I grew up during the 1970s in a secular New York household. We observed Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover and Hanukkah. My family otherwise steered clear of religion.
As Hanukkah approached I excitedly anticipated its eight nights of gift giving. But the holiday lost out to Saint Nick in the competition for my childhood affections. I watched Christmas television specials, was bombarded by wreaths, evergreen trees and creches, and everyone from the president on down to my school teachers encouraged me to exhibit Christmas spirit. There were no Hanukkah decorations in department store windows, no Hanukkah songs on the radio and no Hanukkah vacation from school.
All this made it seem that Judaism was a second-rate religion. I fantasized about visiting Santa's toy shop and was jealous of Christians for living in a country that catered to their faith.
The eight nights of candle lighting and gifts gave me a temporary reprieve from Christmas envy. Nevertheless the Festival of Lights always came too early in the calendar to blunt Christmas' influence. Despite Christianity's assault on my sense of identity, as an adult I became active in Jewish social service organizations and developed a strong bond to Israel. I married a Jewishly observant woman, Brenda, and we have a 5-year-old daughter, Marta.
Brenda, Marta and I go to an egalitarian synagogue every Saturday, keep a kosher home and observe all the Jewish holidays. Most of Brenda's relatives live in Israel, so Marta frequently visits the Promised Land. Hanukkah is Marta's favorite holiday. But Kriss Kringle hangs heavily over our Brooklyn neighborhood.
Up the block from our home is a house displaying a blow-up Santa, whose head bops in and out of a blow-up house. Two life-size drummer boys, and a giant blow-up snowman stand next to Santa as Christmas tunes play. Marta insists on visiting the display whenever we go out, her big black eyes and pug nose firmly affixed on Father Christmas, as his head ducks in and out of the house.
"Can we celebrate Christmas?" She recently asked Brenda.
"We can enjoy the holiday, but Jews don't celebrate Christmas." Brenda says.
In many ways it is easier being Jewish today than when I was a child. Anti-Semitism has declined, and the country's emphasis on multiculturalism encourages the display of individual heritage. Yet American Judaism is in precarious shape. Intermarriage and criticism of Israel are rising, while 32 percent of Jewish millennials report that they have no religion.
The only growing Jewish religious communities are within the non-egalitarian Orthodox branch. Given these trends Judaism's biggest challenge will be to keep liberal Jews of Marta's generation engaged with their religious heritage.
"Think how lucky you are to be Jewish," Brenda frequently tells Marta. "We celebrate Shabbat every week and have fun holidays like Hanukkah, Succot and Purim."
Judaism's lunar calendar usually places Hanukkah earlier in December, giving Christmas a stage all to itself. But this year, the eight days of Hanukkah begin Dec. 24, which means the holidays will collide, and Brenda's cheerleading will surely resonate with Marta. Menorahs will outshine tree-lights, jelly doughnuts and potato latkes will easily outdo eggnog and fruit cake, and it will be eight nights of gifts against one day of toys.
"Madeline and Zoe think Santa Claus gives them presents," Marta said, referring to two of her classmates. "I think parents give presents."
Marta's gift list includes a mechanical dog, a unicorn stuffy, several dolls and everything displayed in the windows of our neighborhood toy stores. She won't get all the toys on her endless list, but with her grandparents, aunts and uncles pitching in she will get enough presents to make Santa look like a cheapskate. This way Marta will have no reason to envy her gentile friends — this year, at least, being Jewish will be enough.