Now remember, Dad,” my son warned me, “you’re going to be walking into quite a Christmas scene. You need to be prepared.”
“I know. It’s totally cool with me,” I said unconvincingly.
My son was picking my wife and me up at the airport where we’d be going to his house in Washington, D.C., and spending Christmas with his wife and newborn baby along with other members of her family. My son knows me well, so he was working overtime to get me in a good frame of mind.
“But don’t forget, Dad; it’s not a religious thing for me and I promise we’re raising our daughter Jewish.”
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” I try to assure him and myself.
The house was indeed decked out in full holiday decor. My daughter-in-law, half-Jewish, loves Christmas and had insisted on having a Christmas tree as part of a pre-marital deal with my son (she gets a tree and they raise the kids Jewish — a superb deal in my book).
The decorations — the tree, lights, poinsettias, stockings — were very festive, the food was delicious and the Christmas music was … well, there was a lot of it.
It was a truly beautiful Christmas celebration, and everyone was very kind, warm and welcoming to us. I tried my best to seamlessly fit right in.
But I had to admit that the sight of this misfit Jew at a Christmas party is a source of humor, awkwardness and confusion. There are the lovely moments of pure fun and enjoyment when you feel like everyone else, but then there are those times when you feel obsessively aware of your Jewishness, a bit like when Woody Allen visited Grammy Hall’s home for Christmas dinner in Annie Hall (“Great ham, Grammy!”).
Unfortunately, things did not initially go well for me. In no time, I clumsily knocked into a porcelain Christmas house that was neatly placed upon the mantel, shattering it and leaving me embarrassed and apologetic.
Shortly after, I somehow kicked over the shrimp platter with the cocktail sauce, which resulted in people scrambling to quickly clean the sauce off the couch and rug. At that moment I realized I needed a stiff drink, so I went to the kitchen, poured myself a vodka and started to cut up a lime, whereupon I almost sliced off my thumb and started bleeding all over the cutting board.
It was not my finest moment, and while my antics had nothing to do with my religion, I was keenly aware that I — the Jewish guest — was probably not making the greatest impression. Things were not going well for me. Maybe I was just a bit out of sorts.
A little later in the evening, things had markedly improved. I was sitting around, happily taking in the festive scene, safely planted in a comfortable chair, not breaking a thing and no longer bleeding.
I began to contemplate the whole scene. What is it about Jews and Christmas, I thought? Christmas is a beautiful, celebratory holiday, filled with lots of love, fun and gifts. Nothing wrong with that. So, what is it that causes so many Jews (including this one) to overthink it? Why is there a slight touch of uncomfortableness for so many of us? Is there something inherent in the Jewish soul or are the scars of history so deep that we can’t just chill out and fully embrace Christmas? Attending a Christmas party doesn’t mean we’re embracing the gospel of Jesus or betraying our Jewish heritage, so why do we still feel a bit like a pair of brown shoes on a black tuxedo on Christmas Day?
As I sat there, I quickly began to recalibrate my attitude. Jews must do a better job at tolerating and respecting the religious differences of others, I thought, just as we demand from non-Jews. I reminded myself of all the non-Jewish people with whom we are aligned in the fight against hatred and injustice. I even thought of all the “righteous Gentiles” in Europe who risked their lives in order to save Jewish lives. We Jews honor them and other good Christians when we respect their holidays, and Christmas is among the most beautiful and holiest days of the year for them.
Surely I can embrace the cheer of good people on their special night. Doing so, I figured, is a sign of respect, solidarity and kindness — actually a very Jewish thing to do.
Suddenly my daughter-in-law’s mother approached me and kindly asked me if I’d like another drink.
“Definitely,” I said with a smile, contentedly. “Make it a double.”
I could get used to this holiday.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan chair for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.