Christmas in Middle America

Friday in the Jerusalem shuk.
Friday in the Jerusalem shuk. Photo credit: Tovia Singer

It’s the day after Christmas and I can hear the buzz of the heater and the clicking of my computer keyboard as I sit alone in the office. 8:30 a.m. and no one is here yet.

Over the past week, my company shared photos of gingerbread houses and stockings with Facebook statuses such as, “The elves are hard at work.” We had an ugly sweater contest and our holiday party was from 4 to 6 p.m. on a Friday.

Christmas decorations.
One of my company’s offices, decorated for Christmas.

I guess that when I lived in Kansas the first time, I wasn’t as observant. Therefore I didn’t realize just how Christian American society is – especially in the Midwest.

When I lived in Israel, my world beat to the Jewish calendar. Together, the people of Israel cooked for the High Holidays, built our sukkot, lit our chanukiot. On Fridays the smells of fresh baked challah, chicken soup and disinfectant pervaded the streets and touched your inner Jewish soul – observant or not.

In the Midwest, homes are bright with Christmas lights, wreaths affixed on every door and my new friends post photos of their kids in red pajamas. Our meeting room has a Christmas tree and no one can focus between Dec. 15 and Jan. 1. There is nothing wrong with it (some of it is kind of nice), it’s just in your face religion that most Christians don’t even see as religious.

In Israel, Judaism is a way of life and no one thinks twice about it; we take it for granted. In the States, Christianity is a way of life.

As Jews in America we have three choices:

  1. Be like them (assimilate)
  2. Be more Jewish (to make sure we don’t become like them)
  3. Something in the middle

I strongly believe that neither No. 1 nor No. 2 will work in the long run. You cannot be someone you are not and history (as well as many current events) show that Jews who try to assimilate more often than not do not achieve the kind of acceptance they are hoping for.

Simultaneously, you cannot live completely apart from the world around you – or you will suffocate (and suffocate your children). While the Torah – and Torah values — must be guarded, we cannot consider every outside influence to be corrupt or destructive. Rather, we should find a way to respect those who are different than we are.

So the answer, I think, is No. 3: Something in the middle. Instead of assimilating – or moaning our assimilation – we should celebrate the ways in which we can benefit from the cultures we choose to live in and likewise be willing to share about ourselves … and be pleased when Jewish ideals are incorporated into the culture at large.

It’s easier when everyone is exactly the same. And I will be honest in saying I am regularly uncomfortable, unsure of what to say or do in various new situations in my new Midwest world. Try explaining to your non-Jewish boss that you understand you are paid to write, but you won’t be able to write on Saturday…

On days like today, when the office is so quiet and I am thinking about cooking and cleaning for Shabbat while my colleagues are coming off their egg nog highs, I miss and appreciate living in the State of Israel and that Jewish heartbeat.

But when I turn to my right, I see a colorful stream of Christmas lights by my cubicle. That’s pretty – and I am going to enjoy it!

About the Author
Maayan Hoffman is director of international communications for a leading Israeli think tank and an American-Israeli journalist since 1995. She raises her large, blended family a bus ride from the Western Wall.
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