Straddling the Line: A Jewish Moment in America

Now that the sun has officially set on the weekend, and a brand new week of work and hustle bustle has begun, I figured it would be a nice time to write about my beautifully Jewish weekend, and what has stemmed as a result. Friday night was a wonderful Shabbat evening service. Our Temple honored a longtime trustee with a Mitzvah plaque, and the rest of the board’s trustees hosted the oneg. I brought the pies and apple crisp. The service was wonderful, and the company and food were comfort in action. On Saturday morning we had a very special Shabbat service to honor our Religious School Director’s 30th Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. I was able to wrap myself in my tallit, sing the Kedusha with my wife, and again, come up for an aliyah and read directly from the Torah. There is just something so magnificent about experiencing and being a part of a Torah service. On Sunday morning, I helped to teach Temple-Synagogue Religious School, and my wife and I started to prepare for the special Chanukah play that the students will put on at the family service in a couple of weeks. We ended the weekend by going up to the beautiful 700 acre farm of a new temple friend, and watching the kids ride horses, slug through the mud, and just have some farm fun for a couple of hours. 

Yes–this past weekend was full of so many meaningful activities, most of them centered around the practice of Judaism, or with people who are Jewish. To be completely honest, it can be a bit difficult to re-enter the weeks after spending so much time in resplendent Jewish moments over the course of Shabbat and the weekend. I am finding it especially hard around this time of the year. There is no arguing the fact that late November and early December in America are all about Christmas. One would be hard pressed to watch one single network television show without a slew of commercials discussing Christmas, or to go on the Internet at all without seeing at least 900 “Christmas Gift Ideas” advertisements. Our son goes back to public school during the week, which means Christmas tree and Santa Claus decorations, and Christmas songs sung in music class. Most of his coloring pages are Christmas-themed, and it is ever so clear that the majority religion certainly rules the “secular” world. The commercial Christmas phenomenon is, of course, not relegated to schools. Christmas is simply everywhere. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Christmas, and I have no problem with it. It can be a meaningful and beautiful holiday for those who observe Christianity. However, as my Judaism grows stronger and stronger, I simply find myself wishing for at least a semblance of multiculturalism in a country which claims to pride itself on a myriad of cultures and the ideas of inclusion.

Being Jewish in Upstate New York, especially during this season is sort of like living a double life. One can have those amazing aforementioned Jewish weekends, surrounded by other Jews, and doing very Jewish things. Once the weekend is over however, navigation into a Christian-dominated “secular” world can be a bit cumbersome to place. This has been especially glaring after this past weekend. How much Christmas do I accept for my child in school? If people say “Merry Christmas,” do I let them know I don’t celebrate it? There are many questions along these lines–the list could certainly go on and on. It is simply a fact that the major holidays for Jewish people do not fall around this time of the year, but occur when the rest of the country is not paying much attention to why a couple of people are out of work twice in ten days.  

Since Chanukah is definitely not “the Jewish Christmas” (whatever that even means), I think it is important to keep a semblance of Judaism in all that we, as Jews, do. It is easy to get pressured into what I would call “exhausted Christmas acceptance.” Never is a religious holiday so pushed down the societal throat as this one. Can you imagine what would happen if America recognized Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur as it does Christmas? Every Lexus commercial would have a luxury sedan entering the frame to the blasting sound of a shofar or something. It’s hard to even fit Judaism into our secular societal schemas. 

I suppose this post is simply meant to express how I am feeling in this very moment. I have never been more proud to be a Jew, and never felt more awkward in a secular sense. Don’t get me wrong, my entire identity cannot be defined as “a Jew,” but it is certainly prevalent in all aspects of my identity. There is no black and white answer or solution to this feeling, but if there was, I think the appropriate approach would be based around education. Instead of asking Jewish people about Chanukah as an aside after an intense Christmas tree conversation, try inquiring about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Pesach when they cycle through. There is something about throwing one token menorah up in a sea of Santas in December that leaves one feeling a bit underwhelmed and cheapened. Now excuse me as I continue to straddle the line between two worlds.

Thanks, as always for listening.



Published by Joshua Gray

I am Joshua Gray. I am a husband, father, not-for-profit-worker by day, and a former professional actor/singer. I am very active in the Jewish community in my area, helping to teach at religious school on Sundays, while also serving on the board of trustees at my local temple. My relationship with Judaism is a joy of mine, and I find great pleasure in studying texts and learning more and more Hebrew. I still enjoy warbling tunes, and I even got to sing the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, which was a definite highlight. Please feel free to contact me with any ideas for topics, conversations, or general inquiries. Shalom!

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