There’s Nothing Wrong With Teaching Your Jewish Kids That They’re Different At Christmastime
Christmas is my favorite time of year. I’ve always loved the lights, the music, the snow—just the general festivity of it all. But you know what my favorite part is? Heading back to my childhood home on Christmas Day, going to the movies with my parents and my sister, and then spending the night eating Chinese food. (Or, more recently, Mexican food, because what is variety if not the spice of life?)
That may seem like a stereotype, but I guarantee you that for so many Jewish families it’s an annual reality. I grew up in a conservative Jewish household on a street lined with fairy lights and Christmas trees. I still remember that my favorite part of this time of year growing up, aside from setting out the plush menorah that I would “light” while my parents took on the real candles, was seeing that the house at the very end of our street had lit the tree in front of their house. It was perfect. It was the lone pine on a large, usually snowy lawn, and they used a set of lights that glowed green, yellow, blue, and pink. I’d already figured out that, compared to the lights hanging at my school and at other houses, these were not the standard set, and I loved them. I distinctly remember one day asking my parents if we could hang lights, too. Their answer: a definitive and firm “no.” Their reason: “It’s just not what we do.”
At the time I didn’t really understand it. What was so wrong about putting up lights around the holidays? What if I find us dreidel-shaped lights? Would that work? It didn’t take long for me to understand and accept the fact that my house was always going to be decorated a little bit differently. Instead of a tree, we’d have a menorah, hand-painted by my family at a Color Me Mine-type place one weekend years ago. Instead of stockings, Chanukah-themed hangings that my sister and I crafted at Hebrew school. My family was different than the others on our street. That was fine. More than fine, really.
But when I told kids at school about my decorations, they seemed confused. Many of the Jewish kids I knew told me about how they had big, bright trees in their houses. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me so much, given that Christianity is the majority religion in this country. But now, we’ve gone so much further than the Christmas tree. Now, this exists:
It’s called, as the book title reads, The Mensch on a Bench. Presumably the Jewish answer to the terrifying Christmas tradition that is Elf on a Shelf, it’s apparently meant to be so much more than just a trinket. In an interview with NPR, the author, Neal Hoffman, explained its purpose:
“Hoffman decided early on that Mensch on a Bench wouldn’t be just a toy. An accompanying book is inspired by the story of Hanukkah. In it, a fictional character called Moshe tells Judah and the Maccabees he will watch over the oil while they sleep in the Temple. ‘They say, oh Moshe, thank you so much. You’re such a mensch sitting on that bench, watching over the oil!'”
Pardon me while I go ahead and talk about every single thing that’s wrong with this. First of all, the very idea that Jews need a Christmas-esque tradition is laughable. It’s a different religion and a different holiday. Just because they fall around the same time each year does not mean we feel like we’re missing out because we don’t have an elf staring us down from our mantles. Secondly, while it’s definitely a good thing that there are more story books coming out detailing the story of Chanukah, the fact that this author has chosen to insert a fictional character in an ancient story is unacceptable. It’d be like changing the story of Christmas. If that happened, it would be an outrage. Quite frankly, I find it offensive that there are people out there who feel as though they need to proselytize their Christian ideals on Jewish holiday, no matter how subtle or cute they think they’re being.
So let me be clear: Parents, it’s 100% okay to teach your Jewish kids that they’re different this holiday season. There is nothing wrong with not observing or celebrating Christmas. There is nothing wrong with celebrating holidays in line with your own religion or culture, even if it’s not the most common one. Your kids can still love Christmastime without decorating a Christmas tree. I promise, they’ll turn out just fine.