What I’ve Learned From Being a Jew in Christian America

America is a Christian nation. All the pretending otherwise will not get around that fact. For all the changes in American society over the last few decades, the vast majority of Americans have been and still are Christians. They think of themselves as Christians. They celebrate Christian holidays, see the world through Christian eyes and have an identity that is fundamentally Christian.

And that needs to be okay with the rest of us even if we aren’t Christians.

It’s okay with me and it should be okay with my fellow Jews. I sit here in my little New Jersey town surrounded by Christmas lights today on Christmas Eve and I am finally and fully at peace with this fact.

For years I felt a little (okay a lot) left out at this time of year. We had our Hanukah parties and our menorah and the latkes my friend Jen and I carefully lifted out of a bubbling pool of olive oil. I even had sofganiyot, those little pillows of fried dough that my mom found in a place near our temple and gleefully brought home still nearly piping hot.

But it wasn’t my day or even my month and that hurt. Christmas was a reminder to me that in some sense I wasn’t truly an American. I was an outsider for about a month every single year. I hated Christmas the way I hated the dull onset of January snows that usually followed. It only got worse when I married someone who isn’t Jewish and went to his house for Christmas. Being the Christian Family Jew was about as comfortable as being the only man at a baby shower.

Yet in recent years I have come to realize that the season is a good one. Christmas for those of us Jews who live in American can help offer insights that can not only allow us to understand who other people are but understand ourselves as well.

1) There is Good in Being a Minority

Not always being in the majority can help you develop an awareness of the society that you live in and exactly what you happen to believe in and truly value. I walk through my journey in this society knowing exactly who I am and where I stand. I see American society clearly in a way that is useful and illuminating, with the outsider’s appreciation for the country’s virtues as well as the place’s flaws. That little frisson of discomfort is a helpful reminder that the outsider’s perspective is valid and may even make you a better person for it.

2) You Can Admire Other Customs Freely

Bring on the gaudy Christmas light displays, the silliest holiday sweaters you can find, the worst renditions of the White Christmas you can find. I’ll sit here and enjoy them. Each year I’ve come to look forward to the appearance of pfeffernusse, the local neighbor’s plastic front yard snow globe, the thick red and green wreaths our town places on all lamps in the center square. It isn’t mine but I’ve learned to enjoy it all. Especially the pfeffernusse.

3) The Majority of People Are Good and Decent

I know Jews who get upset when someone wishes them a merry Christmas. I know Christians who imagine an assault on their basic selves every time someone says happy holidays. And I know the rest of us mean nothing more than kindness when we say those phrases to each other.

So chag somach, merry Christmas and a bright happiness to all who lift candles to help wipe away the winter darkness. We’ll be at our local Chinese restaurant tomorrow, wishing all Americans peace and goodwill and the kind of inner happiness that is the best way to have a happy holiday.

About the Author
Stacy Herlihy is the co-author of Your Baby's Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives (Roman & Littlefield 2012, paperback 2015). When not attempting to convince people that a shot or two is better than hearing loss, she has written for publications such as the Newark Star Ledger and USA Today. In her spare time, she raises daughters and domestic mush cats.