For years I was inundated with the term, “The December Dilemma.” For Jewish kids, there was or perhaps is an ingrained notion that celebrating Channukah is inferior and less exciting than celebrating Christmas. And so Channukah became commercialized, more gift focused, and I was often asked to explain the meaning of Channukah in my secular classrooms although I was rarely asked to explain the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
But early on, my parents helped solve this problem. Because I grew up with many non-Jewish friends, I was invited to their homes to help decorate Christmas trees, drink hot chocolate, sing Christmas carols, and appreciate the beauty of their holiday. And likewise, my friends came over all the time…to light the Channukiah, spin dreidels, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts. But my friends came over throughout the year as well. On Passover to learn about the seder and eat matzah. On Purim to bake hamentaschen. To my bat mitzvah to learn about my rite of passage. I never felt as if “their holidays” outweighed my own. Rather, our diversity became conversations of shared respect, shared appreciation.
I didn’t leave my non-Jewish friends’ homes asking why we don’t celebrate Christmas. I left feeling as if I learned something new, with a renewed pride in my own traditions and faith. As Jews living in Orange County, we didn’t isolate ourselves, pretending other faiths did not exist. That isn’t an option when you are the only Jewish kid on your block. In Los Angeles, one can do that very easily. I am so proud of my upbringing because I credit my learning of other creeds as one of the reasons why I became a rabbi. Often when you learn about other cultures and other religions, you develop a stronger, brighter identity, nourishing your own flame of faith.
December Dilemma? Not really. At least not for me. “December Opportunity”—very much so. Invite your neighbor over for a game of dreidel…and later on in the year, offer them a seat at your Passover seder. And when someone asks you to join them in decorating Christmas cookies, perhaps an opening for learning has come in an unexpected way. Here’s the catch: my parents didn’t hesitate letting us learn about other traditions because they knew, their children would come back to a home with a strong Jewish foundation. The December Opportunity is two-fold: appreciate someone else’s tradition, but don’t forget to appreciate your own.
Happy Holidays…and Shabbat Shalom