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What a Symbol Carries

Cultural conditioning runs deep in our psyche and in our souls. Few symbols are “just” symbols. We may be born with our aesthetic and somatic sensibilities, or they are part of our early, powerful conditioning, or both. Symbols do not only stand for abstract concepts; they evoke powerful subliminal responses. The scent of matzah ball soup in my grandmother’s kitchen, which was always overheated, and in which I was always bored. The song I was singing at choir practice as I overheard the boys standing behind me call me a fag.

My husband Michael was not born Jewish. As Thanksgiving approaches, he has a visceral need to listen to radio stations that play Christmas music 24/7. He’s Jewish. He is not affirming a Christian faith—don’t ever get him started talking about what’s wrong with the Roman Catholic Church. But in his mind, his commitment to Judaism does not conflict with his love of The Little Drummer Boy. He spent decades in church choirs and when he sinks into the subconscious oblivion of his hot morning shower, he now sings popular Jewish songs that he loves. While he was preparing to become Jewish—and ever since—he plays CDs of Hasidic and Israeli songs in his car.

I understand. The sound of Yiddish or Israeli songs or the recorded voice of an old-time cantor send me quickly into an emotional state that is unrelated to whatever I happen to be doing at the moment. In fact, when my son was ten and rejecting every aspect of his Jewish identity, I would hear him unwittingly humming Sabbath songs, and I knew that we had done our job after all.

But it’s not only music. Michael loves to decorate. He lives to decorate. He is always redecorating, one room at a time, and when the last one is complete, he starts again on the first. My vocabulary has increased since we met: crown molding, chair rail, sconce, duvet, medallion, valance, wainscoting, medallion. I have been to countless paint and furniture stores. I know many contractors on a first-name basis and am familiar with the life stories of some.

And of course, he loves to decorate for Christmas. He grew up in a home with four trees. He often gets paid good money to decorate other people’s homes and doesn’t mind doing it gratis as well. In my childhood home, there were no holiday decorations, so I do not get a nostalgic or any other kind of charge from an elaborate light display. I did not envy our Christian neighbors.

So in our ten years together, I have had to do a ton of annual soul searching and body scanning to figure out which decorations I can and can’t live with. I was uncomfortable with the little statues of carolers, but they are family heirlooms.

Some things are clear: no Christmas tree (or Hanukah bush). I know, I know—it’s really a pagan practice that Christians have borrowed and adapted, but I just can’t imagine it in our Jewish home. I don’t love the greens, but they don’t set me off.

What sets me off is adding red to the mix. In my gut, red and green equals Christmas. Not only in December. Year round, any time I see red and green together, I think Christmas. It is how everything looks at the time when my role is to remain different than everyone else. I love the color red, but not with green. It reminds me of Santa outside the shops, ringing the bells, while I and my family avert our eyes.

I am completely comfortable in the homes of Christian relatives and friends that are lit up and decorated. It’s not that I hate Christmas. It’s the red, and my subliminal reaction to it. And so, our home lights up the street with white and blue lights and Michael uses gold ribbon inside where ribbon is needed. Our non-Jewish neighbors often comment, “Aren’t you Jewish?” and Jewish guests check the address a second time before they ring the doorbell.

I am over any embarrassment I may have felt ten years ago. As long as there’s no red.

Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at
 Image: “Red Leaves” by strohhutpat via Flickr.

Type: Essay

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