Christmas and Jews: A Time for Appreciation, Not Appropriation

Our goal as parents in the Jewish Diaspora must not be to compete with Christmas, but to show respect for another religion, while making it clear to our children that this holiday is not ours.

Rabbi Micah Peltz
Rabbi Micah Peltz
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Rabbi Micah Peltz
Rabbi Micah Peltz

Last week, Chemi Shalev wrote in these pages about the latest outcry surrounding Supermodel Bar Refaeli. Refaeli, who is no stranger to controversy, posted pictures of herself posing in a Santa hat and pajamas to promote her new clothing line. As Shalev writes, these pictures upset many Israelis who would have preferred she pose in Hanukkah-themed clothing instead. I would be willing to bet that most people who were looking at these pictures were not focusing on what she was wearing as much as what she wasn’t wearing.

Shalev then goes on to give a shining review of the new book by Dr. Joshua Eli Plaut entitled “A Kosher Christmas: Tis the Season to be Jewish.” I have not yet read this book, but my impression from Shalev’s comments is that it seems to paint a rosy picture of American Jews relationship with Christmas. Yes, as some Christian’s lament, Christmas in the public realm can be perceived as more of a secular holiday than a religious one. And it’s wonderful that there are Jews who are inspired to perform “Christmas Mitzvot” by volunteering to help those in need over the holidays. But Christmas time for Jews in America is not only marked by Chinese food and movies. For parents of young children, it is also marked by questions: How come they have lights on their house and we don’t? Why don’t we have a Christmas tree? Why can’t I sit on Santa’s lap? These questions are not just about Christmas, but they are questions of identity. It is at this time of year that Jewish children in America first realize that there are some things that they do differently than their neighbors. And being different, especially at Christmas, is not always so easy.

I grew up in Minnesota, going to public schools. I remember one year, when I was in elementary school, our choir put on a holiday concert. Our music teacher was doing her best to make it non-denominational. We mostly stuck to songs about snow and ice (which were abundant in Minnesota) like “Jingle Bells.” But there was one song we sang that I will never forget, because I thought it was ridiculous even then. This was its refrain: “Christmas and Hanukkah both have candles.” Even then, I remember feeling how forced the connection was that the song was trying to make between these two holidays. As one of the few Jewish students in the choir, I appreciated my teacher’s attempt at balance, but highlighting tenuous connections seemed silly.

Our goal as parents when explaining Christmas to our children should not be to compete with it. Let’s face it, when it comes to holiday shtick they have us beat. But, as I wrote in these pages last year, parents’ guiding principle in answering their children’s questions at this time of year should be appreciation and not appropriation. As Dr. Ron Wolfson has written, it’s fine to appreciate the decorations and songs of Christmas, but we must be clear with our children that they are not ours; they belong to someone else. By doing this, we show respect for another religion, while also establishing clear boundaries that help in our children form their Jewish identity as well.

Remember one of the central mitzvot of Hanukkah is pirsumei nisa, to publicize the miracles that God performed for the Maccabees. Some say that there is no such thing as bad press, and if this is the case, Refaeli has gotten the exposure she hoped for. But, for many American Jews, Christmas is the season for questions from our children. We need to be prepared to answer them so our miracles continue to get the press they deserve.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Runners, dressed as Santa Claus, in France, Dec. 16, 2012.Credit: AP

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