'Tis merry being Jewish at Christmas

A man in a Santa Claus costume waves as he stands in front of a Chanukah menorah.

Story highlights

  • Jeff Pearlman lived in a town with few Jews, and had to sing in the school's holiday concert
  • The Christmas carols evoked either Christ or the Virgin Mary or Christ and the Virgin Mary
  • "Jeffie" complained to his teacher and Dad that Christmas and concert weren't fair
  • His dad said enjoy it, take in the lights, and be happy you don't have to experience the anxiety

Way back in the winter of 1982, I was a fifth grader at Lakeview Elementary -- and I was not happy.

Because it was late in the year, and because I lived in a town, Mahopac, New York, with about six-and-a-half Jews, I was required by law to participate in the school's annual holiday concert. It was, for a boy who always felt resentful over having to spend December 25 inside Ming's Chinese Restaurant, the worst of the worst of the worst.

Of the 11 songs we were told to sing, 10 were Christmas carols. Of those 10, seven or eight evoked either Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Jeff Pearlman

Finally fed up, one day I swallowed my anxiety and approached Mrs. Hart, our fifth-grade teacher -- a woman who scared the living hell out of me.

Jeffie: "Ms. Hart, I have a complaint."

Ms. Hart: "What do you want?"

Jeffie: "I'm Jewish."

Ms. Hart: "So?"

Jeffie: "I don't think it's fair that there are no Chanukah songs in the concert."

Ms. Hart: "Don't be stupid."

That was that. I put on my stupid white collared shirt and my stupid red tie, and when the special night arrived I crooned loud and proud about the miracle of Jesus Christ's birth. OK, admittedly I stood there and opened my mouth a few times while gazing longingly toward Lori Raffa. Later that evening, I told my father that I would never engage in such an endeavor again.

"Why?" he said. "What's the big deal?"

I was stunned.

"It is a big deal," I said, "because these people act like Chanukah doesn't even exist. It's all Christmas, all the time, and we get no equal treatment whatsoever."

"You're right," Dad said, "and it's an absolute blessing."

It took me several years to grasp my father's thinking but, with 41 Decembers now under my belt, I agree 100% with his take: There's no better time to be Jewish than December.

I know ... I know. Christmas is sooooo-o-o awesome. Presents! Ham! A tree! More presents! As a Jewish boy in a Christian town, I heard these paeans over and over and over, and I even used to believe them. Why, oh why, couldn't we celebrate, too?

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Then, one Christmas Eve Dad took me into the city to observe the madness. We entered Macy's (ground zero for 1980s holiday madness) with nary a care in the world, kicked back and soaked in the insanity. There were people fighting over the last Rubik's Cube and Cabbage Patch doll; folks nervously gazing down at their crumpled lists -- contained in their faces the looming stress of the emptying wallet, of the materialistic mayhem, of the pure, unadulterated holiday hell.

"Does this look fun to you?" Dad asked.

"Um, no," I said. "It doesn't."

"Is this what you want Chanukah to be?"

"No," I said. "Definitely not."

We returned home, lit the menorah, belted out our off-tune rendition of "Rock of Ages" and exchanged the regular sixth- or seventh-night gift. Probably socks. Maybe a Hall & Oates record.

My father is a quirky guy: a Brooklyn-born Jew who spent his childhood attending Hebrew school and avoiding bacon. If anyone has pride in his religion, it's Stanley Pearlman. And yet, Dad never seemed to mind Mahopac in all its Christmas splendor, or carolers standing at the front door, or the inane school concert. I'd moan and complain and cry, and he refused to flinch.

His stance was a simple-yet-wise one: Enjoy it. Enjoy it all. Take an evening drive to see all the lights. Buy eggnog at the supermarket. Walk into Dennis Gargano's house and smell the pine needles. Study the ornaments, suck on a candy cane. "I love Christmas," Dad has said myriad times, "because it's not my holiday. There's no stress or pressure. You can embrace it without having to own it."

Hence, this past Friday I took my daughter Casey out of school for our annual New York City fun day. We roamed through Toys R Us and the Disney Store, watched the Macy's Christmas puppet show, walked past Santa's village. The decorations were nice and the lights, while blinding, were pretty. But everything was overcrowded and excessively hyped. The materialism was painful. The anxiety was palpable.

"This," Casey said to me, "is pretty crazy."

"No," I replied. "This is fantastic."

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