You didn’t know me then, but when I was in high school I threw a shit fit in the attendance office because of a Christmas tree.
Actually, it was one of my finer moments: There was this Christmas tree in the middle of the office — a big old tree decked with baubles and tinsel and angels and whatnot — and there were red and green bells dangling from the ceiling, and there were little white Christmas lights dangling from the window. I think there were reindeer, too. Actually, yes. Parading across Mr. Smith’s sweater.
Mr Smith ran the attendance office with alacrity and aplomb. He was one of those school bureaucrats who took pleasure when you missed the bell by 27 seconds — the kind of person who would stand with folded arms — all five feet, four inches of him, and wield his power with a rubber stamp and red ink:
But he did not like being on the business end of my hissy fit.
“WHY IS THERE A CHRISTMAS TREE IN THE OFFICE? This is a public school!” I shouted. “There are Jews and Muslims, and I think at least two Buddhists, and a Sikh guy, and Jinal is Hindhu, and my best friend is a Pagan, and it ISN’T FAIR that only Christmas is represented.”
The first bell rang.
But I wasn’t finished.
I was just warming up.
“First of all, you shouldn’t have any religious symbols here,” I railed. “There is a separation of church and state!” (I was in AP US History class and I knew what was up.)
“But if you are going to insist on this — this — CHRISTMAS tree,” I continued, “then you need to show some religious parity.”
My face was hot.
Tears stung my eyes.
I don’t know why I was seeing red (and green) — but I was. I grew up in a traditional house. We kept kosher. We didn’t roll on Shabbos. I went to Jewish school on the weekend, and Hebrew school during the week.
I had seen every Holocaust movie out there — I even owned the soundtrack to Schindler’s List. My family donated to the ADL. I grew up on stories of anti-Semitism — of the time my grandparents were told, “No dogs or Jews allowed,” or the time the man on the train said, “I can smell a Jew here,” or the time a little girl asked me, “Where are your horns?” I also grew up feeling that “Merry Christmas” was an insult to my Judaism.
I was a minority — and I was defined by my otherness — even in LA where if you aren’t Jewish, you want to be. Even then. The year is measured around Christian holidays. School closes during Christmas break and Easter break. If Hanukkah and Passover fall during a different time then you’re shit out of luck. The High Holidays are also days missed — which in some ways is awesome, but in other ways just highlights the fact the fact you’re different.
The second bell rang. Mr. Smith smirked, took out a piece of paper, his rubber stamp, and the red ink: TARDY.
“Happy holidays,” he said.
I brought a menorah in the next day and slammed it down on the counter.
It was small, but mighty — and verily, I won my little battle in the war on Christmas.
But I mellowed over the years — truly, I think my anger came from a deep insecurity in my strength as a proud member of the tribe. Straight up, I was overcompensating.
And each December, I would enjoy the lights, and the songs, and the tinsel, and the trees. It wasn’t my holiday — but I liked it anyway. I realized that “Merry Christmas” didn’t mean “The cossacks are coming,” or “We want to convert you.” It just meant “Merry Christmas.”
And I also found ways of celebrating the bigger picture. Because really, Christmas and Hanukkah and Solstice and Diwali and Kwanzaa for that matter celebrate light during the darkest days of winter. And I like light. And people, and food, and music… So what’s the problem?
But still, we didn’t celebrate Christmas in America. Never.
But this year, we are.
I’m working on a book (which is the best excuse ever for doing a lot of crazy shit), where I’m living in the Old City of Jerusalem for a year. The Old City is divided into four quarters — there’s the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. I am dividing my year into four parts and living in each quarter for three months.
And right now, I’m in the Christian Quarter, where posters of Jesus decorate the walls, where we measure time with the peal of church bells, where pilgrims waft from Lions Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, following in the footsteps of Jesus when he carried the cross.
I am not a Christian — but I love all faith when it’s meant to help and heal. And I love many of the things Jesus said about helping the poor and taking care of the vulnerable.
I also know that for the first time in my life (outside of my time in these respective Quarters), I am a Jew among a Jewish majority.
We are not persecuted. We are not small. We are strong and mighty, and we are the ones in power.
My children’s school closes on Jewish holidays — not the Christian ones.
Our dreidel reads, “Nes Gadol Haya PO” — “A great miracle happened HERE,” unlike the dreidels from America that read, “A great miracle happened THERE.”
Here. In Israel. In our homeland. In the place our ancestors drew water from ancient wells.
And this year, when my kids and I wandered into a Russian supermarket that was covered in tinsel and candy canes and Santa hats, and had a big old tree in the middle, we bought decorations. We bought chocolate Santas. We bought little hats.
We talked about these symbols — some derived from pagan tradition of celebrating snow and light and the promise of growth… and we talked about Jesus, too. How he was a rabbi and cared about the poor. How Christians believe he is the Son of God, and about how Mama believes he had some great ideas that are worth talking about and emulating in our lives as Jews.
And we decorated our house with little balls and little lights — and we wore our little hats.
But no Christmas tree.
There is no way on God’s green earth that I will give Mr. Smith that satisfaction.
If you want to learn more about my book project living in the Old City, find me on Facebook and say hi 🙂