Growing up, my family’s Jewish identity was rooted more in what we didn’t do rather than what we did.
Keep kosher. Not so much. Observe the Sabbath? Nominally. Regularly attend synagogue? Once a month at best.
But boy were we proud, even eager, to abstain from anything and everything that we considered goyish. These included, among many, many other things, pork, hunting, skiing, doing-it-yourself, glasses of milk, glasses of scotch and, the holy of holies, celebrating Christmas.
“Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” my mother would say, quickly and firmly, when one of her young children would ask why we don’t put up lights or decorate a tree. In our house, not celebrating Christmas was worth more than all the days of fasting, all of the electricity-free Shabbats, and all the fastidious separation of milk and meat. There was, simply, no more powerful or poetic gesture to declare one’s Jewishness.
And yet, Christmas, sweet Christmas. America’s storybook holiday. The soft, twinkling lights, the joyous music, the placement of a real, live delicately fragrant tree in the center of one’s living room, and then the placement of numerous elegantly wrapped presents around that stately, adorned tree. What child could resist such a thing?
Growing up I was at peace with the fact that Christmas wasn’t ours to celebrate. But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t aggrandize it into some bacchanalian rite, an evening that, surely, bestows upon its participants a joy so boundless and a hope so soul-nourishing that the uninitiated could never understand. Because if it wasn’t exactly that, how can they justify all that hype?
And then at age 16, year 1995, I celebrated Christmas at the home of my first real boyfriend.
It was, without a doubt, an elegant, charming, even heartwarming, day. We ate, we sang, and we exchanged presents next to the delicately fragrant tree. Later we drove 30 minutes along Pacific Coast Highway to share a meal with his extended family. His Japanese grandmother serve rice balls and later everyone collected into one room for the annual bingo game.