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Originally published December 9, 2008. Republished December 24, 2012.
Growing up in a relatively normal Jewish-Christian interfaith family in America, I have a lot of memories about Christmas. I remember going to the Christmas tree lot across the street from the grocery store with my father to purchase our family pine, and then dragging our boxes of ornaments down from the attic to decorate it with. I remember packing up into the car on Christmas Day in order to eat meals with extended family members who'd crack jokes at my refusal to eat the ham. And I remember the Christmas karaoke machine that my parents bought so that we could "go a-caroling" well before the start of the holiday season. My favorite song was "Ave Maria" because I liked the slow tempo, and because it reminded me of my grandfather, who was an Italian Catholic opera singer.
But one of my childhood memories is far less standard: Christmas revelry with a family of Orthodox Jews. Every year, on the Sunday before Christmas, my family would join our friends, the Hodge-Williams, at their house for a filling brunch, friendly chatter, and then presents under a big tree. But we weren't the only family that they invited to this gift giving exchange. Also at the gathering each year were their friends, the Lazarus clan.
The Lazarus family consisted of Marty and Sarah and their four sons, Baruch, Aaron, Asher, and Chaim, and their daughter, Mia. They were only our friends by association but Marty and Sarah seemed to strike up a casual repartee with my parents. Though we never talked about religion to my memory, they must have known that my mother was Jewish, if for no other reason because of her unchanged surname. I have yet to come across any Christians with the last name of Weinstein.
As for me, I was hyperaware of the fact that the Lazarus family was very Jewish. I mean, how could I not be, with their modest dress and Hebrew names; they looked like they stepped out of one of my Sunday School textbooks. I grew up in a largely assimilated home and attended school with my mostly Christian neighbors, so the once-a-year Lazaruses were the ones who looked foreign to me.
And the truth is, beyond them asking me about school, I did not really interact that much with the Lazarus family. The boys were all much older than me and Mia was a little bit younger, and in my apparent confusion that I could actually be friends with people who weren't born in 1983, I set myself apart. In fact, I remember only one kind of direct interaction with one of them, with Sarah, to be exact, probably during one of the last times that all of the families got together for this little tradition.
I had asked for a Counting Crows CD for the holidays and Sarah was kind enough to purchase it for me. I remember my feeling of excitement as I tore off the wrapping paper but above, Sarah was laughing with my parents.
"I felt so strange going into the store to look for this," she said, and I immediately felt uncomfortable and criticized. Was she saying that I wasn't a real Jew because I listened to the Counting Crows? Surely, I reasoned, her own children only listen to religious music that I had never heard of.
In retrospect, I realize that Sarah was far more likely commenting on the strange names of the bands that we kids born in 1983 liked to listen to. But I was just starting to explore my Jewish heritage at that time, and I suppose I was overly hypersensitive to these matters.
Years later, I would be confronted with the idea that "traditional" Jews — largely Orthodox Jews — believe that intermarriage and assimilation are the greatest threats to the survival of the Jewish people. These folks supposedly claimed that my mixed family is far more dangerous than any form of antisemitism that Jews have been hit with during our long history. It's a hard burden to bear when you think that your own people view you as such a big threat, as well as tidings for ethnic catastrophe.
But then, all I have to do is think back to the Lazarus family to realize that not all Jews — even Orthodox ones — feel that way. I don't remember the seven of them ever looking at my family with contempt, as if my mother had betrayed the Jewish people and I didn’t have the right to exist. What I remember most is their extreme kindness in gift giving and their willingness to look past religious differences in order to reach out to a group of friends during the holiday season.
My one regret is that I did not reach out personally to the Lazaruses, and ask them questions about their lives and observance. I wish I had known back then that I would ultimately lead a life where Christianity seemed more foreign and Judaism would finally be the norm.
But it’s been 10 years since we've all gathered together under the Hodge-Williams' Christmas tree and the Lazarus family were more their friends than ours. We haven't seen them since.
And yet I am deeply indebted to them for the fact that one of my fondest memories of Christmas is distinctly Jewish. When I look back on my childhood celebrations, I can recall how natural it seemed to see people who were shomer shabbes and wearing yarmulkes sitting amongst Christmas stockings and candy canes with Bing Crosby playing in the background. It makes me remember Christmas means to my family — not celebrating the birth of Jesus in the manger, but as an opportunity to come together in the spirit of harmony and peace.