We didn't have a Christmas tree.
"Why?" our daughters asked.
"We're Jewish," I told them.
"Jewish don't have Christmas tree?" our older daughter asked. She was looking at ads in a Los Angeles Times special holiday circular.
"That's right," I said, though I knew there were many exceptions to the no-tree statement. To be fair, some Jews (many) celebrated the holiday, with a well-festooned Christmas tree to boot.
She licked her finger not unlike an adult—she was almost 14—and turned a glossy page. "What's Jewish?" she asked.
She and her sister had been in the U.S. from Russia for a mere three weeks. Their limited English meant they didn't always use words like people, families, homes or parents to round out thoughts. Still, they made themselves incredibly clear.
"No Jewish have tree?" one daughter would ask. Then the other would say, slightly differently, "So Jewish don't have tree?" as if hoping the altered construction would deliver to them a satisfactory answer. But each time they mentally took me back to "Start Here," as if "What's Jewish?" were a board game, I answered no, that Jewish people—at least us—didn't have a tree.
It was one of the toughest "no's" I ever delivered.
"If not tree, then what do Jewish do?" they asked, looking from the holiday ads to me.
"Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah," I said and showed them the menorah, the candles.
"That's it?" They looked back at me. "That's Hanny-ku?"
"What's Jewish?" they asked again.
Hanukkah aside, ever try to explain an abstract concept like The History of the Jewish People to a teen and a tween who don't yet speak your language? To two kids who had pretty much never met a Jew before, who had never contemplated being in a Jewish family?
The miracle, for me, of Hanukkah, was going to be figuring out how to explain all this.
How easy it would be to say that Jews don't see Jesus as the Messiah, and, therefore, Jews don't celebrate Christmas. But this would define the whole concept of Judaism as a world apart from other religions, not one among them.
Maybe I was wrong, but I wanted them to understand that being one among many (the religion, in this case) was more important than separating it from others. But then, again, it was the fundamental difference in belief that most easily defines What's Jewish—and many Jews and non-Jews will tell you so.
Mostly, I admit, I wanted our daughters to cultivate an appreciation that Judaism existed, that it was a part of their new parents as much as being Russian was a part of them, just like Russian orthodoxy was a part of their grandmother. One wasn't better than the other, just different. Our kids have always been incredibly open to learning things like this, but still, it's a tall order when you were really hoping...for a tree.
"Maybe we get tree," our younger daughter said. "Big green one. Smells good."
Now we'd unwittingly caused our daughters—neither of whom was born Jewish—to long for Christmas, at least a tree, in the way many non-Jews did. Which didn't seem fair to them. "When you are big, you can have a tree in your house," I said. (Exactly what my mother told me when I was growing up and begged for one.)
Ultimately, we didn't get a tree for the kids, but we did get lights. Yards and yards of lights to rim the windows, to hang in their bedrooms, to line the stairwell. They loved it. And I have to admit, so did I.
Which is why, ten years later, I still have them. In fact, they're hanging, twinkling in my office right now, as I type this. And I love them.
Still, we should have expected this conundrum around the holidays. We should have realized that even though we were told the girls had not had any religious indoctrination, it was likely that still meant they had Christmas. Or, at the very least, a tree.
PS: I so very much appreciated this post from playwright Kathleen Wise Pugh entitled My Daughter's Giraffe is Jewish, which recently appeared over at The New York Times.