Keep Calm and Chag Sameach!
Another poem for Chanukah

On "Otherness" at Christmas


With family, at holiday party, 1982; with friends, in uniform, 1992.

From the age of eleven on, I attended an Episcopal school called Saint Mary's Hall. Six years of white sailor middy and pleated skirt, saddle shoes, "dress uniform" (white skirt and knee socks) on Mondays for chapel. I loved it there. The yellow brick archways and live-oak-filled courtyards, the motto which appeared on the entrance steps I climbed every day ("teach us delight in simple things"), the years I spent learning Latin and French, literature and biology. The friends I made, many of whom are still in my life.

And I didn't mind going to chapel every Monday, or learning the Lord's Prayer, or even singing the school hymn, which was "Fight the Good Fight." I enjoyed going each December to Christmas vespers services at the church we could walk to, down the street from the campus, where students would tell the story of the birth of Jesus, and students would play handbells, and we would all sing "Adeste Fideles" which I was unreasonably proud of actually understanding in Latin.

I didn't mind being one of the few Jewish kids at my school. I'd been going to synagogue with my family my whole life. I'd spent two years at Jewish day school. After my celebration of bat mitzvah, I became a teacher's aide and a bat mitzvah tutor at our congregation. I'd gone one year to Jewish summer camp. Nothing about attending an Episcopal school felt strange to me. It was just normal, and it was where my friends and teachers were, and I loved it there.

In retrospect, it's a little bit amazing to me that I felt so perfectly comfortable in my "otherness," especially given that adolescence is so often a time when our differences pain us. But I don't remember ever experiencing a disjunction around being a Jewish kid at a school where most of the kids were Christian or where attendance at weekly Episcopal chapel services was mandatory. Nobody expected me to be, or to become, anything other than what I was. I was different, but that felt safe.

I think about that often at this time of year, as Christmas approaches. I know a lot of Jews who find this season incredibly stressful, who react to the hegemony of Christmas in American public life with anxiety and frustration. What do I mean by hegemony? Look at it this way: I have countless childhood memories of encountering the Christmas story, singing Christmas songs, watching Christmas cartoons. Most Christian kids do not grow up steeped, willingly or unwillingly, in someone else's religious culture. (This is poignantly expressed in Arlene Goldbard's essay My Xmas Kvetch. For a slightly snarkier take, try gyzym's the juggernaut cometh.)

I understand the anxiety and frustration. It is not always (or often) easy being non-mainstream, being part of a religious minority. And when everyone around you is enjoying something which you don't feel you can enjoy -- or, perhaps worse, which you feel guilty for enjoying! -- that can feel alienating and painful. When everyone around you is operating on a different religious calendar, observing holy days which are not meaningful to you (and expecting you to recognize and honor their holy days, without necessarily recognizing or honoring or even knowing about yours), that can feel alienating and painful too.

It's the lack of reciprocity which is often most difficult...and I'm not sure that elevating Chanukah to major-celebration status actually solves that problem. (Actually I'm pretty sure it doesn't.) What I really yearn for is for people to understand the major spiritual and communal importance of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, of Pesach and Shavuot, which do not fall during December at all! (Though I do appreciate Chanukah wishes when they come my way.) I'm blessed to have in my life an awful lot of loving friends who do understand and appreciate my religious calendar, even if it isn't theirs, but not everyone has that good fortune.

I think there's something profoundly valuable in the de-centering experience of recognizing that one's own paradigm is not the only paradigm. But I recognize that it isn't always easy or comfortable. And if it isn't happening in a reciprocal way -- where I recognize that my way isn't the only way, but so does the other guy; specifically, so does the person with the privilege of being in the dominant / majority position -- it can feel alienating and painful. Everyone else is having a great time and I'm outside the party -- alienating and painful. That mainstream experience is "normal," and I feel perennially "other" -- alienating and painful.

Nu, what to do? I look back at my own childhood in south Texas. (When I first moved to New England, college students who thought they were very clever would quip, "there are Jews in Texas?" It was funny the first time.) I think about growing up as a member of a religious minority, and about spending seven years at a school which had roots in the Episcopal church. I remember attending Christmas parties with my parents every year -- especially the one with the rompope (Mexican eggnog) and the mariachi band. And I think: what was the magic ingredient which allowed me to feel safe and rooted in, rather than alienated or threatened by, our minority status?

It must have been something my parents did profoundly right, something so foundational that I can't remember it or separate it from my childhood writ large. All I know is that I felt so thoroughly rooted in the Jewish community and Jewish tradition, and in my Jewish identity, that I didn't feel anxious about decorating my friends' Christmas trees with them, or attending midnight mass with my best friends from across the street (who were altar boys), or singing carols in chapel. None of those things changed who I was; how could they? No more than inviting my Christian friends to join us for latkes and dreidel, or for seder, changed them.

Well: those experiences probably did change all of us. They broadened us. They opened our hearts to other ways of celebrating, other ways of marking time, other ways of connecting with the sacred.

To this day I love attending other peoples' religious rituals. I will try pretty much any kind of religious service, just to experience it. (As my beloved teacher Reb Zalman has said, "I'm a spiritual peeping Tom! I like to see how other people get it on with God.") I love experiencing other peoples' ways of doing things, and being able to say, "ahh, I see, you do it this way -- that's so interesting; we do it that way..." Or, sometimes, "wow, I don't even know what I would compare that to; it's entirely outside of my realm of experience." On my best days, I can bring that lens to the whole Christmas phenomenon.

Of course, there are also days when I don't feel so generous. And I don't mean to diminish the negative feelings many of my friends and coreligionists have at this season, or to imply that they feel anxious because their Jewish identities aren't strong enough. Poppycock. First of all, those feelings are what they are, and minimizing or ignoring them doesn't change that. Beyond that, it's beyond chutzpahdik to imply that if we all just strengthened our feelings of Jewishness we'd sail through this season unscathed. I don't know that there is a recipe for sailing through December unscathed, no matter who you are.

But I do wish that I could bottle the feelings of comfort and contentment which I feel (most of the time) blessed to carry with me, and could share them with everyone I meet at this time of year. I wish I could take the sting out of Christmas, both for my Christian friends who struggle with its omnipresence or its expectations or its pressures, and for my Jewish and other non-Christian friends who struggle with its...omnipresence and expectations and pressures. For a holiday which is supposed to be joyful, it seems -- or its trapping seem -- to make a surprising number of people unhappy. (My therapist confirms this.)

How do you make December work for you -- whether you are Christian or Jewish or something else entirely? What are your tools and tricks, your techniques, for savoring the sweetness of the season without getting blindsided by the things which can hurt? Can we together assemble a toolkit, an amulet, a heart box filled with things which will help all of us through -- through the darkening days (in the northern hemisphere; sorry, global Southerners, I don't mean to ignore you, it's just -- dark here!), through Christmas whatever it means or doesn't mean to each of us, into the turn of the secular year?