Commentary: A Christmas of choices
Right around now is when people start fretting over creches in the public square and arguing as to whether publicly funded Christmas symbols violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. And right about now is also when certain Jewish groups begin insisting that the answer is to place a Hanukkah menorah right next to that creche, which leads atheists to complain about a plague on both their houses.
Years ago I was approached to bring one of these creche cases, and I politely declined. I'm not sure whether the creche violates the First Amendment or not, but to quote one of my favorite films, I really don't give a (darn). Not my issue.
There are plenty of First Amendment issues that make my blood boil, but this isn't one of them. If you want to have an official Christmas tree or menorah or whatever, mazel tov. Too many other things to worry about in this world than giving some of my conservative pals a chance to claim that my liberal friends are waging a war against Christmas.
But make no mistake: In my book, Christmas is a religious holiday. The fact that I'm not willing to sue to keep the tree out of the public park doesn't mean that there will be one in my house. There won't be. It doesn't belong. I'm Jewish.
The essence of the First Amendment, in my book, is the freedom each of us has to pray or not to pray, to choose religion or no religion, to celebrate our holidays free from outside interference.
So all you Christmas Jews, I will fight to the end to defend your right to put up a tree and sing carols and the rest. But why? Why are you celebrating the birth of Jesus?
Need I point out that I don't know of any Christians who celebrate Hanukkah, much less the more important holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. And while we're at it, ask any educated Jew, and they'll tell you that Hanukkah is a pretty minor holiday in our calendar, and that elevating it to Christmas-like standing is only one step away from putting up that tree. It's a nice holiday, and I love jelly donuts (even if my single attempt to bake them failed), but it's not the Jewish Christmas. There is no Jewish Christmas. Christmas is a Christian holiday, based in Christian faith.
Some years ago, before ideology took over talk radio, I interviewed a rabbi about Christmas, and he made a point I'll never forget: If you want your grandchildren to be Jewish, you shouldn't be celebrating Christmas with your children. And in the years since, as I look around, there is great truth to what he said.
When my kids were younger, there were plenty of occasions in the schoolyard when I would ask Jewish parents what they were doing for our holidays, and they would look at me like I was slightly crazy and explain that they didn't celebrate the Jewish holidays because their children were "nothing." Nothing. These parents who worried about whether the apple juice had pesticides and whether there was too much smog on hot days worried not at all about the spiritual nourishment that is as important as the quality of the apple juice. When it came time for Christmas, these same parents would tell me about their elaborate plans for celebrating a holiday that, as they would explain to me, meant "nothing" religiously.
Kids who grow up as nothing lose something that is very important. That something matters more than feeling left out when Santa skips your house. It defines us in critical ways, gives us comfort in difficult times, gives us faith when that is all there is.
For many years, I used to meet my mother every Christmas, and we would go see a movie and then eat Chinese. In the years since she passed away, I remember those Christmas Days with special fondness, days when my mother and I celebrated who we were, the ties that bound us. It matters.
So this year, I'll be celebrating with my kids -- and egg foo yung.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. God bless.
Susan Estrich's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.