A JOLLY JEWISH CHRISTMAS
Holiday traditions don’t always have to be kosher
ALTHOUGH I’M JEWISH, I’ve celebrated Christmas most of my life. I was born in 1948 in postwar Poland, the only child of two Holocaust survivors. My parents and I lived in one of the few apartment buildings still standing in Warsaw at that time. While my family was Jewish, we had several relatives who had converted to Catholicism when they married. I had no idea that some in the family were Jewish and others Catholic. They were just family.
In the 1950s, we were living in a country that was officially Communist but also had deep roots in Catholicism. Poland had been devastated by the war and was still in very poor economic straits. Products—including basic foods—were scarce. It’s difficult for many of us living in Canada now to imagine Christmas without the commercials or songs about Santa and Rudolph. But when I was growing up in Poland, television had not yet arrived, and those things had no bearing on our ideas and desires about Christmas. I do recall hearing carols on the radio, but these were part of the regional folk culture.
Christmas was a time of year when my mother and I would make tree decorations from walnuts and sugar cookies, which were wrapped in silver foil we had saved all year. I would receive a present or two—one Christmas, my grandmother gave me a lovely red children’s purse with a few pennies in it. We would also have food that we didn’t have at other times of the year, delicacies such as oranges, nuts, dates and little animals made from marzipan.
It came as quite a surprise to me that being Jewish I wasn’t supposed to participate in all this fun.
By my 10th birthday, in 1958, we had left Poland and settled in Montreal. We soon acquired a television set, and I learned a great deal about North American life from this box, including the whole range of ways one can celebrate Christmas. Listening to the radio, I learned the tunes and words to all the Christmas songs, and going to a Protestant school, I quickly adopted the layers of traditions, practices and values that make up Christmas. I particularly loved “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” sung by Burl Ives. Another favourite was going to see the Christmas displays, with their mechanical,