A Christmas Cavil
December 18, 1978
Late in November, a woman came into an office where I was working, and a group gathered to look at the Christmas decorations and stocking stuffers she had just bought in Bloomingdale’s. The woman was especially pleased with a little wooden bird house that made a chirping sound. When she turned and asked good-naturedly for me to affirm that her gifts were indeed treasures, my response was, “I can’t relate to Christmas. I’m Jewish.” I said it ironically, but I meant it. I said it as if being Jewish, alone, were a sufficient explanation for my unwillingness to appreciate her toys.
“I’m Jewish, too,” she said. “I do it for my son.”
“I guess I might if I had a kid,” I said, but I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t.
I’m not seduced by the admittedly attractive seasonal rites that go with Christmas; my alienation is a family legacy. When I think about the Christmases of my youth, I summon up a memory of my parents’ deliberate separation from the events of the holiday, a memory as intact as many Wasps’ idyllic remembrances of cherubim-decked blue spruces and profound feelings of intimacy.
My parents were born in this country, spoke unaccented English, and thought of themselves and their children as Americans. They knew a fair amount about the history of the government under which they at first merely survived and then prospered. My mother rhapsodized about Adlai Stevenson with an ardent expression she reserved for political figures she believed were “good for the Jew.”
My parents were Americans, but they were Jews before anything else, and that was the anomaly at the root of my somewhat confused sense of identity. There was something illogical about being both American and Jewish — at least anomalous for the kind of Jewish that placed Jewishness first. True Americans, I learned from my three main sources of information — TV, movies, books — didn’t place anything before being American, never even thought about being American because they were American. And, most significantly, true Americans weren’t, by their very nature, Jewish; they weren’t Moslem or Buddhist either.
On TV, Jews and Buddhists were shown living in America — Molly Goldberg, for example, or the Japanese “houseboy” on Batchelor Father — but it was nonetheless assumed by every TV show and movie and printed word I encountered that to be American meant to be Christian. American and Christian went together, automatically, axiomatically, like mom and apple pie, like Christmas and gift-giving. My mother never baked an apple pie. My mother did not behave at all like the mother I wished her to imitate, the archetypically American mom on Father Knows Best.
I remember feeling totally outside of Christmas, and confused by the relentless reiteration in the media of the meaning of the “Christmas spirit” and the “Christmas story.” Promoters of the Christmas spirit campaigned on a platform of love, generosity, harmony, and compassion, and asserted that this spirit embraced everyone. The Christmas story seemed to contradict the Christmas spirit because rigid, conservative old Jewishness was precisely the ethos against which Christ had forged his radical new ideology.
I had felt excluded from baptisms and communions, but they didn’t have the same weight as Christmas. And besides, there were for all of these rituals analogous occasions in Jewish religious practice. But no one could persuade a child that Chanukah — forgive me — could hold a candle to Christmas. To a hungry kid, Chanukah was to Christmas what matzoh is to glazed ham with all the trimmings. Christmas was not simply a religious holiday — it steered the country, suggesting that a universal likeness of spirit and mind existed among the populace. Christmas, the true country within the country, had its own language, music, art, and symbolism. I felt exiled.
In reality, no one said that Jews could not celebrate Christmas. Many of my friends and their parents bought trees (some called them “Chanukah bushes”) and presents, placed wreathes on their doors, sent Christmas cards, and gave Christmas parties. My best friend lived in an “assimilated” family that enacted a completely authentic-looking Christmas. I coveted the boxes wrapped in metallic red and blue paper, which remained unopened for weeks until Christmas morning. It was that restraint, especially, that I couldn’t even fathom in my family.
Observing my friend’s pseudo-Christmas was the closest I ever came to taking part in a Christmas celebration. When I asked my parents why we couldn’t have a tree and exchange gifts, their answer was always unequivocal and unamplified: “Because we’re Jewish.”
I never knew exactly what this meant to them. My parents were not observant Jews; I believe they were atheists. Their sense of Jewishness came from the custom of being Jews and, most significantly, from the existence of anti-Semitism and their experience of anti-Semitism. The word “Jew” evoked sentimental feeling in my parents, the way Fiddler on the Roof did, but as my parents lived their lives, the word “Jew” was, in fact, defined exclusively in political terms. It was defined with relationship to words like “restricted,” “pogrom,” “Auschwitz.”
I can see now that my parents refused to participate in Christmas because they felt it would have meant denying their Jewishness, and they understood that one goal of anti-Semitism has always been to get Jews to deny their Jewishness. My parents believed that to go along with the pressure to go along with the celebrations of the Christian world would have meant a minor but nonetheless clear-cut victory for the forces of anti-Semitism.
For a long time I resisted my parents’ attempts to pass on their amorphously expressed identity as Jews. This identity was bound up in ridiculous things like inquiries about which movie actors were or were not “really Jewish” despite their stage names. My parents seemed paranoid and xenophobic, tending to view a good deal of Western culture as either overtly or latently anti-Jewish. But somewhere along the line — I think it was around the time I read in depth about World War II and the Holocaust — I adopted an attitude toward Jewishness that turns out to be very close to theirs.
I assert my Jewishness as an act of defiance against any pressure I feel to deny Jewishness. I assert my Jewishness every time I hear an anti-Semitic remark. I regard as mildly anti-Semitic being related to as a Jew by non-Jews — e.g., “We bought these bagels and lox especially for you.” I see a kind of anti-Jewishness in the omission of Jews from what is represented as a cross-section of real American life; this is the case in almost all TV soap operas, which do feature characters with other-than-Jewish ethnic names and ethnically oriented tastes and interests.
I feel most American outside America. I feel most Jewish at Christmas. I resist the American celebration of Christmas chiefly because it assents to the illusion that we are all alike, when we are not — and, more importantly, that we all wish to be inside, when some of us now prefer to be outside. The nonnegotiable publicness of Christmas, the universal assumption that everyone can rejoice in Christ’s birth, everyone can appreciate or wants to see festooned Christmas trees, wants to see Santa Clauses on street corners and hear Christmas music piped out of windows and in department stores, is a denial — albeit temporary — of the existence of non-Christians. At Christmas time, non-Christians are omitted from the psychic life of this country, and although this omission may be relatively harmless, it’s anti-Jew, anti-Buddhist, and anti-Moslem. It’s anti-Other.