Raising My Jewish Son to Learn It’s Good to Be Different
Last week, my firstborn, five-year-old son declared in a rather ominous tone, “Santa isn’t real.” Normally this would inspire dread in a mother’s heart, but since we’re Jewish and therefore don’t celebrate Christmas, I simply replied, “Okay. Did someone tell you that or did you reach that conclusion on your own?”
“I decided,” he humphed and walked away. It was the humph that concerned me the most. Reaching the conclusion that Santa is a fiction was not a matter of concern. The fact that he seemed to reach it unwillingly worried me.
A few days later, after watching Santa enter the scene at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he growled, “Santa isn’t real. We don’t celebrate Christmas!” I knew then that something was terribly wrong.
“Honey,” I asked him calmly, “are you telling me Santa isn’t real because we don’t celebrate Christmas?”
“Does it make you angry that we don’t celebrate Christmas?”
“Yes!” He nearly wanted to cry.
I let him sit with his anger for a while. Quickly enough, he recovered and resumed playing with his little brother.
That evening, I pulled out a book I’d recently bought titled The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol. It’s a rather fantastic tale about a mythical Hanukkah magician who can’t make something out of nothing, but can stretch things to make them last. He helps the Jewish Glaser family as they transition to their new life in America. In turn, the Glasers often help their fellow immigrant neighbors, the Christian O’Malleys. Like the Glasers, Nate manages to help Santa Claus, too.
“So you see,” I explained to my son, “we don’t need to celebrate Christmas to enjoy Santa. We can help him and our non-Jewish friends enjoy their holiday.” This seemed to be the satisfaction he needed, so I pressed a little further. “Do you miss your friends from your old school?”
It was then he admitted that what he really wanted wasn’t Santa, but his friends — his non-Jewish friends from his secular preschool who’d introduced him to the man in the big red suit last year. His friends who he taught to wish him a “Happy Hanukkah” the way they taught him to say “Merry Christmas.”
Covid had stripped my son of his friends before their natural time to part. The wound had healed, but left a scar that was prone to hurting when the seasons changed. My son’s friends had helped him feel a part of the American bacchanalia of Christmas; better than being one of them, he was with them. Now alone with no one but Santa on the television, my Jewish boy was feeling left out.
It is a universal human truth that nobody wants to feel left out. Subsequently, it is a Biblical truth that there is, as the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z”l) put it, great “dignity in difference.” The challenge every Jewish parent faces is having to teach their child the blessing of being different. This past Halloween, we opted to hold a family campout in our social bubble. For the first time, my son and his little brother were fascinated by the glow of a fire pit in the sunset and delighted by the taste of s’mores. We reveled in the songs of Debbie Friedman and danced the hora to Hinei Ma’Tov. “Some kids trick or treat and that’s okay. We camp out and that’s okay, too. See? It’s good to be different, isn’t it?” I asked my oldest.
“Yeah!” he exclaimed through marshmallow-stained lips.
Early on, for a number of reasons, I realized it was never going to be enough to tell my son that non-Jews have Christmas and we have Hanukkah. First, contrary to popular imagination, one holiday does not supplant the other. Second, littering my young son’s head with images of Christmas-inspired pogroms was just not an option. Finally, and most important, I didn’t feel like dealing with the animosity I witnessed among so many Jewish friends growing up, the strange jealousy of not being permitted to celebrate a holiday that takes over the national imagination once a year. Coveting your neighbor’s Christmas goes against the Covenant that made us who we are. Giving into jealousy meant giving a piece of ourselves, no matter how small and spiteful, over to the Grinch. A healthy pride has no room for a jealous nature.
But perhaps more important than all of these reasons is the conclusion that stems from them: Being Jewish shouldn’t be about all the things you can’t do because you aren’t Christian. If we are to inspire our children to carry on the Jewish legacy and pass it along to their own children one day, we must teach them that there is a blessing in Jewish difference and all that entails. That, unlike what many people believe, we are not merely a legalistic religion of do’s and don’ts, but a people dwelling in Covenant with G-d. A Covenant that began with one man and one woman who had the courage to be different and to teach their child to do the same.
Christmas — like other traditions in America — is not a matter of either/or. Rather, as my Catholic friends would say, it is a “both/and” scenario. We are both American and Jewish. Our Judaism informs us to celebrate who we are by helping others celebrate the best in themselves. For my husband that means taking shifts on Christmas so his coworkers can spend their holiday with their families. For my son, it means choosing toys to “give to Santa” so other less fortunate children can have a merry holiday. For all of us, it means being content in saying “I’m happy for you,” because we are also happy in ourselves.
Susan L.M. Goldberg is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Times of Israel, PJ Media, and Kveller. You can read more at slmgoldberg.com.