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'December Dilemma' of Holidays : Should Jewish-Gentile Families Celebrate Christmas?

December 12, 1985|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Geri Sandor wanted to be careful. It was the first Christmas after she had married and converted from Catholicism to Judaism. She and her husband David were living with his Jewish parents.

"I didn't feel it was fair to my parents not to celebrate Christmas," but signs of the Christian holiday reminded her mother-in-law of pogroms, said Sandor, now 43 and a Newport Beach attorney.

So, on her first Christmas as a Jew 20 years ago, Sandor bought a very small pine tree. And kept it in her bedroom.

Seasonal Problem

The Sandors are among the growing number of Jewish-Gentile families who, each year at this time, face what has been called the "December dilemma." Should they celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah? Or both? And how?

The last three decades, the number of American Jews who marry non-Jews has risen to between 30% and 40%, according to the Council on Jewish Life of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles. For those who regard the holidays as mutually exclusive, it can be a painful season of colliding traditions and choices. Others gamely tap their ingenuity and tolerance to integrate two seemingly separate worlds.

On subsequent holidays, the Sandors, who live in Irvine, have always lit Hanukkah candles, made Hanukkah cookies and exchanged Hanukkah gifts. They created a tradition of a "Jewish open house" on Christmas Day. With most workplaces shut down, "our Jewish friends had no place to go," Sandor said. And once they moved into their own house with a cathedral ceiling, Sandor said they also had a huge tree and Christmas gifts for their two sons every year.

Reached an Understanding

After a while, she said, her in-laws understood that her Christmas celebrations were based on respect for her parents and intended to give their children an understanding of their mother's heritage. She believes her sons, now 15 and 18, "really had the best of both worlds."

Patti Lewis, the former wife of Jerry Lewis, said she combined the two holidays effortlessly for the 36 years she was married to the Jewish entertainer. While her six sons were raised as Catholics, she said they always lit two menorahs (Hanukkah candelabras) during the Christmas season.

She says she lights one in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. "I have an altar in my dressing room," said Lewis, 64, who lives in Los Angeles. "It's part of their father's heritage and they should know that," she explained. "After all, Jesus was a Jew," she added.

Though the couple is divorced now, she still lights the Hanukkah candles with her children "out of respect for their father," she said.

Eight-Day Festival

Hanukkah, which began Saturday, is a minor eight-day Jewish festival. It commemorates the first known battle for religious freedom when the Maccabees defeated the Syrian Greeks in 165 BC and rededicated their temple in Jerusalem. Part of the original ceremony was the relighting of the eternal light with a small jar of oil that burned an unusually long eight days, said Rabbi Stephen Einstein of Temple B'Nai Tzedak in Fountain Valley, who teaches a communitywide introduction to Judaism.

Observers light one candle each night of the festival, recite blessings, sing hymns, sometimes exchange presents or cook potato pancakes called latkes, he said. Children play with a four-sided top called a dreidle.

Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of Kislev (on the Jewish calendar), which usually falls in early December in the midst of the sprawling Christmas season. But along with general Christmas merriment, the ubiquitous ads for toys and gifts, the tinseled pine trees, Santas, and sugar cookies, there are also signs such as angels and carols announcing that Christmas is a major religious holiday, celebrating the birth of Christ. "It's not a winter festival. It's Christ's mass," Einstein said. He said he has been offended in the past when he has received Christmas cards from Jews.

Secular but Sectarian

Liberal and conservative rabbis agree that even "secular" Christmas traditions, including Santa Claus and his reindeer, should be viewed as sectarian, said Rabbi Henri Front of Temple Beth David in Westminster. "All these things have come to mean Christmas to us . . . . Therefore they are as Christian as if Jesus himself gave presents and decorated Christmas trees. Any Jews who have Christmas trees and Santa Claus are celebrating a Christian holiday. They should not."

Steve Silverstein, a staff worker for Jews for Jesus in Studio City, said he celebrates Christmas as well as Hanukkah, but shuns "non-biblical" rituals such as lights, Santa and Christmas trees. "It's not wrong to have a Christmas tree, but it's not wrong not to have one," said Silverstein, 29, who said he was born into a Jewish family and became a believer in Jesus 14 years ago. With his wife and three children, he said he focuses on "the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. We sing songs like 'O Come All Ye Faithful' that are meaningful and leave out songs like 'White Christmas.' Especially living in Los Angeles."

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