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As a child, we rarely lived in an area with a large Jewish population. While I was born in NYC, we moved around from the time I was about seven for my father’s job. The first response I always get to that statement is the question, “Oh was he military?” and I always say, “sort of, he’s a rabbi.”
My father’s rabbinical jobs took us to a college town then a tiny vacation/snow bird town in Florida. Needless to say, I didn’t grow up with a huge Jewish community or many of the amazing benefits I now have living within the Denver Jewish community. As a family, we always held ourselves as educators and examples of Judaism to people who had often times never met a Jewish person before. But Judaism was always a core of our lives at home. So much so that family lore has it either my brother or myself, upon seeing a crèche or manger scene for the first time in Florida promptly declared, “Abba, why do they have their sukkah built already? It’s Chanukah time!”
However, I have often been dismissed as “well you always knew you were Jewish” or “you’ve always had an easy connection to Judaism.” It’s true that when your dad, uncle, grandpa, and great grandfather are all rabbis there is something about Judaism that comes easily but we still faced dilemmas as children. No matter how much I begged and pleaded and told my parents that is was social suicide, I couldn’t go to football games on a Friday night much less tryout for a coveted football cheerleader spot that I so desperately desired. I taught Hebrew school on the weekends, helped make a minyan for my dad on Saturdays sometimes, and approximately three school friends showed up at my Bat Mitzvah because most of them had literally no idea what they had been invited to.
Now that I have a son of my own and it is holiday time, however, I am reminded of a particularly poignant memory from being a small child. It is of “visiting Christmas.”
In an effort to teach us about other traditions and share special time with friends, my parents took us to another family’s home to help them decorate their Christmas tree. Oh, it was a blast. Tinsel and lights, ornaments and candy canes. Gingerbread houses and presents under the tree, it was every little kid’s dream come true. I was in heaven. Time came to go home and in the car, I loudly declared to my parents that from now on, I wanted to celebrate Christmas. My father tells me that he and my mother cringed and were silent for a few seconds.
Being the diplomatic and patient man/rabbi he is, he responded with – “Well, ok but then you can’t celebrate the Jewish holidays like Pesach and Chanukah. That means you’ll miss out on the matzah pizza and going to services with me.” Mind you this is an approximation of the conversation… it was <cough>25+<cough> years ago and neither of our memories are good enough to remember what he said exactly. However, it concluded with my thoughtful silence and then the declaration “Well, I guess we can just visit Christmas.”
And to this day, I love visiting Christmas. I love watching others decorate their trees and homes, I adore holiday music, and I am sharing my love of Christmas lights with my 2.5 year old son. What I want him to know is that other people’s traditions are beautiful and cool and amazing but we don’t have to make them our own to enjoy them. So this year, the first year he’s really aware, we will sing our Chanukah songs and light our candles and eat latkes and then maybe bundle up and drive around looking at the Christmas lights.