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Why I’m Keeping Our Jewish Identity on the Down-Low This Holiday Season

If you drive around my neighborhood in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, you can probably count on your two hands the number of homes with Christmas lights. I guess that’s my way of admitting I’m raising my kids in a bubble. My oldest son even acknowledged to me that he doesn’t have any Christian friends, or Muslim or Buddhist ones either. Sometimes I wonder if we are doing our children a disservice by keeping them sheltered when the world itself is diverse and divided. We teach them to accept everyone, regardless of religion or race, yet preaching that lesson is not the same as interacting with and befriending others who are different from you. Being the Jewish mama that I am, I worry sometimes that the bubble is not a good thing for our family, even if it protects us.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my husband and I treated our kids to a morning of play on a Junior Ninja Warrior course. They are huge fans of the hit show, “American Ninja Warrior,” and they love to test their own abilities on the different obstacles they know from the program. After an hour and a half of constant motion, we headed to brunch at an adorable little restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. As we were finishing our meal, one of the owners came by to see if we enjoyed ourselves. The food was delicious, and our replies were enthusiastic. She then asked:

“Are you going to get your tree today?”

My older kids fell silent, while my 5-year-old boldly answered.

“We’re not Christian,” he said, completely unabashed and unashamed by this fact.

At first the woman didn’t respond. Here in Chicago, where the Jewish population hovers at three percent, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a family with young children, eating brunch at a restaurant down the street from a nursery selling Christmas trees, was going to head there afterward. In December, this town is a place where you’re as likely to hear Merry Christmas as you are Happy Holidays.

“We’re not getting our tree today. Just having a nice brunch,” I said to her and smiled.

“Oh, OK. Well, I’m glad you enjoyed.” She smiled back at me, but clearly the conversation was over.

After she left, my oldest son turned to his younger brother and reprimanded him.

“Ben, you’re not supposed to tell people that we’re Jewish,” he said. I could hear the fear in his voice, and even though we’ve been in similar situations before, I was surprised by how upset he was at his brother’s response.

My oldest son seems to be aware of international anti-Semitism, telling me he fears ISIS and other terrorism aimed at Jews. But when I press him to see what he knows about what’s going on in our own country, he seems oblivious to the recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents.

I waver about how much to share with him. He is 11 years old, with an iPhone of his own and an ability to read and watch the news, though he seems to prefer mindless YouTube videos and sports. He’s created his own online bubble of sorts, impossible as that might seem given the bombardment of information.

Regardless of how much he knows, I can’t undo all that I know about our world today. At Northwestern University, just 25 minutes from our home, a Jewish studies professor reports that he came face to face with a man who gave him the Nazi salute and shouted “Heil Hitler.” The head of the Anti-Defamation League says anti-Semitic public and political discourse is at its worst in this country since the 1930s. And as scholars like Deborah Lipstadt and Alan Dershowitz tell us, neither side of the political aisle is innocent when it comes to anti-Semitism, even if it manifests differently on the right and left.

When I ask my son if he wants to know more about the current environment in the United States, his response is emphatic.

“I don’t want to hear about anything here,” he tells me.

I adhere to his wishes and don’t enlighten him on the increased anti-Semitism. Still, I’m sad that I can’t disagree with his desire to keep our Jewish identity on the down low this holiday season.

When I was a child, my youngest brother, at the same age as my youngest son is now, asked a guitarist at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville if he could play the song, “I have a little Dreidel.” We all laughed, and the musician acknowledged he didn’t know that tune, so we settled for “Jingle Bells.” But the whole exchange was funny, and there was no fear from my parents that the man with the guitar might hate us because we were Jewish.

That incident occurred in 1987. Now less than 30 years later, I don’t have that same luxury of laughter my parents were afforded. As much as I want to dispel my son’s fears when his younger brother tells a stranger we are Jewish, I can’t in good faith tell him not to be afraid, even if I’m sparing him all the details why. For now, I’ll keep him inside our bubble, ever mindful of when the time will come to burst it.

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