My 5-year-old son, Jeremy, likes to watch cartoons on television each morning as he gets ready for school. This month, I noticed that most of the programs seemed to revolve around Christmas, and were particularly focused on presents. For example, on “Jungle Junction,” the blue Elephant, Elizam, was searching for a gift for his friend Zuta, the pig, for Christmas. Other shows featured similar themes. I started to worry about what effect these programs would have on Jeremy. Would he start wanting to celebrate Christmas like his favorite characters?
One morning, I asked him about the shows. He explained to me simply, “Well, they’re getting ready for Christmas, and the TV doesn’t know we’re Jewish.”
His statement summed up perfectly my discomfort this time of year. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving through the day after New Years, the radio, shopping malls and billboards all show me that they don’t know I’m Jewish. During the rest of the year, Jews can almost forget that we’re a minority, but during the holiday season, the reminders are constant, and a subtle spirit of rivalry sets in. At a Hanukkah gathering this past week, my friends and handed out gifts to the children. My friend Danny said, “Well, we have to compete with Christmas.”
Perhaps, it’s fitting then that on Christmas week, we read in the Torah portion about the story of Joseph, who is the first Jew to spend his entire adult life (beginning at age 17) outside the Land of Israel as a minority in a non-Jewish culture. Joseph rose to power in Egyptian society, without losing his faith. However, the parsha demonstrates that Joseph still didn’t feel completely at home in Egypt.
The parsha, called Vayigash (“And he approached”), recounts how Joseph and his brothers met again after years of estrangement. When Joseph was about to introduce his brothers to Pharaoh, he told his brothers that when asked their profession, they should say that they are breeders of livestock because Egyptians hated shepherds. Even though Joseph held great power in Egypt, he was still worried whether his brothers would be accepted.
As it turns out, Joseph’s concern was misplaced. When asked their profession, the brothers answered truthfully that they were shepherds. Perhaps, after years of covering up for having thrown Joseph in the pit, the brothers were tired of lying. Pharaoh was unfazed by this admission and gave them an important job — putting them in charge of the royal flocks. The brothers were unashamed of their identity, and Pharaoh rewarded them.
Upon reflection, I realized that Jeremy’s answer paralleled the approach of the brothers to their minority status. Jeremy didn’t express any desire to have Christmas. Even though the TV. doesn’t know he’s Jewish, he knows who he is. Last week, I attended a Hanukkah celebration at the Jewish Day School that my kids attend. The evening was filled with song, dreidel-making, and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Presents were collected for the poor, but none given to the students. And there was no contest; it was simply a celebration of who we are.
Indeed, the real contest is not with Christianity (or any other faith) but with the pervasive materialism of our culture. By focusing on presents, we cheapen Hanukkah — and Christmas too.
As we wrap up this year’s holiday season, we can do well to follow the approach of the brothers and be proud of our identity. For even when the TV doesn’t know who we are, we do.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.