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Christmas confusing for Jewish kids

All I wanted for Christmas was … Christmas. Growing up Jewish, I had no yule logs, carols or trees. My halls were perpetually undecked.

And you want to talk silent night?

Arcades and pizza places to loiter in? Closed.

TV to watch? Repeats or Christmas specials.

Friends to do nothing with? With their families.

Long Island, N.Y., provided exactly two options for the wandering Christmas Jew: the movie theater or the Chinese restaurant. To me, the giant Rockefeller Center tree heralded another season of Harrison Ford and food served beneath stainless steel domes.

With all those Jewish rock stars Adam Sandler was always singing about, not one ever thought to give a concert on December 24 or 25. (I mean, David Lee Roth couldn’t have been that busy.)

My parents enjoyed other families enjoying Christmas. They drove me and my sister, Ilana, around Queens every year to gawk at the pretty lights and mechanized Santas. But it wasn’t our holiday to celebrate.

"Because we don’t, that’s why," my mom responded. I recognized the reason as the same one for why we didn’t own a boat. (Another Jewish family I knew, the Grossmanns, celebrated Christmas. But they also owned a boat, so it made sense.)

The pressure to conform can be intense and confusing to a Jewish kid. If you don’t hang stockings, you don’t believe in goodwill toward men. If your house doesn’t blink, you don’t want peace on earth. Only grinches and scrooges would disagree. (Cue "South Park" character Kyle Broflovski singing "A Lonely Jew on Christmas.")

As if pop culture doesn’t rub it in deeply enough, all your "normal" friends get that one big gift from their mom and dad. I remember Steve Gerraputa demonstrating all 10 speeds of his after pedaling it to our house.

"Well, you get Christmas eight nights in a row," Steve said.

Steve’s theory of Hanukkah was faulty. It did not account for all the dividing by eight. That meant a mess of $12.99 model dinosaurs, action figures and slot cars for me. And there is no riding a slot car to the arcade or pizza place — even as small as I was in elementary school. (Picture a baby with more hair.)

By high school, Christmas promised more potential because I was allowed to spend it with friends who celebrated. However, as I soon discovered, the only thing worse than watching your family indulge in vodka cocktails and passive-aggressive behavior for six hours is watching someone else’s that you are under no obligation to be around.

Christmas at a girlfriend’s parents’ house was usually one of my last memories before the breakup.

"Did you have a happy Hanukkah?" one of her relatives would ask across the glazed ham, following the theory that singling strangers out in the name of political correctness makes them feel more welcome.

"Oh, we have lots of Jewish friends," the relative would continue, accompanied by cautious eye contact and some mention of how they love their morning bagels.

I finally got my own Christmas in college, the night before freshman winter break. My suitemates and I couldn’t afford a tree because the money our parents gave us for food was already spent on Old Milwaukee beer.

So, in the spirit of the season, we went tree-hunting at midnight in the woods surrounding our dorm at the State University of New York at Albany. The campus police drove by just as we dragged a freshly cut Tannenbaum under the revealing glow of a street lamp.

Why we weren’t busted, I can’t say. Picture a lone pine propped up in the center of a flat expanse of snow-covered grass, a trail of footprints and needles leading up to it, and four panicky guys trying to hide in the branches with a bright orange hacksaw.

Maybe the cops felt extra Christmas-y that night.

Back in our suite, I orchestrated the placing of all tinsel and ornaments. I enjoyed how not different it felt.

"Wait a minute," said Ronzo the football player, in between spits into his chewing tobacco glass. "Corey can’t do this! He’s a Jew!"

My wife and I are expecting our first child in March, and my wife isn’t Jewish. (Shh, don’t tell my mother.)

Jo Ann has insisted that my strong cultural identity not deprive our daughter of a tree, or the belief that gifts will be placed underneath it by a corpulent man who, propelled by flying reindeer, squeezes himself down 4 billion chimneys in a single night each year — even the skinny fake chimney leading to our gas fireplace — without ever getting mistaken for a prowler and shot.

You know what? I’m down with that. I mean, it’s all I ever wanted at that age.

But I’m not buying a boat.

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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