Ethnic Envy and the Case of the Misidentified Holiday Decoration

This weekend, my daughter presented me with two questions I wasn’t sure how to answer. The first came during a trip to a diner, after I insisted we wrap up the uneaten portion of her meal to bring home. “My nanny* always said, ‘Wasting food is a sin’,” I told her.

“What’s a sin?” she asked. That was a puzzler.

* Our family word for grandma. Don’t judge.

The second unanswerable question came during a trip into the city to do New York-y holiday things, like visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and get pressed against strangers’ Starter jackets. (At Manhattan’s biggest tourist attractions, it is always 1993.) This being a weekend, our trip necessitated lots of transfers and waiting for trains to arrive, because Bloomberg needs the money that could go toward a functioning mass transit system to enforce anti-smoking laws and beat up hippies.

While biding our time on a subway platform, my daughter spontaneously sang a cute little song about Hannukkah, to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It made reference to dreidels and menorahs and latkes and, like most songs sung by a five year old, was adorable. (Later I found out it’s a seasonal staple that, to this point, has escaped my notice.)

I asked her where she learned the song, and she said at school. “My friend [KID’S NAME] is Jewish,” she told me. Like any other kid growing up near the 7 train, she already has a vague idea that there’s lots of different people who celebrate different holidays.

“Do you know what you are?” I asked, by which I meant ethnically. In the past I’ve tried to school her on the origins of both sides of her family, and I hoped that some of my instruction had sunk in.

She thought for a moment, looked skyward, and then said in an unsure voice, “Jewish?”

“No,” I said. “You’re not.”

“But mommy’s Jewish?” No. “But you’re Jewish?” No. She wailed almost desperately, “Nobody in our family is Jewish?!”

I explained to her exactly where the different parts of her family come from, but this didn’t satisfy her. She looked confused and vaguely upset. “Why aren’t we Jewish?” The tone she used carried with it an unstated Well, if we aren’t Jewish, what are you gonna do about it? What inspired this sudden bout of ethnic envy, I have no idea, but it’s not a query I was equipped to answer in any way.

So I pulled the Dad Card and don’t explain anything at all. “Because we’re not,” I said. “Different people from different parts of the world are different things.”

In a split second, she moved on and was singing a very different holiday song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I was grateful, because if she wants to know why we’re not Jewish, she’ll have to ask some ancient ancestor 2000 years ago who was probably painting himself blue and cowering before the fearsome sun-god.

However, this odd incident reminded me of a story my dad told me about the time his family accidentally became Jewish–at least in the eyes of their neighbors.

It was one of the family’s first Christmases in New York after they moved here from Ireland. (My grandfather came first, working here for a few years before he could afford to bring over the rest of his family.) Decorating your house with a bajillion lights was still a relatively new expression of Holiday Cheer in Eisenhower America, so this was not something that my grandmother was familiar with (or anything they could have afforded to do back in Ireland, hence, why they moved here). Wanting to keep up with the Joneses, my grandmother went to a store on Liberty Avenue and bought a plug-in, light-up set of plastic candles that looked pretty to her to put in her front window.

Within minutes, it seemed, her house was getting some confused glances from the other residents on their super Catholic block in Queens. Later, she found out this shiny, sparkly light-up bauble she’d put in her front window was actually a menorah. Having lived the vast majority of her life in Ireland, she’d never seen a menorah before, and just assumed the thing was Christmas-y.

According to my dad, despite the weird stares of neighbors, she kept it in the window for the rest of the holiday because she thought it looked pretty, and that trumped whatever it meant or signified to the outside world. So maybe I should tell my daughter that yes, for one brief moment around Christmas, my family was Jewish, in a way. Sure, not in any actual, meaningful, or lasting way, but still, it was technically a way, wasn’t it?