Skip to main content

'Tis merry being Jewish at Christmas

By Jeff Pearlman
updated 6:03 PM EST, Fri December 20, 2013
A man in a Santa Claus costume waves as he stands in front of a Chanukah menorah.
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

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman blogs at jeffpearlman.com. His most recent book is "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton." Follow him on twitter @jeffpearlman.

(CNN) -- 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.

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman

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.

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.

Video Christmas card goes viral
Megyn Kelly's 'White Christmas"

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?

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."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT