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Growing Up Jewish in Texas: Christmas

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I was born and raised in Houston, Texas.

I am third of eight children.

My parents were both Jewish, as am I.

Yet every year we celebrated Christmas.

Is this puzzling? It wasn't at all puzzling to me and my siblings.

Every Christmas, the family bought a Christmas tree, and we all joined in decorating it with lights, ornaments, and tinsel.

Every Christmas morning, we woke up like a noisy tribe about 5 a.m. and rushed to discover that we all had presents under the tree.

Why did our Jewish family celebrate Christmas?

To begin with, my parents had been born into observant Jewish families. My father was born in Savannah, Georgia, where he was the youngest of nine children and the only boy. He was spoiled rotten, left high school without graduating, and tried (but failed) to make it in vaudeville as a hoofer and comedian. My mother was born in Bessarabia and came to America at the end of World War I as a nine-year-old girl with her mother and little sister. They traveled on a ship (the "Savoie") loaded with returning American soldiers, then made their way to Houston to meet my grandfather, who was a tailor and had come to America before the war broke out.

What my parents wanted most was to be seen as "real Americans." My mother was especially zealous about wanting to speak perfect English (she arrived speaking only Yiddish). She was very proud that she earned a high school diploma from the Houston public schools. In her eyes, real Americans celebrated Christmas. So, of course, we had a tree, and we believed that Santa Claus brought the presents. There was no religious content to our tree and our gifting.

We went to public school, where we learned all the Christmas songs. We went to assemblies and sang "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and all the other traditional songs. I knew I was Jewish, and I usually hummed certain words instead of saying them, but nonetheless I loved the songs and I love them still. I was never offended by singing Christmas songs at public school. It was what we did.

Of course, my siblings and I went to Sunday School at the synagogue, and my brothers were bar mitzvah. I was "confirmed," which was a ceremony that occurred at the end of tenth grade, when we read from the prayer book as a group.

I should add that we started every day in public school with a short reading from the Bible, over the loudspeaker, followed by a prayer and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I was okay with the Bible reading, the prayers, the Christmas songs. I was also okay with our family putting up a Christmas tree while belonging to a synagogue and practicing our Jewish rituals and holy days.

I committed one major faux pas as a result of my upbringing in two religious traditions. On one occasion, when I was about 12, the rabbi at my reform temple invited me to join him on the altar and say a prayer. I said "The Lord's Prayer," the one that begins, "Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name" prayer, and there was some awkwardness afterwards. I had no idea that I was saying a Christian prayer, drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, in the synagogue! I had heard it hundreds of times in school. I think I was forgiven my error. After that, the rabbi was careful to propose a specific prayer from the prayer book for children who were invited to speak from the altar.

Many things have changed, and I understand that. But when I go with my partner to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the Oratory of St. Boniface in Brooklyn, I am glad I know the words to the songs. I learned them in public school in Houston. I look around and am not surprised to see a fairly large number of other Jews from the neighborhood, also joining in singing the songs with the choir. It is Christmas. It is a time to celebrate peace and joy and goodwill towards all. We can all share those hopes.