The December DilemmaSince Jews around the world will be lighting their first Hanukkah candle tonight, I thought I'd take a few moments to share my thoughts on the "December Dilemma".
For those not in the know, the "December Dilemma" is the affectionate term for the position Western Jews find themselves facing each December when a tsunami of both secular and Christian celebration and commercialism threatens to extinguish the flames of Jewish distinction. This dilemma is felt most strongly by Jews with young children, who fear the little tots will become burdened by envy as visions of unattainable sugarplums dance in their heads.
For those who frequent my web site, you see we've put up a not-so-traditional arborial display that I've dubbed as the "Tree of Life". (The distinction from a "Hanukkah Bush" is that our Tree of Life is a year-round display, with ornamentation changing for each of the Jewish holidays.)
I've engaged in a few spirited discussions with fellow Jews since we adorned the ficus with blue lights and Hanukkah gelt, some finding it to be an inovative solution and others finding it to smack of assimilation to a Christian culture.
While I sincerely do appreciate the perspective of those who wish to keep a more authentic or "pure" Jewish home, for me it would be depressing not to get into the spirit of "the holiday season." American culture has been my culture longer and more deeply than Jewish culture is, given that my own upbringing was secular, and thus I find it too difficult to simply turn my back on lights and ginger cookies and a splash of fantasy.
These things, I think, are harmless fun, and certainly less of a threat than the bigger day-to-day questions of establishing a Jewish identity for myself and my children. (Should we observe some measure of kashrut? Is one mezuzah for the house enough? Can I manage to get a Shabbat observance together every week?) The important element for me, is adapting these traditions and presenting them to my children in a Jewish context - thus the reason I adopted an all-holiday ficus rather than a temporary evergreen, and why we made up a story about a dreidel fairy bringing pillow-chocolate that we don't take seriously instead of a man in a red suit that we do. Are these things assimilations of what we have come to identify with as Christmas? Certainly. But I can just hear the conversations once held by Christians long ago:
"You're really going to put a tree in our house for our holiday? That's so.. so.. pagan!"
Of all the things in my life that are not distinctly Jewish, my lighted ficus is likely the least of them.
Enjoy the coming weeks, whatever your religious holiday or none at all (let's not forget the Baha'is and the Zoroastrians, to name a few!), and form your traditions in a way that brings you and your family joy and harmony in a culture of revelry.