Jews Never Feel More Like Outsiders Than At Christmas

December is a time when I grapple not with my Judaism but with the desire to assimilate, says writer Ray Levy-Uyeda.
Hanukkah candles burn on the background of a Christmas tree
Hanukkah candles burn on the background of a Christmas tree
annuoka via Getty Images

As a Jew, I look forward to the holidays for exactly one reason: latkes. But to be honest, Christmas feels like a large arrow pointing at me, declaring: “Not one of us.” This feeling of being on the outside is complicated by the fact that I enjoy what Christmas has to offer: I say Merry Christmas when others say it first and because of the culture we all live in, I know the words to most Christmas songs. And yet, the words and the songs aren’t mine.

Jews are fortunate recipients of a prized social location: we are a minority, but the majority of us have white skin and receive the benefits that the dominant culture bestows. We are persecuted and oppressed by some, but recognised as victims when we are victimised. More than half of the world’s Jews live outside of Israel, where most of our experiences are punctuated by oppressions, not defined by them. December is one big punctuation mark, a time when I, as a Jew, grapple not with my Judaism but with the desire to assimilate. After all, I know Jews who put up Christmas trees, I know Jews who host holiday parties replete with poinsettias, ornaments, Rudolf alters and songs about Santa.

“Leaning toward Christmas feels like pushing away from Judaism.”

Being conditioned to lead with a Diasporic identity is a byproduct of a multi-decade campaign to teach us the songs, mythologies and traditions of Christmas in school. In the first grade, my classmates and I decorated stockings, and in the second, we practiced the verses to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Most years of my primary schooling were met with instructions to write letters to Santa, though in the third grade I wrote to the Man in Red that I was Jewish and did not know if I was on his list.

By the time I’d reached middle and high school it was too late, I had already been indoctrinated into the warm, cinnamon, joyful clutches of Christmas. Teachers at school were advised to wish students happy holidays, not Merry Christmas, but I didn’t mind the distinction, I wanted my peers to enjoy their 25 December because I understood, as a Jew, that every person should have access to their faith.

“In a desire to feel more like ourselves, we’ve constructed a holiday that is a sociocultural response to what we are not.”

Though Hanukkah holds little weight in comparison to other Jewish holidays about near-death experiences and military victories, leaning toward Christmas feels like pushing away from Judaism. Rabbi Joshua E. Plaut wrote for My Jewish Learning that celebrating Hanukkah as an alternative to Christmas was how second and third generation Jews in the 20th century would assert their Nationality, that the holiday was important in that it stood in opposition to Christmas. The Jewish fascination with Hanukkah was born out of a desire to be seen as not Christian and to create a fun alternative for Jewish kids during the time of year when hundreds of millions of our neighbours revel in a different kind of joy.

“Ironically, by elevating Hanukkah as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, [assimilated] Jews had invented their own holiday tradition through a Christmas mirror,” Rabbi Plaut wrote. In a desire to feel more like ourselves, we’ve constructed a holiday that is a sociocultural response to what we are not. My question during this time of year is: how do I know my Jewish identity and practice my religion without being adjoined to what I am not?

“Our whiteness has allowed for the cultural assimilation of Jewish identity that offers safety but risks cultural decay.”

“How to be Jewish during December” is subject matter that’s carved out space for itself on the Internet, emblematic of just how many questions we all have, and how few answers we’ve constructed for ourselves. The question of how to celebrate Hanukkah is superficial to the question of maintaining my religious integrity, which is to say, the competing desires to be both Jewish and to be seen as Jewish during a time that prizes neither one of those things. It crashes against the merriment of Christmas and the near involuntary reaction to join in.

Christmas exacerbates the central contradiction of the Diasporic Jew: that we are both Jewish and belong to a Christian-dominant culture. Younger Jews are more at risk of experiencing a diluted version of our faith, both that we may be read as white (the majority of Jews are) before seen as Jewish and conversely, that our whiteness has allowed for the cultural assimilation of Jewish identity that offers safety but risks cultural decay.

I have a lot of guilt about liking Christmas because I know that among younger Jews fewer practice the faith. Celebrating, or even enjoying Christmas feels like observing a false idol and capitulating to global Christianity. That same year I confessed to Santa my Judaism, I asked my mom if the family could invest in a Hanukkah bush, the not-so-clever spin on the Christmas tree, and she said no, which I lamented then yet understand now. Because when the rest of the world was celebrating Christmas, our home was the only place where I could understand my Judaism in its singular form and feel comfortable in knowing that I was Jewish, not just that I wasn’t Christian.

Ray Levy-Uyeda is a US-based freelance writer who focuses on gender, politics and activism.

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