For Non-Jews on Judaism, Part 1
Commentary by Hyphen Parent
I was asked to share something important about Judaism that non-Jews might not know. So many possible answers raced through my mind! I had a very difficult time narrowing it down. So I posed the question to Jewish friends of all branches and observance and I’ve compiled their results. I’m presenting their answers along with their names and notes about which branches of Judaism they identify with.
What is one thing you wish non-Jewish people understood about Judaism? Part 1: Chanukah Edition
Chanukah is not “Jewish Christmas.” It’s not even an important holiday.
Answers about how Chanukah isn’t actually a major Jewish holiday were the most common response I got to this question.
Jaimie (non-practicing/Reform Judaism) explained, “Our identity isn’t tied around Chanukah. We all practice differently at different levels but it seems like Chanukah is the only thing ever really acknowledged. And usually badly.”
Karen (traditional egalitarian/Conservative Judaism) explained further, “Christmas is an important religious holiday which is crucial to the theological underpinnings of Christianity. Hanukkah is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It is a minor festival commemorating the victory of a small band of G-d-fearing Jews against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. It is not foundational to Judaism’s theological core, and is traditionally not even a gift-giving holiday.”
Christian holidays are not Jewish.
A number of people wrote that they wish people understood that Jews typically just want to practice our own religion and aren’t interested in celebrating Christian holidays. We don’t want to interfere with your celebrations, but we don’t want to be a part of them. We’re well aware that many of the symbols and practices come from Paganism rather than directly from the Christian Bible. That, however, doesn’t make them any more attractive to us. We’ve heard the arguments about how Christmas is secularized, but not only is it not a part of Judaism, but in many cases, pogroms and attacks on Jews have been orchestrated on and around Christmas. Things like Santa, Christmas trees, the Easter Bunny and egg hunts are not our traditions. They’re not part of our celebrations and in many cases, they directly conflict with our beliefs.
Rachel (Conservative Judaism) explained, “Santa, the Easter bunny, and those things associated with Christian holidays are still considered Christian even if a thousand years ago it was Pagan. Which means, no, I don’t want my kids going on egg hunts or sitting on Santa’s lap.”
Peri (Conservative Judaism), agreed and expanded, “Santa doesn’t come to my kids and it actually makes me a bit uncomfortable having to field those assumptions among strangers. Then I have to re-explain to my 5-year-old why Santa doesn’t come here and it has nothing to do with her behavior.”
There was a time when my children were smaller when strangers at stores often asked them what Santa brought them for Christmas. It often lead to much confusion and awkwardness I vividly remember one time when my twin daughters were around 5 and a woman at a store asked them that question. One of my girls, said simply, “Nothing.” That woman gasped, turned to her, and said something along the lines of, “Then you must have been very naughty all year.”
Another time, when we lived in Oklahoma, I explained to two older women that it was Passover and my children could only eat the snacks I was providing them. These ladies had known us for months and knew we were Jewish. One asked about my son, “But that’ll be over by Sunday, right? So he can eat the candy in his Easter basket?” I tried explaining we didn’t celebrate Easter. She could not understand. She knew we were Jewish, but could not understand that Christian traditions aren’t universal.
A number expressed that the Christmas season is a difficult time. I explored this a bit in two articles, On Chanukah (and Beyond) Representation Matters and Ask A Jew: What’s it like to be Jewish at Christmastime? Part 2
Kelsi (Reform Judaism and belongs to a Conservative synagogue) said she wishes people understood why she’s “such a grinch” at that time of the year. She explained, “I grew up feeling very out of place being Jewish. My culture and beliefs were never included in broader society and it was awful feeling like an outsider…It was terrible and ostracizing. The holiday season is hugely in my face that my culture isn’t important enough to be represented and honored the same way Christian traditions and customs are.”
To some, this may seem conflicting since we’ve already established that Chanukah isn’t a major holiday and Christmas is. However, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are two of the biggest holidays in Judaism. Do you recall seeing lights and decorations at the mall for the Jewish high holidays? Does your favorite candy have seasonal commercials featuring Rosh Hashanah? Do your kids’ favorite shows have “Yom Kippur” specials?” When you walk through the store in the fall, do you hear “Avenu Malkenu,” blaring from the speakers? Where are the apple and honey-flavored drinks in commemorative cups at the coffee shop? While Chanukah isn’t a major holiday it is the only Jewish holiday acknowledged by the larger society and often, there is little to no representation. For actual major Jewish holidays, there is no representation at all.
I found some discussion was very Chanukah-heavy, but in the next two segments, we branch into information that ranges from Jewish responses to antisemitism, quoting Weird Al and a 13-year-old points out we don’t have horns.
Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories and someone who’s best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.
[…] answers were varied and hit on many different topics. I’ve compiled them into a 3-part series. Part 1 focused heavily on Chanukah. For Part 2, we delve into different branches of Judaism, surprising misconceptions and […]
Hyphen, I am so enjoying this series! I love that you interviewed such a broad group of Jews to get their feedback. I’m looking forward to part three!
[…] week’s commentary “for non-Jews on Judaism” by Hyphen Parent caught my interest. I’m not Jewish. Never was. I was raised Episcopalian, […]