Originally Written in the Early 2000s - Last Posted on December 11, 2005
On that fateful day in the winter of 1964, Sheldon and Barbara Stern gave birth to their last son while overlooking the Ventura Freeway near Los Angeles. They cleaned him up, brought him home and made an appointment with the local rabbi. A few days later, the rabbi blessed the plump baby and made his ceremonial bris upon his appendage. Things were never the same after that day.
A few years later, the Stern children overheard an argument between their parents. The father, a cad in his own time, argued that the children would be better off celebrating Christmas. The mother, a faithful Conservative Jewish mother, who poured the guilt better than any Jewish mother on the West Coast, wanted to light the Menorah and celebrate Hanukkah. By 1971, mom won the battle of the Holidays and dad was out the door the next spring.
Growing up Jewish was hard for me. There was so much resentment and anti-Semitism around me in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. I felt more of a mark because our family was not wealthy and provided an easier target for the rednecks in our neighborhood, as well as the upscale synagogue we attended for both my brother’s and my Hebrew education.
Incidentally, have you ever learned Hebrew? It was the most difficult languages I've ever learned and in order to perform the prayers spoken at Hanukkah and other Jewish celebrations, you must learn these prayers in Hebrew. To this day I cannot remember anything in Hebrew...except for one phase which I will not say in this column...
This is where my personal chasm begins. Although I have reconciled the fact of my birth religion, I have been subsequently been baptized as a Christian through the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC). I learned more about faith through the MCC churches than I did in Hebrew School and at the synagogue.
Which brings me to the following question: Christmas or Hanukkah?
Christmas, to me, is a culmination of a month-long affair that starts with Thanksgiving and ending with one morning filled with Christmas songs on every radio station and last week’s eggnog from the fridge. You do get gifts on that morning, sometimes before. But, c’mon, do gifts, Egg Nog and Nat King Cole really mean Christmas?
Hanukkah, on the other hand, are eight nights of candle lighting, dredel spinning, gift giving and smoke detectors going off. Oh, did I mention that you get to eat lousy Israeli chocolates shaped into coins and packed into “Hanukkah Gelt?” On top of that, if you lived with my mother, you also got “Hanukkah Guilt!”
This is not to say that it was all bad memories of melted chocolate wrapped in gold foil and silly spinning games. I used to love making these 1/24 scale plastic models of cars. For one Hanukkah, mom would get eight of the current model year's models for each night. By the eighth night of Hanukkah, I built an entire Avis rental car fleet for 1973.
In 2000, I tried something different. My former roommate held a Winter Solstice celebration with a potluck. This was a charming idea doing something pagan for once. Of course, I was a willing participant as the resident drummer of the house. No offense to the many pagans in the bear/leather communities, but as much as I try to embrace all spiritual paths and ideals, somehow I feel more at home with the traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah.
Oh, I did forget to mention Eid al-Fitr or Kwanzaa?
This particular holiday season has all been a lesson in faith for me. I’m a very spiritual person, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, yet with influences and understandings of many other faiths. Aside from the obvious commercial connotations of the holiday season, I always endeavor to find some sort of spiritual meaning during these times. Whether I find it amid the celebration of lights or in the meaning of Christmas, it is a light that shines even in the darkest of days.
So, choose your celebration wisely. Perhaps, in the spirit of the Hanukkah, Morrissey said it best: “there’s a light that never goes out.”