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Season raises questions among Jewish children

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 9, 2001

Lights sparkle on rows of houses. Santa is at every mall. "Merry Christmas" comes the greeting. Most children are filled with excitement and anticipation.

Jewish children are filled with questions. Jewish parents can rattle off the list:

"Why don't we have lights on our house?"

"Why don't we write to Santa?"

"Why are we Jewish?"

It can be a tough month for Jewish parents trying to explain to youngsters the differences between faiths and the commercialism of religion. But parents say this is a time when their children learn to appreciate their heritage and respect others'.

Debbie Chadwick's 3-year-old son, Sam, gets excited each time he spots an inflatable Santa that he calls "the Christmas man" on a rooftop or around the stores. He occasionally asks his mom why they don't celebrate Christmas.

"I tell him we are Jewish and everybody believes in God their own way. Our part this time of year is to have Hanukkah and the Christians' part is to have Christmas," Chadwick said.

This seemed to sit well with Sam, though he recently had another question: "Can I still hike in the snow?"

His mother assured him that when they went to a North Georgia inn during the holidays, he could hike in the snow as much as he wanted.

"As long as his little world isn't rocked too much, he's okay," she said. "He's still too young to give me too much grief."

But Chadwick remembers growing up in St. Petersburg among very few Jewish children. She envied her Jewish cousins in Long Island, who had mostly Jewish friends and didn't have to answer to "Why don't you have a Christmas tree?" and "Why do you guys do it differently?"

The rabbi at her temple had to write notes to public school teachers to excuse Jewish students from tests on religious holidays.

Still, one of her best friends was Christian, and Chadwick visited her on Christmas day. There was always a present from Santa for her under the tree.

Some Jewish families don't take part in the Christmas holiday's religious or commercialized traditions while others help friends trim a tree. My husband's best friend growing up in New York City was Jewish, and his family decorated a tree every year.

If Chadwick's son were invited to make cookies at a friend's house or go caroling, she would be pleased rather than offended.

"Why keep him from doing something that's fun? It's educational and I don't see anything wrong with that," she said. "My hope is to give him a strong enough Jewish identity that he'll be happy with who he is wherever he is."

Debbie Kobernick's 7-year-old daughter, Alyssa, this year is asking why everybody in stores and on television focuses on Christmas and there is no mention of Hanukkah. Kobernick explains that in this part of Florida there just aren't many Jewish families and most people celebrate Christmas.

"I try to make comparisons that some people are short and some are tall, some are white and some are black, and that there are people from all different parts of the country and everybody celebrates different things," she said. "I don't discredit the religious significance, but I tell her a lot of it is a holiday of the retailers."

Almost every year, the Kobernicks help decorate the Christmas tree at the home of some close friends. Last year, Debbie Kobernick invited five families for Hanukkah and not one of them was Jewish.

"We have Christian friends, we have gay friends, one of my close friends is African-American," she said. "We try to tell my daughter there are all kinds of people in the world and we have to accept everybody for who they are."

Jay Kaminsky, executive director of Temple Beth-El, agrees that Christmas can be a hard time for Jewish kids but a great time for parents of all faiths to talk about diversity and tolerance.

"We teach (our children) they have to respect everybody and everything they participate in and celebrate, and we hope others are thinking the same way as well."

On the lighter side, Kaminsky said, Jewish children grow up being reminded that Christian children have only one day of gift giving at Christmas, but they experience eight days of gifts at Hanukkah.

Temple Beth-El found a vendor in Arizona who makes sunglasses with a hologram in the lenses. When you wear them to look at Christmas lights, the lenses turn the lights into dreidels or the star of David. Both types of glasses are for sale at the Shapiro Gallery, 538 Central Ave., for $2 a pair.

Kaminsky, who has a 15-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, teaches his own children that it's a good time of year to help others, no matter what their religion. His family usually volunteers at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day.

Happy Hanukkah!

* * *

Pediatrician to speak

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, pediatrician and author with books translated into 18 languages, will make appearances in St. Petersburg Wednesday and Thursday at Mahaffey Theater. The Wednesday discussion on the stresses parents face today begins at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $25. On Thursday, Brazelton will lead a professional seminar from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. for child care providers, physicians, counselors, social workers and educators. Continuing education hours will be awarded. Tuition ranges from $80 to $120. Call the Junior League of St. Petersburg at 895-5018 for more information.

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