No Jeez, Please–Just Maccabees!
MAMA PENGUINO: I just passed a co-worker I cannot stand who asked, “Are ya ready for Christmas?” and I said, rather forcefully, “No, because I’m JEWISH.” She said, “oh,” and I didn’t stick around to hear more. How do life-long Jews handle this question (and this season) because it causes me horrible frustration every damn year. On the one hand, I don’t want to sound like a PC bitch who has to correct everyone and let the world know she’s Jewish. On the other, WTF? Should I just suck it up because the majority of the people around me celebrate Christmas? What do you do when someone says, “Merry Christmas?”
DAHLELAMA: I like to respond with an emphatic “Happy Holidays.” I find it has just the right mix of “polite” and “not everyone worships Jesus, asshole.” In truth, I haven’t bumped up against this particular issue too often, because I went to Jewish schools for the first twelve years of my schooling, capped off by a year of seminary in Israel where Christmas may as well not exist, and then followed by 4 years at NYU, which is basically just another Jewish school. Now, in my work life, I continue to make clear that I don’t care What Would Jesus Do by consistently asking to leave work early on Fridays and by not eating any of the exciting confectionary leftovers that might end up in the public breakroom. I find that these things, combined with my lack of Christmas spirit, really make employers and coworkers warm up to me.
MAMA PENGUINO: Lucky you. I’m surrounded. Are you saying you have never had anyone ask you if you’re ready for the holidays (meaning Christmas)? What about at the grocery store or the department store?
DAHLELAMA: Oh, I have, and that’s where the “Happy Holidays” comes into play. It gets me the occasional strange look, so I’m thinking of switching to “Happy Kwanzaa.”
The thing I find so interesting about it all is that Chanukah seems to be the most familiar holiday to non-Jews. They recognize the Menorah, they’ve generally heard of latkes, and they sure as hell know about the presents. In fact, I’ve had many a non-Jew suggest to me that Chanukah is the most important Jewish holiday, and I get the sense that had I asked for days off to celebrate Chanukah instead of Sukkot or Shavuot, I would not have gotten quite the same “WTF is that?” response. Ironically, though it’s got some nice benefits, a cool backstory, and what I imagine were some very sexy heroes, Chanukah is literally the least important holiday we’ve got.
MAMA PENGUINO: Oh, yeah, I imagine the Maccabees to be these totally hot soldier-types all righteous and dripping with macho sex-appeal. As for importance, I resent having to make as big a deal out of Hanukkah as I end up doing. I feel like I have to provide Little Penguino with a rip-roaring Hanukkah so she won’t feel like the rest of the world is celebrating a holiday that features cookies, pretty lights and presents and she’s stuck eating worms, so to speak. When we first met with her teacher, we gave her a list of the Jewish holidays that our synagogue sends to local schools and the first question the teacher had was whether we wanted to make sure Little P didn’t participate in any Christmas stuff they did at school. I know, I know. Careful to avoid any expectation that the school do something special for our child, we told the teacher it was okay for Little P to participate. Am I guilty of assimilating?
DAHLELAMA: Eh, I’d do the same thing. Christmas looks awesome, and if my office gave me the chance to participate in light-hanging or tree-decorating, I’d probably take them up on it too. In fact, doing stuff “for the kids” is exactly how gift-giving got started on Chanukah in the first place. It’s literally nowhere in the Jewish tradition, but then the fancy goyim come along with their XBox 360s and their iPods and their Princess Unicorn dolls and now I have to spend hours scouring the Internet to find gifts for my siblings-in-law who hate everything. I blame the goyim for everything. Also, I suspect they’re secretly running Hollywood.
MAMA PENGUINO: Okay, but that’s easy for you – lovely Jewess from the womb – but sometimes it feels like I’m being unfaithful. Like, it’s okay for a “real” Jew to play along with the Christmas thing, but I was baptized in a Presbyterian church. I actually had a woman at my synagogue say to me a few years ago, “Should I say Merry Christmas to you? Do you guys celebrate it?” and she wasn’t being a bitch, but just wasn’t sure since I guess some converts still cling to Christmas. I guess I’m saying that I feel like I have to be super-Jewish around the holidays or my conversion appears not to have taken.
DAHLELAMA: While I contest your implication that you are anything BUT a real Jew, I see your point. However, it seems to me that what you are struggling with in this instance isn’t a crisis of faith, or whether or not you secretly think Jesus still deserves a birthday party even though you’ve joined team “Mary Totally Got Laid”; rather, you are doing your best to ensure that Little P isn’t standing out in her class like a Democrat in Texas. And I can completely understand why some converts still cling to Christmas–it probably represents some of the most wonderful memories of their youths–but I still find that woman’s question inappropriate in that although I’m sure she meant it innocently, it’s both alienating and insulting to suggest that you’re not capable of going through with the full monty conversion. Continuing to observe Christmas may be understandable, but let’s not pretend it’s smiled upon at synagogue.
MAMA PENGUINO: LOL at Mary Totally Got Laid. I had this conversation with Little P this weekend. She’s confused about Jesus and is he in heaven and who are his parents, etc., and I tried to talk about God being everything and how God is trees, clouds, flowers, mud, butterflies, snails, and so on, and how could snails have a baby named Jesus? I said God cannot get someone pregnant and be a daddy to a baby – it just cannot happen. But we know Jesus was Jewish, just like us, and he was part of God, just like we are.
DAHLELAMA: I should warn you now–your daughter is on the fast track toward becoming a philosophy major who thinks she’s going to go into academia but will eventually settle into law school with ambitions of doing pro bono as soon as she works in corporate just long enough to pay off her debt. What were we talking about again?
MAMA PENGUINO: Not while I’m alive! Mr. P and I have both told her we’ll pay for any higher education, but we are not paying for law school. She’s going to have to really want it. So tell me, why do you suppose we spell Hanukkah differently? Is yours the “true” spelling?
DAHLELAMA: Er, I’d say closer to the true pronunciation–the Hebrew word “Chanukah” (lit. “dedication”) begins with the letter which in English is spelled “Het” but which is actually pronounced “khet,” i.e. with a guttural, hacking-up-a-hairball sound. The sound exists in Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic, among others, but not in English, and because the average English-speaker can’t pronounced it, the word has been anglicized into “Hanukkah.” Since I don’t pronounce it that way, I can’t bring myself to spell it that way, so I guess I treat it like another “damn the man,” in the tradition of “Happy Holidays.”
MAMA PENGUINO: Oh, great. I’ve been spelling it the Christian way all along. I hate myself.
DAHLELAMA: No, you’re spelling it the totally acceptable American way, and I’m spelling it like an asshole.
MAMA PENGUINO: Then I want to be an asshole, too.
DAHLELAMA: Excellent! What say we celebrate our new-found knowledge with some Manischewitz and latkes chez Bookish?
MAMA PENGUINO: It’s a deal. Let me get Little P in her wedding dress and I’ll meet you there. It’s always been my dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy. *sniff*