Although raised in a home that had two sets of dishes and occasionally displayed Sabbath candles, we were a little hazy in the mitzvah department. One year my father erected a sukkah in the backyard because he thought it might be fun. It felt Jewish. Because our house was quasi-kosher and I didn’t attend school on the holidays, we were thought to be Orthodox.
In the 1960’s, our communal religion was “New York” and mama loshen was spoken in one’s home: Irish; Italian, Yiddish; or Spanish… we all had living relatives who’d passed by the skirts of Lady Liberty in search of a less-brutal future. My classmates and I attended one another’s confirmations, bar/bat mitzvahs and quinceaneras, dressed in respective Nehru jackets, Go-Go boots, Twiggy-haircuts and mod-togs. We frugged, bugalooed and hora’ed, smugly confident with our American birthright. Doddering grandparents with heavy accents and uncool moms and dads eyed our moxie with equal parts wonder, envy, anger and pride, uncertain that an unleashed genie called “Freedom” could spare their babies from the historical ugliness that they had known.
The most emotionally divisive element of the multi-cultural calendar of my childhood was the “Christmas or Hanukkah” (non)competition. The two holidays bear no relation to one another, but Jewish kids felt cheated. Without a doubt, the Maccabees would be scratching their heroic heads and muttering, “Presents? Vus iz dos?!?” I, for one, am a Jew who has no problem wishing and being wished “Merry Christmas.” I know what Hanukkah is and it isn’t interchangeable with Christmas or Kwanzaa. Why are we diluting the Yuletide in the name of sensitivity?
To be fair, I didn’t always subscribe to this manner of thinking. As a proud-product of the New York City public school system and a talented singer to boot, I regularly performed in holiday pageants and was borderline ecstatic to appear in Town Hall as one of the Three Kings. In retrospect, the lyrics of the Episcopalian paen were a little bleak for a future Cosmo-Girl-on-the-Go like me but, at the time, it satisfied my need for drama with a pinch of angst. I appeared appropriately Semitic, with kinky hair and an uncanny ability to look beatific on demand. As a bonafide Oriental King, I’d have none of that insipid “Oh, Dreidel Dreidel Drieidel” stuff.
I’m not unaware of the ironic twist that life has taken because, just like the aforementioned Magi, I now live in the Holy Land and occasionally walk in the footsteps of Christ if I happen to be in one of the documented neighborhoods in search of laundry detergent or a newspaper. But the Hanukkah story has also taken on different meaning as my home is within the twenty minute radius of where the incredible narrative unfolded. Chashmonaim, Givon and the Maccabean graves are within shouting distance of one-another and next to some of my favorite shwarma joints.
The “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Man” season might feel a lot more authentic and less vulgar if we also celebrated the timeless values that unite us and that are not particular to ethnicity or culture. Individuality and pride in one’s history need not divide people who are moral and decent. What greater gift can we bequeath to our children, communities and the strangers among us than a heartfelt prayer that their lives be long, healthy, love-filled, service-oriented and free of conflict?
“Joyous Kwanzaa,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Have a good evening” are all civil gestures, but the only thing that counts is the sincerity behind the extended hand of friendship.
New York native Andrea Simantov has lived in Jerusalem since 1995. She writes for several publications, appears regularly on Israel National Radio and owns an image consulting firm for women.