The Jews who loved Christmas

December 22, 2022 • 11:15 am

People who wish me a “Happy Hanukkah” don’t realize that I never celebrated the Jewish holidays, the one exception being my mother lighting one candle per night on a menorah.  Otherwise, we celebrated Christmas like the goys: we had a Christmas tree, which my father called “The Hanukkah bush”, exchanged presents on Christmas morning, and had a big Christmas lunch, often featuring ham.

I don’t remember going to synagogue at all, though I did go to Hebrew school to learn the language for a bar mitzvah I never had. I flunked out of Hebrew school, and as a result was put into the all-girl class, whose instruction was less rigorous because you don’t need much Hebrew for a bat mitzvah. I was, at 12, ashamed to be in a class with all the girls, and simply left Hebrew school. That was my last connection with the faith, which I lost completely in 1967 (see here for the story, or go below the fold).

This is all a prelude to showing you two photos that my sister sent me yesterday. Apparently she and her family visited my parents’ graves (they’re in Arlington National Cemetery since my dad was a veteran), and found them decorated them for the holidays.

Her caption: “The Jews who loved Christmas!!” (She is also a heathen.):

:As they say in Yiddish
לעבעדיק ניטל

Click “read more” for my deconversion story


From Jeremy Manier’s article “The New Theologians” in the Chicago Tribune, Jan. 20, 2008:

One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album while lying on his parents’ couch in Alexandria, Va.

Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good. He went on to study how new species evolve, and found the Darwinian view of nature perfectly in tune with his abandonment of faith.

“Scientists in general tend to be more atheistic, and particularly evolutionists,” Coyne says. “That’s because we’re dealing with a subject that was previously known to be a product of God’s intervention, and now we know it’s not.”

20 thoughts on “The Jews who loved Christmas

  1. … and had a big Christmas lunch, often featuring ham.

    What, no Chinese food for the Coynes?

    I flunked out of Hebrew school, and as a result was put into the all-girl class, whose instruction was less rigorous because you don’t need much Hebrew for a bat mitzvah. I was, at 12, ashamed to be in a class with all the girls, and simply left Hebrew school.

    It’s probably just as well that you reject Herr Doktor Freud out of hand, boss. 🙂 Although, in your case, he does seem to have at least foretold the future of an illusion.

    1. Three-thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.

      You don’t just give that up when you get divorced. It’s not like turning in your library card.

  2. I, too, got thrown out of Hebrew school, but right near the end. I feel kinda bad about it; I got thrown out because I was disruptive. I did learn enough, however, to complete my Bar Mitzvah, which I have to admit was fun—once I had completed my nerve-wracking obligation to lead the Shabbat service.

    I was an atheist even then, of course. An atheist Jew? There are *lots* of them! Judaism is a people. Judaism, the religion, shares the same name. It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th century it was common for Jews to call themselves “Hebrews” or “Israelites.” In the early 1920’s my great grandfather was president of a Jewish congregation officially titled “Sons of Israel.” (The President was elected by the congregation. The Rabbi was a separate entity.)

    We, too, had a Christmas tree when I grew up—an artificial one made of aluminum foil and almost certainly an electrocution hazard. Why did we have a Christmas tree? I’ll have to ask my mother, but I think it was mostly to obscure fact that we were different. Also, to keep the children from feeling left out. My mother’s Jewish family always had a Christmas tree. They lived in a rural area where being Jewish just wouldn’t be fashionable. My father’s Jewish family lived in an urban area with a large Jewish community. They never had a Christmas tree.

    It’s nice to see that your parents are being remembered.

  3. “. . .it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died.”

    But you figured you could get by with a little help from your friends? 😊

  4. Ayn Rand was a Jew who loved Christmas. Famously, she recognized that the secular holiday in the USA was a celebration of freedom and capitalism, and ought to be valued and extolled for that reason — we are prosperous and happy because of freedom and capitalism, with individual rights including property. She specifically excoriated the religious aspect of Christmas.

    Here’s her verbatim writing on it:

    However, Ayn Rand was not a Jew. “Born into” a Russian-Jewish family, she chose to opt out at age 7 or 10, I forget. One’s convictions are chosen. One’s identity is not that into which a child is indoctrinated. Adults are responsible for their beliefs.. Ayn Rand was not a Jew.

  5. Adults may be responsible for their beliefs, but being Jewish is hardly obviously to be defined in terms of beliefs. The Nazis did not define it in terms of belief but in terms of ancestry, in accordance with their racial theories. Right this minute, political groups in Israel are treating as irrelevant the beliefs of some people who consider themselves Jewish. They want to count these people as not Jewish according to Israeli law because they have a non-Jewish mother. I know lots of other people who define being Jewish in other ways. Religious belief is certainly not central in many of these approaches. John Donahue can’t tell us that Ayn Rand wasn’t a Jew, but only that by one criterion, she wasn’t.

    1. Ayn Rand emigrated to USA to avoid being force-labeled and persecuted for being “born into” a Jewish family. If that is going on in Israel or anywhere in the world, I and she condemn it outright. Other “ways of knowing” that one “is Jewish” other than one’s choice might be attempted, but have no effect on the person, as long as not criminalized. Do you equate one’s chosen convictions with outside arbitrary/forced opinions?

      What is left after all that? One’s rational convictions and firm declaration of one’s personhood. AKA how one identifies as a human. By choice. Since her declaration is clear, she was not Jewish.

      1. Judaism is an ethnicity, that’s all. You may also follow the religion, you may also participate in the culture… But none of that matters. Ashkenazi Jews are genetically, ethnically, Ashkenazi, Jews. Same with Sephardics, I think, but I’m not sure.

  6. Jerry, the first link to your loss of faith story doesn’t work, it goes to the Chicago Tribune. I couldn’t fine the other one. I’m interested in your story. GROG

      1. The article was in a 2009 edition which I couldn’t access. That’s OK I don’t need to read the whole thing. The part relating to you was quoted in your article, right? Hope you are feeling better, the insomnia and et al. GROG

  7. I’m from a Muslim family but neither of my parents was very religious and we always had a Christmas tree and presents. For a month or two my parents sent me and my brothers to Sunday school but that stopped after we told them the Arabic teacher was a fundamentalist. She was also a battleax, whereas the theology teacher was a liberal, mild-mannered guy. Go figure…

    In middle school I had a brief religious phase, but by the time I started college I was troubled by the nonsensical nature of heaven and hell, and the disturbing fact that God was omnipowerful and omniscient yet pathetically needy for prayer and ego-boosting. I became an agnostic, but after college I decided even the Deist conception of God was untenable.

    Question for PCC: do you remember which song from “Sgt. Pepper’s” was playing when your deconversion commenced?

    1. My guess has always been “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Ringo’s voice can do that to a person. I’ll never forget the life-changing reaction I experienced the first time I put the B-side of “Yesterday” on the turntable and heard Ringo singing the Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens & the Buckaroos’ “Act Naturally.” 🙂

  8. I guess everyone has a different story on this. I didn’t have a classic Hebrew school education, but did have a Bar Mitzvah. I thought that was the end of it, but, after moving to the DC area, was started in Saturday school, and was confirmed. My parents and spouse are/were Jewish—we consider ourselves a Jewish family. But, if pressed, I have to admit to being more of a agnostic or possibly atheist. I have siblings who consider themselves Christian, however. Life and families can be complicated!

  9. “Hanukkah Bush” That takes me back to some wonderful adolescent “first love” memories in a small city with maybe five Jewish families. Hadn’t heard the expression since until today.
    Thanks warmly and sincerely.

  10. Your heathen sister here! The wreaths were provided by the organization Wreaths Across America, but unfortunately, as reported by The Washington Post, it’s against the rules for them “to be placed on any headstones with a Star of David, out of respect for those of the Jewish faith.” Our dad got one because the Jewish Star appears on our mom’s side of the stone, not his; we brought the tree ourselves. Wreaths are not, to this pagan’s mind, symbolic of Christianity, but are merely seasonal tokens of remembrance and respect. It’s too bad that their perceived alignment with Christianity results in so many Jewish veterans getting bupkes for the holidays!

  11. I was born into a secular Jewish family in Baltimore. My parents said they were agnostics, but seemed to lean towards complete nonbelief. I never believed in god, and to this day I’ve never really understood why so many people do believe. When I was 13 I refused to go through the bar mitzvah. Our family too had Christmas trees and presents, which was fine with me. My girlfriend for the past 17 years has been a Catholic who attends church regularly. Go figure.

  12. My Chinese father in law came from a Buddhist family but he always celebrated Christmas. He would order a Christmas pudding from the UK as he thought they were superior to the puddings available in Hong Kong.

  13. I was born into a full-blooded but barely religious German Jewish family exactly as my mother was listening to one of Hitler’s first harangues during labor in 1932. Nazi persecution forced the family to flee to Brussels in 1938-9; then I was saved by baptism/conversion to Catholicism and was hidden in Catholic boarding schools during 1942-44. I have photos of lighting a menorah around the age of 4, but remember little else. To this day, I have some feelings of gratitude to some Catholics for literally hiding me during that war period. It took some years to get over my blind faith and inculcation. My mother thought that our young kids should learn about some religion(s) as we lived in a world full of beliefs. I told them that I was agnostic, but hoped there was “something” out there. For some 60 years now, I have become a flaming atheist and rather cynical about all religions. Celebrations, good deeds or parties and decorations of any kind are welcome nevertheless. My three sons are atheist

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