November 19, 2019

A Jew steps into Christmas

I got offered a part in a Christmas movie over the summer. It’s called “Defending Santa” and stars Dean Cain, Jud Tylor and my movie wife, Jodie Sweetin, best known for playing Stephanie on “Full House.” 

I’m always happy to be on a set. Acting is one of those jobs where you can’t wait to get to work. And I knew as soon as I told my real wife what kind of movie I was doing, she would rag on me. My wife loves Christmas. She grew up in a house that converted itself into a tacky structure covered in lights and plastic Santas during the holiday season, while my house smelled of latkes — its only decoration a small menorah sitting in the kitchen window. Her mother was a Jew. Her father’s Catholic. And Christmas beat Chanukah in the war of the holidays. So, because she married me and I said no to a Christmas tree in our house, she’s held a very obvious grudge. 

The thing is, I like Christmas. I love watching the world transform for it — the lights, the displays, the carols and the movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is up there as one of my favorite movies of all time. Christmas was never celebrated in my childhood Jewish house. For the most part, it never mattered to me. I had Chanukah — which often overlapped with Christmas — and eating latkes and doughnuts and opening presents definitely helped fill the void. But we also had a television. And this television projected images of Christmas that made us secretly long for the holiday, looking in from the outside and wanting to gather around the tree and sing Christmas carols with my family. Well, not my family. My three siblings couldn’t get through lighting a candle before they were hurling insults — and sometimes fists — at each other. 

But when you’re Jewish — especially a secular Jew like me whose relationship to being a Jew is mainly cultural — then you need to occasionally draw a line in the sand. I’m not doing it to be antagonistic. I’m doing it because I’d rather my wife and kids not celebrate a Jewish holiday than celebrate a Christian one. Let them wrestle with God and tradition — but let it be our traditions. First figure out what makes sense to you as a Jew before you start appropriating other religions simply to fit in with the majority. It’s not just disrespectful to Jews; it’s disrespectful to Christians. Their holiday, which celebrates the birth of their Lord and Savior, has already been turned into a secular holiday more focused on shopping than on reverence. And the meaning doesn’t get enhanced every time a Jew props up a fir tree in his home and adorns it with lights and a tongue-in-cheek Star of David ornament. 

When I told my wife about the movie, she laughed with glee. It’s the Christmas present she’s always wanted — seeing her proud Jewish husband in a Christmas movie where I actually had to stand up and say the line, “I believe” in Santa, as he stood on trial for being an imposter. They even gave me an, “I Believe in Santa” button to put on my shirt, just in case the point wasn’t driven home strongly enough. But it became a running joke on set. Everyone knew I was a Jew. My name gives me away before I can. And I never failed to make a joke when appropriate. My character, Mark, provided a lot of the comic relief in the movie. He uses humor to deal with difficult situations. Kind of like me. Kind of like Jews. Maybe Mark’s actually a member of the tribe? 

Dean Cain and I became close. He’s a huge fan of Israel — and, almost as important, of my comedy writing. The director, the cast and the crew became friends. The movie got picked up by the Ion Network. (It airs again on Christmas Eve.) And I have no regrets about doing it. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a sweet family movie. And I’m glad I was a part of it. 

My kids lit their menorahs this year in our house. And for Christmas, they will celebrate with their Italian grandfather in his house. My daughter goes to a preschool in a church. One local synagogue — after the rabbi requested to meet with me in person because he likes my writing, and then after the staff e-mailed us repeatedly to welcome us into the family —  sent us a rejection letter after I asked about financial aid. I was hurt. I felt embarrassed. And I was angry. Angry that a Jewish school shunned us because of finances — and angry that we hadn’t applied anywhere else because we were under the impression we had already found a school for our daughter.

So, last minute, Delaney Wright, a cute, well-priced preschool in an Episcopalian church, accepted us to their school. They’re nondenominational, and the principal is a Muslim. Sure, the kids cut out paper Christmas trees during the holidays, but they also let my wife bring in latkes and teach the kids about the story of Chanukah. It’s kind of the society I always hoped for. Inclusive, without feeling like it needs to be so politically correct that everyone has to adapt. There’s room for all of us. Even for a Jew in a Christmas movie.