Some Jews celebrate Hanukkah and only Hanukkah, and my red-and-green tasseled hat goes off to them. But others of us come from either mixed heritage or mixed messages; we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah with widely divergent measures of each. Kate Feiffer made a wonderful documentary about this subject, but here’s my story and, to paraphrase Tolstoy, “All Jewish families celebrating Christmas are different in their own ways.”
My family is biologically Jewish (although there’s a Catholic Dutch great-grandmother in my background which may explain my occasional desire to wear my hair in braids and dye them blonde.) Otherwise we’re talking French Jewish, Polish Jewish, Romanian Jewish and Yahweh knows whatever other kinds of Jewish, and of course it all ended up in the melting pot (a term our 1950s teachers loved to bandy about) of America.
But, the deal was — and this is apparently not as unusual as I once believed — my parents decided before they married and my dad rushed off to the Battle of the Bulge, to not be Jewish anymore. To in fact hide that little part of their identity. My dad made it back from the Bulge, they had kids (me, first!) and somehow, even with relatives all over the states who were openly Jewish, they raised us in the San Fernando Valley thinking Jews were as exotically Other as Chinese, or Southern Baptists.
We were Unitarians, which my mother explained were sort of lapsed Christians. In Sunday school we paid trips to other houses of worship, acquiring knowledge of People Who Believed in Stuff.
And we celebrated Christmas. It’s a wonderful holiday, better than trips to Disneyland, the other favorite thing for children in those days. Back in the 1950s, lights strung from windows, rooftops and Christmas trees displayed big bulbs — about the size of Milano cookies — in primary colors. The rare Jewish families in our neighborhood draped strings of exclusively blue lights, and they made you stop and reflect, “Oh, the so-and-so’s are Jewish, are they?”
It wasn’t until I was 16 that I put it all together. My Grandma Mae in Lowell started to ask me if any given boyfriend was Jewish. My great-uncle Boris Kuyper, a brilliant mathematician originally from Moscow who invited the younger set into his study to smoke and talk about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, one evening revealed to me that his entire family had perished in the Holocaust. And, finally, there was my great-uncle Aaron Goldberg, chicken rancher, who pointed a bony finger at me and ranted, “You were born Jewish and your parents can’t take that away from you!”
Wow. I was Jewish. For the remainder of my teen years, I told no one, just as secretive as my parents. If you’re descended from an ethnic and religious group so despised that your folks have assiduously hidden the fact, almost like reformed bank robbers who keep their kids clueless about their pistol-packing days, well, who else needs to know?
It turned out I needed to know. I married a Jewish guy (no, not Marty, he was my second Jewish husband), and we had a wedding in a synagogue with the works — chupah, stomped glass, and of course a rabbi waxing eloquent in Hebrew. Interestingly, when my husband-to-be and I first met with the rabbi in his office, I explained I was raised as a tabula rasa kind of non-Jew. I fully expected to be packed off to some boot camp of learning and conversion. But, no, I was born Jewish, just as Uncle Aaron had insisted, and I could go straight to a wedding in a synagogue.
The first husband fell by the wayside, then Marty came along; we married on the banks of Seth’s Pond (the ceremony performed by a Unitarian minister; can’t remember how that happened), both of us determinedly Jewish. Our son Charlie, however, was raised with both Christmas and Hanukkah. How could I, with cherished childhood memories of Christmas, begrudge this great holiday to my son?
Charlie grew up believing in both Santa Claus and Hanukkah Joe (his dad’s invention). When he learned from a classmate in the Oak Bluffs School that Santa was a total fiction, he went on placing all his faith in Hanukkah Joe to come through for him. He was crushed to learn, about three months later, that H.J. too was a fictional piker.
Outside our house with the gambrel roofline where New York avenue rolls down to the ocean in East Chop, people passing by our cottage made note of the Jewish family with the Christmas tree in the window. I knew this because they repeated it to me in the post office and the grocery and hardware stores.
There is something about being Jewish in a small community. People reflexively identify you as such. It’s not anti-Semitism per se, although I have a whopping great story about my single experience with that, and it occurred on the Island, but that’s for another column.
There are complications and convolutions for Jews on the Vineyard during the holidays. If I were in California this year, I would be celebrating Christmas at my mother’s house with all the trimmings. But the holidays on the Vineyard are much more ecumenical. A friend in Chilmark invited me to a Jews For Christmas gathering at his house. He believes Jews are sometimes adrift on this day, unwilling to plan anything special and then feeling lonely when they’re at home watching Grey’s Anatomy, the seventh season. A fun couple I know in Vineyard Haven has invited me to what they’re calling A Secular Christmas.
You can see how Tolstoy got it right — or would have if he’d been writing about happy Jewish families at Christmas rather than simply happy families all the time. We’re treated to a lot of choices and we can make it up as we go along.
Gazette columnist Holly Nadler lives in Oak Bluffs.