Hanukkah, Mistletoe and the Hillel Rabbi

MenorahWhat December dilemma? Ohhhhh. That one. Married during the Sukkot holiday in a civil ceremony, I had navigated two months with relative calm before bumping into the winter holidays. The year before, as a single mother, I took my son to see my sister Lesley, who celebrated Christmas with her family.

Before we left, Josh told me his father’s thoughts loud and clear: Santa did not come down the chimney, and was instead a parent in disguise.  This was code for “Josh is a cantor’s son and the last thing we need is for you to get him into Santa Claus.”

I knew this going in and agreed with his dad; but as we all encounter some form of Santa wherever we go, I wanted Josh to know how to deal with it. “A lot of people believe in Santa, even if we don’t,” I told my son. “So we need to respect their beliefs, just like we want them to be respectful to ours.” My five-year-old nodded sagely, and when we visited Lesley, Josh helped her husband fix up a plate of carrots and raisins for Santa’s reindeer with a smile. He also helped the family decorate their Christmas tree.

Why did my sister celebrate Christmas? Lesley had all but divorced herself from any kind of Jewish observance since she was a teenager. As a child she experienced nasty anti-Semitic taunts, and now held her identity close to the chest, hidden and submerged. She much preferred the holidays of mainstream America—a better way of blending in. When Josh and I came to see her, we brought our menorah because it was the tail end of the holiday. But when we lit the candles, it felt as though we were foreigners.

This year, things are different. I set out the menorah and light candles and when we say the blessings, my new husband Pete tries to sing along, though he doesn’t know the words. Josh shows his stepfather how to play dreidel and I watch both of them thinking, this is what I wanted; a husband who isn’t just “supportive” of our traditions, but really interested in them.

But as Hanukkah ends and we start getting closer to Christmas, the dilemma approaches us too. This is Pete’s holiday and he has not converted or given it up. Does he want a tree? I decide to ask. He says he has a tiny fake tree about 12 inches tall, and that is all he wants. Is he trying to please me? Probably. What should I do?

I think about Josh going over to his father’s and talking about a Christmas tree at our house, and my face turns red at the thought. Why do I care? I remember his father’s wife asking me once, when she heard I was dating, “Is this one Jewish?”

No. This one is not.

A few days before Christmas I find myself on Grand Avenue, in front of a flower store. When I open the door, the smell of pine greets me like one of those seductive aroma graphics you see in cartoons. I see pine branches, holly and mistletoe, which I remember from old movies where someone is always trying to get next to someone else.

I circle around the room, thinking of The Gift of the Magi story by O. Henry and trying not to cast myself in an overly romanticized version of it (substituting holidays instead of gifts for the self-sacrificing lovers). But the story and store ruin any chance I have of being rational.

O. Henry wins.

I bring home a bagful of pine branches, holly and mistletoe and arrange them around the room, thinking they might make a kind of alternative to a Christmas tree. And I wait to see what Pete and Josh will say. Josh is easy; ignoring everything else, he makes a beeline for the Hanukkah gelt and peels back the wrapping with eager fingers. Pete, on the other hand, seems pleased with my decorations and finds a way to maneuver me under the mistletoe. Which is fun, I must admit. mistletoe

A few days later, presents arrive in the mail from Pete’s parents. Josh’s and mine say Happy Hanukkah and Pete’s say Merry Christmas. We open our gifts next to a foot-high fake evergreen and later on, go to a movie—and that, I think, is that.

Except it isn’t.  Because two days later my friend Shoshanna stops by with her husband, who happens to be the Hillel rabbi at the local university.  We are at the dining room table and the rabbi looks up, his eye catching the mistletoe.

“What is that?” he asks.

His wife, a convert who was originally named Susan and born Episcopalian, replies too quickly. “You know what it is.”

I blush. And blush. And blush again.

What I don’t say is I am trying to find a way to share Pete’s traditions without observing them. I haven’t got it right yet; but I do very much want to figure it out. At the same time, I feel like Pete is bending a lot more in my direction than I am for him. Yet I still can’t bring myself to say I want a tree, and feel relieved when he doesn’t push it.

The next year Pete’s parents come out to their cabin in Two Harbors and invite us for the holiday. I know there will be a tree and all the trimmings this time, but now it doesn’t bother me. Because we are not at home, it feels like going to visit another family where Christmas is celebrated, and this makes everything easier.

We continue to celebrate Hanukkah in our house, and Christmas at Pete’s family cabin. That means Josh and I get to share their traditions and enjoy them. For Josh, it means we celebrate Jewish holidays in a Jewish home and meet our Christmas trees elsewhere.

You might also say that means I wanted to have my cake and eat it too and you might be right. Maybe I just came up against a line I couldn’t cross and it surprised me as much as anyone. It could have been how I was raised, or my parents’ faces when they saw my sister’s tree. Or it could be  my way of rebelling against all the things so many Jewish people do in order to be like everyone else. Whatever it was said yes to kisses, but no to Christmas trees—though maybe not (always) to mistletoe.

Kissing shadows

(Photos:  Menorah: slgckgc; Mistletoe: Tatters; Kiss: Vandelizer)


About Jenna Zark

Contributing writer Jenna Zark is a local Jewish playwright whose plays have been produced at Freshwater Theatre, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre, Blank Slate, Illusion Theater, History Theatre and Circle Repertory Company. Jenna's new novel, "The Beat on Ruby's Street" focuses on a young Beat girl in Greenwich Village in 1958 and is published by Dragon Moon Press. Follow her at ZarkWriting on Twitter to see the latest news and posts, You can also stop by on Facebook or visit www.jennazark.com.

Comments. Add Yours!


  1. Jenna – Thank you for sharing this experience. With the arrival of Ethan, Jamie and I are trying to figure out the right balance of the December Holidays with her family.

  2. Thank you, Michael – I’m so glad you liked it!

  3. Thank you for sharing! It’s nice to hear from other Jewish moms with Jewish kids who married non-Jewish men.
    I just married the most wonderful goy boy in June of this year. I have four Jewish kids from my first marriage, and he has one daughter from his first, also. This is our second December together (last holiday season we were engaged). My husband is very supportive of Jewish traditions in our family, and would convert if it wasn’t for his fear of alienating (or killing by a heart attack) of his devout Catholic elderly parents.
    Last year we did all the things we normally do for Chanukkah, and he participated fully. For Christmas, he made a special dinner, and that was the extend of Christmas celebration. No decorations, no gift exchanges. We were planning on driving to South Dakota for Christmas with his parents, but got snowed in and stayed here. This year, we are doing all the normal Chanukkah stuff (and both he and his 5-year-old daughter are as involved in it as I and my kids are), and over Christmas we are going on vacation to Wisconsin Dells. There was no discussion of Christmas celebration so far. I am not sure how I’d feel if he wanted a Christmas tree in the house…

  4. Thank you, Olga. It’s interesting (and hard to explain) how Jews can feel more discomfort than non-Jews about celebrating Christmas or going to church. I read once that for Christians, entering a synagogue and even praying there is actually part of their tradition (for example, portions of the Old Testament are read in many churches.) On the other hand, a Jewish person entering a church sees images of Jesus or other saints and bowing or genuflecting to them is forbidden in the Jewish faith. So it is actually much harder to be Jewish in a Christian-oriented world.

  5. Jenna, This is a wonderful article. I don’t think most people realize how hard it is to mix the holidays and feel comfortable doing it. I think you have it figured out pretty well and I congratulate you on doing so.

  6. While I have not had to share my Jewish household traditions with a non Jew, I applaud your approach to this sensitive topic. we have welcomed my daughter’s non Jewish significant other into our hearts and that is what we must embrace.
    While their road may be a more difficult one due to the differences, they should hold onto their own faith and beliefs and still be flexable and respectful of their partners.
    After all this is a seacon of giving and loving .Just please do not wish me a Merry Christmas!
    Growing up in a Christian world has encouraged me to be even more committed to my Jewish faith and traditions and holidays and to educate my fellow non-Jews about my faith.
    I actually was asked by a non -Jewish co-worker if I felt cheated by not having Christmas? Where do I even begin to try to explain my response to that question?
    Keep loving, keep learning and keep open hearts.

  7. I enjoyed reading your post. I grew up Catholic and now my Mom has a boyfriend who is Jewish. For several Hanakkahs and my whole family has enjoyed learning about and celebrating Hanakkah with him and his daughter. For our three children, I feel it is a blessing for them to hear about the different beliefs and most importantly giving my children the knowledge of the miracle and knowing they are never alone and always loved by a higher power.

  8. Rita, thank you for reading my post and for your thoughts on it. Jan, you wrote so many things I bet others are thinking. And Brita, I agree with you completely.

  9. Thank you, Jenna. Amidst the expressed angst about balancing the two holidays in your diverse family, I wanted to express how impressed I am with everyone involved. In a world where civility is often wanting when it comes to religious differences, I appreciate how (most) of the characters in your story are willing to flex a bit to the others.

    Something that I often think about is how mutually exclusive do Christmas and Hanukkah have to be?

    Well-written, as always, Miss Zark.

  10. Jenna

    As always, your piece is thoughtful, insightful and wonderfully honest. Lovely humor, as well, on a subject that is uncomfortable also for those of us raised as Christians. I was present at a lighting of the menorah on the 1st night of Hanukkah and loved hearing the prayers sung, in spite of feeling awkward too. It is so important that we accept the awkwardness of these situations and not retreat to fear or avoiding the questions you raise (and answer very well!). We must all find our own way to embrace our own beliefs and respect others’, as you and all the other respondents here have so articulately made clear. Joyous holidays to all.

  11. Jenna, a lovely and insightful piece for all to appreciate and from which many can learn.

  12. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  13. Thank you, Jade, for visiting and writing to me. I’m so glad you liked the post!