holidays · Jewish · reading the world · slice of life

An Emerging Jewish Identity

I’ve found navigating pleasantries can be tricky when you’re a Jew living outside of New York City in December.  Nearly everyone I encounter assumes I celebrate Christmas.  I’ve learned to respond to “Merry Christmas” with “Have a happy new year.”  It’s non-denominational and I figure it won’t offend anyone who is an atheist or agnostic.  However, if someone asks me, “What are you doing for Christmas,” I respond with “I don’t celebrate Christmas because I’m Jewish.”  Occasionally someone will follow-up with, “So you don’t have a Christmas tree?”  BUT, most of the time, the conversation switches to something else.

As soon as Isabelle was able to sit upright, people began asking her, “Have you been a good girl for Santa?”  I found, “We don’t celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Chanukah” to be a good enough response.  Even though she can speak for herself now, I still pre-empt the conversation and tell the other person why Santa won’t be visiting our house.

Before I tell you about the BIG THING that happened on the Christmas front today, allow me to go back to Tuesday afternoon.  Isabelle and I were at Chocolate World where she was admiring a beautiful red ball with chocolate candies inside.  She wanted the ornament and I had to explain it was for a holiday, Christmas, that we don’t celebrate.  “We celebrate Chanukah,” I told her.  I located the tiny Chanukah display inside of Chocolate World and brought her over to it.  “See the blue and white Hershey kisses and the chocolate bar wrapper with the dreidel?  Those things are for our holiday, Chanukah.”
She was not impressed.  “I want the red ball!”
“It’s a Christmas ornament for a Christmas tree, Isabelle.  We don’t celebrate Christmas.  I am not going to buy you the ornament.”
“I wanna celebrate Christmas!” she declared.
“Well, that’s not going to happen because you’re Jewish!”
“I wanna celebrate Christmas,” she repeated.
{Deep breath.}
“Let’s go find the Chocolate House,” I offered, changing the subject.
She agreed.

Fast-forward to this morning.  I was talking with her occupational therapist at the end of her session in the office lobby.  Isabelle was twirling around and chatting about her Elmo stuffie with four older women who were ogling over her.  Once I was finished speaking with her OT, I told her it was time to get our coats (to go back to Chocolate World — of course).  As we walked away one of the women wished Isabelle a “Merry Christmas.”  Isabelle paused.  In a calm voice she looked at the women and said, “It’s Chanukah.”

None of them responded.  I said nothing.  I just watched as Isabelle articulated herself more carefully.  “It is Chanukah,” she said.

“Oh, well, Happy Chanukah, then!” the lady who said “Merry Christmas” said to her.  All of the other ladies joined in and said, “Happy Chanukah.”

I couldn’t believe it.  My little girl took it upon herself to use her voice to, in essence, say, I don’t celebrate Christmas because I am Jewish.  I was FLOORED.

I took Isabelle aside after I zipped up her coat and told her how proud I was for calmly telling the ladies, in her own way, that Christmas wasn’t her holiday. In the car, I explained to her how I respond when people say “Merry Christmas” to me, but told her what she did was perfectly okay.

My daughter used three small words to send a big message today.  She essentially told a group of women not assume everyone celebrates Christmas.  Her Jewish identify is emerging and I couldn’t be prouder.

* * * * *

Let the record show that when she was at Chocolate World today she saw the Christmas ornaments from Tuesday, pointed at them, and said, “Those are for Christmas.”  She paused.  Then she said, “I celebrate Chanukah.”


24 thoughts on “An Emerging Jewish Identity

  1. I am so very proud of Isabelle and so proud of you, Stacey for guiding her in the right direction. The lesson you taught her will stick with her forever! It is not easy to be a four year old child at this time of the year. You handled it perfectly!

  2. Stacey, I just love this story so much. I can’t imagine how often your family is bombarded with Christmas and ornaments and Santas… it’s everywhere! You’ve been such a powerful role model for Isabelle. Look what she’s learned from you! What a smart girl she is!

  3. I appreciate this post. I don’t know if you have seen it, but this made me think of a graphic that has been circulating lately that I saw posted on a colleague’s door and then on a different colleague’s Facebook wall.

    Though I get where the person is coming from, I also had this feeling while reading it that words do matter and that the judgement of you are broken was counter-productive. I think both (responding back as the graphic encourages) or as you and Isabelle have can be positive. In your post it is about forming identity and challenging assumptions.

    I need to be more active in the slice community again. Your post reminds me once again how I have missed seeing glimpses into the lives of the slicers that I frequently read.

    1. I hadn’t seen this graphic so thanks for sharing it with me, Amanda. I get where the person is coming from. And overall, I agree. However, our words ALWAYS matter — especially with children who are in the midst of forming their own identities.

      BTW: Last night, we went out to dinner with Isabelle and my in-laws. She was wished a Merry Christmas (again) and said, “But it’s Chanukah.” I think she just can’t get past this this-year.

  4. Thank you for sharing the story. This was a significant moment in Isabelle’s identity development. Wishing you a wonderful family time during Chanukah.

  5. First of all, let’s have a moment for a place called Chocolate World. Man, I need to move to New York. 😉 But in all seriousness, as parents, is there anything more affirming when our kids start to internalize heritage and faith as a part of who they are? Thanks for sharing her story. You are an awesome mama.

  6. Stacey,
    Such a great “holiday” story and so special for you as well. The holidays are so much more than the commercialism represented so loudly in the world right now and I won’t get started on the stores that have to be open every holiday. With Chanukah, Kwanza and Christmas, I just prefer “Happy Holidays” for a broader audience!

  7. I’ve come to feel that I just appreciate the sentiment behind whatever greeting is given to me, and because Chanukah is not one of our major holidays, I don’t expect people to say Happy Chanukah to me, nor do I often say that to others. I think Happy Holidays suffices and if someone wants to wish me a Merry Christmas, I just say, “Thank you and to you, too.” We happen to have a Christmas tree because my husband likes to have one, but when people call it our Chanukah bush, I say “No, it’s a Christmas tree, we don’t need a Chanukah bush. We have a menorah!”

  8. It seems that Isabelle is doing quite well for herself, Stacey. Great story captured! I wish others would not assume that each celebration is like theirs. This is a topic we discuss in class, the challenge of assumptions made without all the facts.

  9. Like Nancy, I appreciate the sentiment behind the good wishes – we live in a world with many religions and cultures to acknowledge and celebrate, I focus on the fact that good wishes are being offered. We could all use more good wishes, after all! Isabelle sounds like she’s enjoying Chanukah – Happy Chanukah to you and your family!

  10. I read this post a few days ago and it stayed with me, reminding me of my own experiences as a Jewish kid growing up with Christmas everywhere.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. I have a sort of off topic question. 🙂 We’re trying to make some decisions about a French Immersion pre-school program for our kids, both of whom have a speech delay. Claire is not only being treated for articulation, which has made me wonder if FI would actually be OK. Does Isabelle have more/less/the same amount of trouble with Hebrew words as she does with English words? I need to talk about this with our SLP, who’s is fluent in French. I had initially dismissed the idea because I thought fluency in one language was really important before burdening them with a second. We don’t speak much French at home, so it would be mainly happening at school. Anyway….just curious.

  12. How lovely that Isabelle is developing into an articulate young person, able to express her understandings of the world. Your response is definitely helping her develop a strong sense of heritage and identity. While my initial response was to think why would there be harm in a pretty chocolate that could be enjoyed regardless of the manufacturer’s intent, I appreciate the importance of maintaining the difference while identity is being developed. It was wonderful to see that you were not swayed my the impulsive request (didn’t give in), and that Isabelle grew from your response. Great parenting, regardless of teaching cultural heritage. 🙂

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