In 2015, I officially converted to Judaism. While I was not brought up in a particularly religious household, my family has no Jewish background; the reasons why I converted are complicated, but suffice it to say that it was the right choice for me. Like most Americans, my family had celebrated Christmas for all my life, though generally not with much emphasis on the religious aspects. Christmas and the holiday season had nothing to do with my decision to become Jewish, but once I did convert, the very next December I experienced an unexpected fringe benefit: I was suddenly absolved of the obligations, stress and baggage that come with Christmas, and this absolution was much more of a relief than I would have thought possible going in.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Christmas-hater. In fact in my childhood and early adulthood I liked Christmas a lot, mirroring the progression of how it usually goes for middle-class kids brought up in largely secular families. When you’re a small child Christmas is great because you get toys; as a teenager or in college you look forward to a lengthy break from school; as an adult you tend to enjoy the togetherness with family, the food, the festive atmosphere and the general pause in a busy year. But Christmas in modern America also comes with a lot of demands. There are financial demands, in buying gifts; emotional demands in confronting family; and, these days, even political and cultural demands, as Christmas has become politicized in the context of conservatives’ ludicrous assertions of a “War on Christmas” and weaponizing Christmas-themed greetings, symbols and icons in an ongoing and very tiresome culture war.

In modern commercialized Christmas, days of (allegedly) heavy shopping have become almost like holidays unto themselves. I’m uncomfortable with this.

My Jewish friends, particularly those who have kids, are even more angsty about Christmas. It’s hard to tell a child that in your household December holidays (Hanukkah, which in 2017 is already over) are about lighting candles, saying prayers and maybe eating latkes when their non-Jewish friends are going on about the bikes, video game consoles or iPhones that they expect to receive on Christmas morning. One of my Jewish friends refers to the season as “Giftmas” and sees the commercialization of Christmas and its frenzy of stuff-buying as a significant challenge in maintaining Jewish religious identity in her household. (That it’s also a threat to Christian identity goes without saying). She’s not wrong. I don’t face the issue because I don’t have kids, but I certainly see the problem.

I’m in a bit of an odd situation because my family, who is not Jewish, still celebrates Christmas. What happened after my conversion was a sort of unspoken “truce.” No one in my family expects me to buy them gifts for a holiday I don’t celebrate; sometimes they give me gifts, which is fine, and quite appreciated, though there is no expectation of any. Frankly, receiving a very few small gifts from family members is vastly preferable to the way it was when I still “did” Christmas. The truth is, as much as I appreciate the giving spirit of Christmas, many Christmas gifts themselves are not very useful. Socks, underwear, a tie–okay, those are useful; but one year I received a little radio controlled helicopter that could hover indoors. (I was not a kid; I got this gift in my 30s). This kind of stuff piles up over time. I remember years ago moving out of an apartment and finding a big shopping bag full of old Christmas gifts, which had never been used or even taken out of the bag after I brought them home. “Oh, here’s Christmas 2003.” There’s something a little disconcerting about this.

Does the Christmas season for you include a lot of vistas like this one? Hopefully not, but for many people, trips to the mall are synonymous with holidays.

Ironically, being absolved of “Giftmas” was one of the best gifts I ever received. Not only are Star Trek coffee mugs and radio-controlled helicopters no longer piling up in the back of my closet, but I’ve been able to reclaim some real meaning for the holiday season. What does it mean to light a candle and recite a prayer that has been said, on this same night of the year, by others of your people going back 2,000 years? What does it mean to be with family–not buying or spending as some sort of symbol or cryptic communication, but actually being with them, on human terms? These rituals communicate so much more than whatever mixed messages might result from buying and giving material objects. This is the meaning of Christmas that has been lost.

Furthermore, I’m convinced that many–probably most–people who do celebrate Christmas would, deep down, agree. What does going to the mall at 3:00 AM on “Black Friday” have to do with the birth of Jesus? Why should I care when news commentators tell us how retail sales this Christmas are doing compared to the previous year? A faux-nostalgic film about a kid in the 1940s who wants a gun for Christmas is cute on some level, but running it 24 hours a day on cable, smashed between commercials for cars, electronics and toys, seems a bit much. The final irony is that I am not a Christian but I strongly agree with the sentiment, “Put Christ back in Christmas.”

My December holiday celebrates the resilience and endurance of the Jewish people as symbolized by the Hanukkah lights. Yours, if you’re a Christian, seems like it should similarly reflect upon the core values of your own faith. It’s hard for me to see how iPhones and HDTVs help make that picture clearer.

This is what December looks like for me now.

In becoming Jewish, I discovered that there is, in fact, life after Christmas. My Decembers, filled as they are with candles, family, wine and simple prayers, are actually more fun than they used to be when they were filled with toys and shopping. I wish everybody could make their holidays more meaningful, whatever faith they follow (or if they follow none at all).


via Life After Christmas: A Survivor’s Tale of Reclaiming Meaning at the Holidays.


Racket had gotten out of his cage. Nothing unusual about that, except that usually when I let him loose, I’d make sure to put away anything I cared about to avoid having Racket destroy it. It was  futile but I felt obliged to try.

Racket, as his name implied, was a charming, noisy Sulpher-Crested Cockatoo. He was the perfect example of why cockatoo owners invented stainless steel perches.

Racket could reduce anything made of hardwood to splinters in seconds — not unlike Duke the Dogge. I sometimes wonder if Duke is a doggish reincarnation of Racket. But I digress.

Racket had gone to work on the sofa not long ago. Not the upholstery because the upholstery wasn’t a sufficient challenge for him. He had gone all out to redo its carved wood frame, perhaps with the intent of correcting the original artist’s errors. It was an old sofa and by the time Racket was finished refinishing it, it was much, much older.

The arm of the sofa nearest his cage was a pile of wood chips and splinters. No evidence of the original design remained. Having completed his work on the sofa, he had refocused his efforts towards acquiring wisdom. He began ingesting the Encyclopedia Britannica, one volume at a time. At this time, he was about half-way through the project. I could see that he’d had a busy morning and had consumed two more volumes.

There wasn’t much I could do about it. I had no where else to put the books. The flat was tiny and there was no storage space. Racket couldn’t spend all his time in a cage. Parrots need freedom, at least an hour or two a day. They are smart birds and need to interact with the world, with people. The need to explore and have fun. Racket was doing what cockatoos do — tearing apart everything on which he could lay his beak.

I wasn’t sure who’d let him out that morning. Probably one of the kids. Or maybe the latch wasn’t properly closed. Regardless, he couldn’t stay out all day. I had to go to work and no sane parrot owner would leave their bird loose, unsupervised with no one at home. Or at least no one sane would leave this parrot unsupervised.

I shuddered at the thought of how much damage he could do given an entire day to wreak havoc. It was time to put him back into his house.

“Come on, sweetie,” I cooed. “Time to go home. Mommy’s got to go to work.”

“CAWWWWWWW! SQUAWK!! ACK-ACK-ACK!” (No M’am, I have other plans) he said. Ah, such melodious tones!

He was a tame bird, bad habits notwithstanding and would stand on my hand, nibble on my ears. So far he hadn’t taken it into his head to remove my ears, though he had tried to rip an earring out.  But tame and obedient are in no way synonymous. He knew I wanted him back in his cage and he clearly didn’t want to go. I needed a proper bribe or he could easily elude me for hours.

“Come along, baby,” I continued, sotto voce. “Mommy needs to go to work and she doesn’t have all day to hunt wild birdies.”

I offered him my arm and teased him with a piece of watermelon in my other hand. He was ever so fond of fruit. Finally, after trying his birdy best to get the fruit without having to climb up on the arm, he gave in and climbed aboard. Quick as a wink, he was back in his cage, a squishy piece of red fruit dangling from his beak.

I pondered how much worse this would have been if I not have been able to get him in hand. As I left for the office, I could hear his wild cackle. What a bird!


I recently watched the movie “Darkest Hour”. I was blown away. The movie focuses on Winston Churchill’s initial period as Prime Minister of England in 1940. Shortly after he took power, Belgium and France fell to the Nazis. Literally all of Britain’s 300,000 plus troops were stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk as the Nazis advanced on them, poised to push them into the sea. They were in serious danger of being totally annihilated.

The Nazi armies seemed invincible. Britain stood alone, with few resources and no allies, to fight the German Goliath alone. The U.S. could not provide any military support because we were pledged to be neutral in the fight. A German invasion of England was anticipated, as was a massive air campaign against them.

Watching the movie was gut wrenching. We knew that England survived and that Hitler was eventually defeated. But putting yourself in the mindset of England in May and June of 1940, was devastating.

Map of Nazi conquest of Europe as of 1940

I remembered something my mother told me about living through World War II. Through hindsight, the defeat of Nazism seems inevitable to us today. It was not inevitable to the anyone at the time. The people living through World War II, day in and day out, had no way of knowing how things would turn out. And for a long period of time, it really looked like it was inevitable that the Axis would successfully conquer and reshape the entire western world.

I didn’t actually understand how dire England’s plight was in the spring of 1940. No one could have predicted the miraculous rescue at Dunkirk. This was only accomplished when 850 civilian pleasure boats formed an armada and crisscrossed the English Channel for nine days, from May 26 to June 4 of 1940. Amazingly, over 300,000 men were safely returned to England. It was one of the greatest and most improbable wartime rescues in history.

Even after Dunkirk, the odds were heavily stacked against England. All of the news was bad, for Europe as well as for Great Britain. The future looked unimaginably terrifying.

My parents lived through this time safely in New York City. Nonetheless, they were horrified at the possibility of a world ruled by the Third Reich. My parents and their families were Jewish, so their fear was magnified. My grandmother, like many Americans, also had family trapped in Europe. So there was a whole other level of fear and anxiety.

I don’t think I understood, on a visceral level, the emotional toll that World War II took on the people in the allied countries. Many allies fell to the Nazis. So the others didn’t have to imagine what life would be like for them under Nazi rule. Unless you were a fascist collaborator, things would not be good for you.

Paris under Nazi rule

I wouldn’t dream of comparing the Trump presidency with the Nazi conquest of Europe. But this is the first time that I have ever had to worry about democracy as we know it, ending in America. For the first time, I am not certain that all our cherished rights and liberties will survive. Free and unbiased elections may be in danger, as are the financial safety nets our government provides for those in need. The values that I cherish in my country are under attack and may not prevail long-term.

The level of panic I feel when I read an ominous news report is miniscule compared to my parents’ reactions to the headlines they had to read every day in the early years of the Second World War. But I think I finally ‘get’ what it meant to live through the early 1940’s as an anti-fascist and as a targeted minority. I wish I could let my mother know I finally understand what she was trying to tell me about the nightmare of those years.

I also have a new level of appreciation for Winston Churchill and the British people. They vowed to fight Hitler down to the last man. And they meant it. They vowed never to surrender their country to a fascist regime. Now I realize how much courage that took. I understand how real the threat of death or capture was for every Englishman.

I have boundless admiration and gratitude for the brave people of Britain who rose to fight for their values and for their country’s way of life. I hope, if the time ever comes for America, that I will have the courage to “man the barricades” for my country and my values.