IN THE CHEAP SEATS (Special Holiday Edition): No matter what the faith, this time of year brings us all together

With the holidays right around the corner I always get the same question this time of year: What is like being Jewish during Christmas? Well, it’s actually a good question, one that I answer much differently then I did when I was young.

First, some disclosure: I grew up in a conservative Jewish home, married a Jewish girl, sent my kids to a Jewish day school for the first nine years of their formal education, and feel very strongly about my people and Israel.

When I was young, in a public school in my hometown of Atlanta, I always wondered about Christmas. I remember our holiday pageants would consist of a half dozen or so Christmas songs and, yes, the courtesy “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, I made you out of clay” (Best version done on an episode of South Park). It never changed. First grade to seventh, the same deal and then there were all the questions from my Christian friends:

“Hey I.J., do you really get presents on all eight days of Chanukah?”

Or, this one: “I.J., what are Latkes?”

Okay, I did have a mother who made sure that every night my brother and I received a gift. And my wife is the same way with my kids. But I would tell my friends that while it seemed like a lot, sometimes the presents would just be a pair of socks and I would bet them they always had more than eight presents under the tree come Christmas morning. And as far as the Latkes, which I have been begging Hooters to start serving with their wings, they are potato pancakes often served with sour cream, apple sauce or jam and while they leave the house smelling of fried potatoes for about a month, they are delicious, but really bad for you.

Really, though, I felt out of place during the holidays. In a way, isolated.

But as the years went by and I went off to college and my circle of friends continued to increase, I better understood that while there may be a huge literal difference in the meaning of Chanukah and Christmas, they in essence mean the same thing.

The first time I realized this was on a holiday break in north Alabama when visiting my then girlfriend’s home. The home was decorated beautifully and, when we walked in, there was a huge fire burning and Christmas was everywhere. But her parents took a huge interest in my faith, in how we celebrated the holidays, and made me feel right at home. In fact, my girlfriend’s mother made a point to get me a Chanukah card (I think she had to drive to Birmingham to get it).

It was then I realized that, no matter what we all believe, this was one time of year we seem to forget our differences, feel good about our families and ourselves and reach out to others who we may not spend a lot of time with during the year.

Last year, my wife and I were invited to our next-door neighbors’ house for a holiday party: our first Kwanza celebration. While the father of the house did a good job explaining the meaning of Kwanza, what I remember most is the desserts and not just for how good they tasted.

On a huge dining room table, many cakes, pies and cookies were laid out. The mother of the house explained how every one of the treats was homemade, each by a member of the family, each with special care. It was their gift to us, and my wife and I walked back to our house with our stomachs filled, but again realizing the holidays do a good job of bringing us all together.

In this space, I usually spend my time talking sports, critical at times of spoiled athletes and poor decision making. But like I ─ and I’m sure many others ─ remember when walking down a busy city street on a crisp winter day with the stores buzzing and the restaurants humming, I love the holidays and this time of year.

I’ll never forget when I was in third grade and had my first crush, who, by the way, wasn’t Jewish. I remember trying to figure out what to get her for Christmas. So I went to the local mall with my mother, walked into a candy store, and bought the crush two Wacky Packs (Google it). I wrapped it up and gave it to her the next day.

She looked at it, I think said something under her breath (not a great gift for a little girl), but managed to look up and smile at me.

I can still see that smile.

Nothing like the holidays.

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