December 27, 2005

The Jew in me at Christmas time

The time called Christmas is when my Jewish upbringing butts heads with my Quakerism. Every year, without fail.

Growing up in a Jewish household, December 24th and 25th were some of the loneliest times for me as a kid. I was forbidden to call or visit any of my friends. I was told they were celebrating Christmas with their families.

There was nothing good on TV, since most of the Christmas specials were done (Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch...). And the caroling party on December 23 that my friend Sally and her family always hosted--complete with hot chocolate and cookies after a night of singing to neighbors for an hour or two--only fanned the flames of my wanting to be around friends when December 25 came around just two days later.

My mom was glad I was included in Sally's caroling parties--every year since 3rd grade and through my first year in Milwaukee after college, from age 9 to 19. Not bad.

And then came Christmas and my lonely time. Every year, without fail.

This past Sunday, on the 25th, a few of us gathered for worship. I was glad for being with friends who were Friends. The kids were quick to show off some of their new loot--insulated lunch boxes for school and a kid's set of cleaning tools, like a push-broom, dustpan, and mop. "So we can all clean together as a family," Mama explained.

At one point during worship, one of the parents swept up the children and took them upstairs for some storytelling and play-acting. It was easy to eavesdrop, since one of the children is very excited to be part of any story, and she knew this one particularly well. And upstairs isn't that far from downstairs when it comes to eavesdropping on the delightful squeals of the kids.

As I was listening to the older Friend tell the story about Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in the night, up came that familiar pang. This is a story that has led me into great pain as a child: I was different and everyone in my class knew it.

The fact that my mother would invite herself into the classroom to talk about Hanukkah didn't help me blend into the wallpaper, either. And the teachers were all too happy to have Mrs. Opp come by and point out that not every family celebrates Christmas and the story of Jesus' birth.

During worship, I heard the child say to the parent, "Jesus is coming to Earth to keep out the devil." Or something like that. I heard the parent continue the story, asking questions about how to keep the baby Jesus warm; or wasn't that an unusual star in the sky, perhaps we should follow it; or where should the shepherd stand, and did the angel sing?

In my own head, I was replaying the story of my childhood:

Girls from my class coming up to me and telling me I was going to hell because I didn't believe in Jesus.

Not knowing what to say when a store's clerk in town said "Merry Christmas" to me.

Knowing nothing about decorating a tree, and the very first chance I have to do so, with the very first ornament I ever hang, the bright red glass ball falls off the tip of the limb and shatters on the linoleum floor of the school--in front of the 6th-grade Japanese exchange student who is with me, when I had been asked to show him what it meant in the U.S. to decorate a Christmas tree...

But now, hearing the questions that the Friend is asking the children, where should the shepherd stand and does the angel sing?, like the Grinch's conversion experience, my own heart grew that day: I was learning that the story of Jesus's birth was told in play and with great love to the children, rather than being told with hatred or malice against Jews.

The schoolgirls who teased me and the store clerk who wished me a Merry Christmas probably didn't intend to cause me pain or to exclude me, and they probably weren't taught to do so by their parents, either.

Even though the time called Christmas has become a time of supporting those causes in which I believe, I still struggle to remind myself that I am included and connected to others these days; that there is a Light that was shining when the world began, and that it shines in you AND in me.

I would love it if as Quakers we could find symbols and traditions that reflected the universality, indivisibility, and continuity of the Light at this time of year. Maybe a modern-day re-telling of La Befana, in which the message could be lifted up that none of us know who the Christ Child is--it could be you, it could be me, it could be all of us!--or that all of us are the Christ Child, so we must treat one another as the Child of God that we each are.


P.S. Thanks to Nancy A, her recent post Yule is Cool, and the comments that were made there. Reading that post has opened me....

UPDATE: Kenneth S. of Homefries adds his experience of being with family at this time called Christmas. In his post, he links to a great thread on Live Journal about this topic, which begins with the question "Why should a non-practicing Jew be expected to default to a secular Christmas instead of a secular Channukah?"


Dave Carl said...

Greetings Liz,
My family on my father's side is Jewish, although mostly non-observant. I grew up with my mom and step-dad, who observed Christmas in a secular way. No tree for us, we lived in the Southen Calif. high desert and chopped down Manzanita bushes to decorate! We were not "religious" at all, but I can look back at my upbringing now and find that in many ways it compares well with "the best" of what religion has to offer.

I went through a period of reading about Jewish history and strongly identifying with it. I even made myself a wooden star of David and wore it under my shirt. I thought about being Bar Mitzvah'd, but it wasn't really that practical. I recall my 6th grade teacher inviting a minister to visit the class, and telling him that all her students were good Christians. And of course I've encountered the occasional anti-semitic slur or joke, usually done without knowledge of my background.

I don't think any of this caused me the type (or at least the amount) of pain that you've experiend, as my "Jewishness" (if any?) is more attenuated. After all, we did celebrate Christmas. But I can relate.

Perhaps in ways similar to your own journey, am exploring the life and teachings of Jesus. I read the assertion somewhere recently that you can't really understand him without knowing about his Jewishness. I've been studying the old testament/Hebrew Bible, mainly through the lens of Christian scholars, but would like to delve into the Jewish perspective more as well. I'm experiencing a sense of "homecoming" into my own Judeo/Christian roots (after lots of exploration of Eastern philosophy) and feeling a sense of relief at learning that it is possible to construe that tradition as a life-affirming, loving, and enlightening one. These feelings for me are still somewhat tenuous, as I have a lot of sorting to do -- for most of my life I have rejected anything smacking of the "Christian" label, although perhaps largely in an uninformed manner. But I am currently sensing a sort of "reconciliation" with my own heritage, which lives much more deeply in me than I could have imagined. Exposure to Friends' thoughts and searchings on these matters has been most helpful.

I have a lot of ambivalence about Christmas for reasons that track a lot of what has been blogged recently by Friends. I love the lights, the music and gathering with Friends and family. I could leave it at that and be happy. As for the religious aspect, I'm not sure... but if we're going to reflect on the Christ, then my thoughts turn to his prayer in John that we realize our oneness with God, with him, and each other.

So thanks for your thoughts (and not only in this particular post) which have helped shape my own journey. Glad to see the spirit has not taken you completely away from blogging!


Joe G. said...

Liz, your post has inspired one of my own. Thanks for your lovely thoughts!

Nancy A said...


How moving. Your story makes me think so passionately that our cultural feastdays have to belong to everyone. Especially children.

Big hug, Liz. Maybe by telling us about this, you've helped some of it to heal.

It reminds me of a poem I wrote back in my twenties (which took me 20 minutes to find in the storage room!). The last line seems relevant.

Remember the playground the schoolyard
of little girl faces in a licorice circle
taunting trebles, cutting words
the saw-edge cruelty of children--
Remember the teenage schoolgirl cut-out dolls
they measured then they withered you
and still you begged to be their friend--
Remember home and the wars of words
Burning eyes defending furiously
a world they couldn't see or know--
You sit inside me now afraid to move
in spite of bold new days.
I carry you.
How long I have carried you.

Liz Opp said...

Thank you for these touching responses and the tender sharing offered by Dave Carl and Nancy A.

As David points out, and he says it so well, I am currently sensing a sort of "reconciliation" with my own heritage, which lives much more deeply in me than I could have imagined. Exposure to Friends' thoughts and searchings on these matters has been most helpful.

Yes! yes!

And Nancy A., you are right: in sharing how I am changed and opened by these blogs, by the worship group, by the Living Spirit, I am healing bit by bit. I am redeemed.

Beautiful, sweet poem. Thanks for sharing it here.

Oh yes, and Beppe, I will take a look at your post very soon, as part of my playing catch-up with blogs!


James Riemermann said...


It pleases me to hear you speak of "the Jew in you," though I can also understand how elsewhere on this blog you have spoken of yourself as not a Jew. The apparent contradiction strikes me as a real and true paradox of Jewishness, which might be hard to understand for those who have grown up with a Christian identity. Jewishness is religion, but that's not all it is.

I have *never* been an observant Jew, in fact the only time I've been to temple was for my orthodox grandmother's funeral. I never knew my Jewish grandfather, though I do know he was fiercely agnostic. Because my father (also agnostic), not my mother, is Jewish, most orthodox Jews would insist that I am no real Jew.

Yet, given everything my ancestors have gone through for being Jewish, given the still-living stigma that Jewish ethnicity carries (however vague that ethnicity may be), I find it difficult--in fact undesirable--to walk away from the Jew in me. I do not particularly relate to the theological beliefs of Judaism, though I have been profoundly moved and shaped by the greatest poetry and myths of the Tanakh. My childhood memories are only mildly influenced by that part of my heritage. But I can't even imagine what it would be to not be a Jew in any sense.

Anonymous said...

Greetings to you and yours from me and UK Friends. I have been an attender for over 2 years, and was accepted into membership just 2 months ago. I had a quick browse round your blog, and I'm sure I'll be back soon. I was particularly interested in your thoughts on Judaism and the problems you felt. There are lessons for us all in our dealings with those of other faiths, and of none. At my small Meeting, there have been Anglican, Catholic and Buddhist Friends in the past. One particular well-known Quaker author Jim Pym is/was a Buddhist who works for the UK Quakers.
best wishes.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for dropping by, "S."... I was an attender for eight years before applying for membership, and it always gives me a chuckle that Friends affirm membership by something other than paying annual dues to a synagogue. (Although I think there is some benefit to having to go through a formal conversion experience, where folks learn about the very religion that attracted them in the first place...)

And James, I have had non-Jews say to me, upon learning of my Jewish heritage, "Ohhh, that explains why you interact the way you do among Friends from time to time." If they say so....

I'm fairly convinced that if I had grown up in a different sort of Jewish community, with a more mystical approach to that faith and tradition, I would be a happy practicing Jew in these times.

But for now, this is where I have been led, and my life is meaningful and refreshed regularly among Friends, so here I am.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm glad to meet you, Liz. I'm shirley. Greetings.
We have a regular newsletter which is circulated around our MM.
Would you allow me to quote your blog from time to time-(with full credit, I assure you!) I could send you a copy if you were interested.

Paul L said...

This string reminds me of the old joke about the rabbi who complained, "Some of my best Jews are Friends."