What's a Nice Jewish Girl Like Me Doing in a Christmas Book?

Santa in the moonlight
Santa in the moonlight

I'm happy, as a Jewish writer, to be included in the new Chicken Soup For The Soul Christmas collection, which promises "101 Joyous Holiday Stories." (Actually, my own contribution is more flippant than joyous. But "100 Joyous Holiday Stories and One Flippant Holiday Story" doesn't really fly as a subtitle.)

Over the years, Chicken Soup has welcomed a number of Jews into their holiday collections. "I was in the last one," my pal Risa Nye told me. "Oy! My bubbe would plotz."

So why would a Jew want to be in a Christmas book?

For one thing, it pays $200. Plus, as another pal joked when she heard the news, "If there's chicken soup, there should be at least one Jew, right?"

There are, in fact, seven Jews in this new collection. So what did we add to a book destined to be shelved in the "Christian Living" section?

Shari Cohen Forsythe describes the time a law school friend's family welcomed her into their home for the holidays. "Talk about a gefilte fish out of water!" she jokes. But her friend's mother had taken the time and trouble to seek out the one synagogue in town and ask the rabbi what a Jewish girl would want for Hanukkah. It was, of course, a menorah and candles! "I learned," concludes Forsythe, "that simple acts of kindness can remain in your heart forever."

Judy Davidson writes about the night that she, her husband and their young kids shouldered the mammoth task of creating a Christmas celebration for a local homeless shelter. Did these observant Jews have any problem with staging a fabulous Christmas? Not at all. "Judaism teaches that helping others is a commandment," writes Davidson, noting that performing this mitzvah only solidified her own family's sense of Jewish identity.

Susan J. Gordon takes on the topic of secular businesses who attempt to honor Jewish traditions that they don't really understand, in a piece about coaching a well-meaning local bank manager on the fine points of lighting a menorah, which, she has to explain, is a sacred act central to the celebration of Hanukah, and NOT just the Jewish equivalent of putting up a Christmas tree.

My own contribution, "When Should The Christmas Lights Come Down?" was inspired by a friend's decision to leave his holiday lights up all winter "to ward off winter gloom" and the responses he got when he posted about his decision on Facebook, ranging from "Great idea!" to "Bah humbug."

Several of the stories are about mixed marriages. Andrea Bates, married to a non-Jew, describes "raising our little Jewish southern girl" in a home in which her daughter places her Hanukah gifts beneath a Christmas tree -- which is crowned with a Star of David. Ferida Wolff, whose daughter married outside the faith, tells of crafting an impromptu Christmas tree for visiting grandchildren.

Lisa Pawlak, whose mom was Protestant and whose dad was a Jew, ended up marrying a Panamanian Catholic, resulting in a wealth of holiday traditions, including a menorah, dreidels, latkes, stockings, a tree, fireworks and arroz con pollo. "We embrace a spirit of adventure," she writes," along with the richness of our family's cultural diversity and absolute certainty of our underlying love for each other."

The one thing all these stories have in common is an enduring sense of Jewish identity. All of us have found that, even as we encounter and embrace a diversity of traditions, we remain Jews.

You can have a Christmas tree in your house, put on a Santa suit and distribute holiday gifts to the homeless, or delight in the gigantic illuminated rotating Frosty the Snowman on your neighbor's roof and still be Jewish.

Why be a Jew in a Christmas book? When I reached out to ask my fellow contributors, I got a variety of responses:

"In the long tradition of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Irving Berlin," said Shari Forsythe "Jews like to sing, compose songs and write about Christmas -- I guess I am no exception."

"Culture and custom and celebration all blend at the holiday time, whether Christmas or Hanukkah," observed Ferida Wolff. "And anything that brings people closer together is a joyous thing."

"I expect that virtually all of the readers will be non-Jews," Susan J. Gordon told me. "I hope that my story will encourage them to reflect on how the holiday world looks from a non-Christian perspective."

Being a Jew at Christmas can be a challenge. As the airwaves fill with carols and the stores crowd with holiday shoppers, it can feel as if we're being steamrolled by a gigantic Christmas Cheer machine, driven by Santa and spewing songs, gifts, tinsel and trees.

It's enough to make a person feel invisible. And nobody likes that. Being a Jew in a Christmas collection is an opportunity to tell its largely Christian readership: We're here! We're Jewish! And here's what "the most wonderful time of the year" means to us.

This piece first appeared on Womens Voices For Change.