Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Holiday Spirit

I used to be a Jewish chauvinist. When I was a teenager, I refused to go to two cousins' weddings because they were marrying non-Jews. One relative, a first cousin of my father's, was making a commitment with someone who'd stood with her through the death of her mother.

But I sent her a note explaining why I couldn't attend her nuptials and felt I was doing the right thing. Well, they've been happily married for more than 35 years, both are wonderfully sweet, and, after I met and married a nice Catholic girl in the early 90s, I've apologized for my myopia several times in letters and in person.

Interestingly, after Verna and I got engaged someone sent me an article that said intermarriage finishes the work of Hitler. I'd love to say I had my interfaith-we-are-the-world epiphany before the ugly responses to my mixed marriage. But that would not be true.

I grew up in a very Jewish household. My maternal grandmother, who was never dogmatic, even tore her toilet paper before the Jewish Sabbath so she wouldn't violate the Biblical and Talmudic directives against work on the day of rest. My mother once threatened serious illness after I asked out a non-Jewish girl when I was 19.

But when I fell in love with someone who was not Jewish and I encountered varying degrees of hostility, I realized, shamefully, that my teenaged behavior had been unbecoming. It was easy to criticize those who seemed so narrow-minded, but my response when I was about 15 was certainly on the spectrum of insularity. So who was I to criticize?

On the other hand, many in the Jewish community continue during the Christmas holiday to wax religious about the Christmas dilemma. What should Jews and Jewish parents do when all things Santa, reindeer, elves, present, jingle bells, carols and more are splashed across every inch of our culture? Can we truly preserve our faith with a little Chinese food and a movie?

Obviously it's different for me now. As Maya likes to say, "Dad, you're Jewish, but Miguel and I are Jewish and Catholic." And that means we do celebrate both holidays. We have a Christmas tree and each light a menorah.

After my early dalliance with Jewish chauvinism, I can easily admit that I like Christmas, and have always liked the spirit of the holiday. Like many Christians, my biggest issue with Christmas these days is that we've allowed the holiday to become way too commercial. Even Maya responds that Christmas is about "getting presents," which I know is normal for an almost six-year-old, but I don't want that idea reinforced much longer.

So we go give as much as possible, to each other, to strangers, with time and money. Last year we bought Starbucks gift cards and handed them out to people on the streets. It was a small (and maybe token) gesture, but I want Miguel and Maya to be exposed to giving. And I try to model that all year long.

I do see how people devolve into confusion and outright nastiness towards cultural and religious differences at this time of year, and it's not good for us as Americans or as people of the world. Several years ago, the local Jewish paper, which I've freelanced for since 2003, ran an article about an Orthodox rabbi who forbid his congregants to read from the Torah (first five books of Moses) on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, saying it was a mark against God. When Verna and I read that, I cringed and she railed against the prejudice of some of my religion's adherents.

"Now you know why I would never convert," she'd said.

Judaism and Catholicism are part of my religious and spiritual life now and will be for a long, long time. And that's a good thing. I am Jewish, but I do enjoy celebrating Christianity with my loved ones. And learning more about faith from different perspectives.

I wish the fringe religious group in Florida who pressured Lowe's to pull it's advertising from a reality show based on Muslim Americans could have absorbed some of the wisdom I came to later in life. I finally learned that if there is a God, then we are all that Deity's children. Instead of railing against people who worship and celebrate differently, why don't find time for tolerance, respect, inclusion, and sublime wonder at the diversity of our country (and planet)?

If I had to do it all over again, I'd attend both weddings, celebrate with abandon, and share familial joy. But maybe my early chauvinism and later renunciation of that behavior has helped me become more sensitive to my interfaith family and to solidify a commitment to preserving that appreciation (and all that entails) for the rest of my life.

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