Our November-December Dilemma

As the weather turns colder, American Jews are surrounded by conflicting reminders that we are both part of and separate from American society as a whole.

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Although this article was written a decade ago, its themes still resonate, with the "holiday season" provoking for many American Jews questions about their religious and cultural values and how these fit into the broader society in which they live.

Reprinted with permission from the December 11, 1992, issue of Sh'ma magazine.

My 9-year-old daughter doesn't know "Silent Night," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," or any of the other Christmas carols that were standard December fare in my elementary school years. She attends the local Solomon Schechter Day School, where these songs are naturally omitted from the music program.

jews and christmasI take this to be a good thing, something symbolic of the Jewish identity she has forged. Some day, in another part of her life, perhaps she'll learn them. Perhaps not. But if she does learn them, the baggage attached to their acquisition--if there is any at all--will be different from mine. At age 9, her Jewish identity is her dominant cultural and religious identity.

Yet, when she was younger, she asked more than once about Christmas trees and Santa Claus. While at a mall she sat on Santa's lap. Once she wondered aloud, confused and a bit wistfully, why all her favorite television shows featured Christmas themes in December. And she has mused if she would be happier as a Christian, though I suspect--I hope--this was more experimental than representative of anything substantial. And, not uncommon in our current situation, she has two uncles who married Catholic women and whose children are being raised either as Catholics or who appear to have virtually no religious identity.

Despite a strong Jewish identity, Christmas--and its reminder of a world that we live in the midst of, yet do not entirely belong to--is an inescapably confusing and, I believe, an ines­capably interesting and perhaps compelling reality to her as it is to most American Jews.

Thanksgiving Inclusion

Late autumn and early winter inevitably toss us Jews between the poles of a dialectic, yielding perhaps the strongest contrast found in our American social existence. On the one hand, there's Thanksgiving, with its message of America as a land based on fundamental principles of religious freedom. True, the Pilgrims were Christians who probably would not have approved of a strong Jewish or any other wildly divergent ethnic presence in America. Religious freedom meant religious freedom for them.

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Rabbi Philip Cohen holds a PhD from Brandeis University.