their children are obsessed with Santa, or want to buy Christmas decorations when they see them in the store.

“Definitely people suggest to go big on Chanukah, buy lots of decorations, put lights out,” says the Fairfax Station resident. “You can also say to them, ‘We’re not gonna do this but we’re gonna have a great Sukkot celebration with lots of decorations and we’re going to make sure we give charity for Chanukah.’”

Rafael says she doesn’t go big on Chanukah because it’s not a major holiday.

“My philosophy is not to equate Chanukah with Christmas,” she says. “But, really anything that we do, any choices we make for our families, it’s OK. We’re just trying to do the best we can raising Jewish kids.”

The idea of comparing the two holidays is something Potek also wants to avoid. Instead, it’s important to be proud of being Jewish, he says.

“The question is, how can we make Chanukah meaningful, exciting and something to be proud of without comparison?”

[email protected]
Twitter: @jacqbh58


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