Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I have been wanting to write this post for a long time. Now that we are approaching Dec. 25 I actually have some time, plus what better time for it than the week of Christmas?

When I was growing up, my mom had very specific views of what was "goyish." This term is a little hard to translate, but I'm going to go with "culturally non-Jewish," or "of, or relating to, modern American Protestant culture," which I realize is inadequate. It was only upon making friends with whom I was comfortable talking about this that I realized that not everyone's Jewish mother had these ideas. Here are some things that were considered "goyish" in my house when I was a kid:

--creamed spinach (or creamed anything; we ate fleishiks [chicken, turkey, or beef] most nights, so all of our sides had to be pareve [neither meat nor dairy]).
--butter (see above--it later turned out that both my dad and I are lactose intolerant, so we obviously weren't clamoring for the stuff anyway)
--Hanukkah cards (an imitation of Christmas cards)
--Rosh HaShanah cards (same)
--going to friends' Christmas parties (duh), although there was an exception for a Catholic friend of my mom's who had a cookie bake-off every year towards the middle of December. We decorated cookies.
--saying "Happy holidays" in December. I am really surprised to see that TH does this. I didn't know it bothered me until now.
--football and hockey
--keeping furry domesticated animals, especially dogs (my mom got many of these ideas from her father, whose parents were not long off the boat when they had him; I once asked my dad why Grandpa hated dogs so much. He said, "In Europe, Jews didn't have dogs; goyim had dogs, which they turned on the Jews." My dad almost never says "goyim").
--not knowing how to dress--I was very amused when I made a Chareidi friend who basically thought the same thing. My mom thought that the reason Talbots existed was to provide solid-colored separates for hapless WASP women who otherwise could not match fabrics. Having lived in a WASPy area for more than a few years, I don't really disagree.

I'm not writing this post to make fun of my mom. Well, I'm making fun of my mom a little, but more than that I am reflecting on how a set of beliefs I believed to be totally normative in childhood and early adulthood turned out to be extremely relative, pun only sort of intended.

My brother has also pointed out that it was easy for our immediate family to think everything was "goyish" because we had very few non-Jewish friends, or even non-Jewish colleagues. My father is a Reform rabbi, and many of my parents' friends are friends of theirs from when when my dad was in rabinnical school. My brother and I went to (Conservative) day school, so our school friends and their parents were all Jewish. Other than my mom's office parties, there were no Christmas parties for us to be invited to anyway.

All this meant that--and I know this is really unusual for a Reform home in the suburbs--we didn't have to grapple so much with the meaning of living in a mixed society in which Jews are, of course, a minority. (I did feel quite left out, and then resentful, of all the Christmas lights and Santas when I was a kid, but I got over it). Being married to TH, I will have to grapple with real life much more. HIs parents and SIL love Christmas stuff, and his parents consider their participation in same to be an emblem of how wonderfully liberal and tolerant their neighborhood is. I think that Jews with kids should remain separate, not in the creamed spinach or hockey areas, but in matters Christmas, to the extent possible, to avoid confusing the kids. MIL was SO unhappy when I mentioned this, so it has been dropped, but, God-willing, we will have kids sooner rather than later (but not within the next nine months or anything), and then I guess it will be an issue. Oh, well. It's part of growing up, I suppose.


frum single female said...

actually i dont think it odd at all for you to write a post like this as a someone who grew up as a reform kid in the suburbs . i grew up orthodox in the suburbs in the midwest and most of my neighbors were reform jews. we lived in a very jewish neighborhood .

Woodrow/Conservadox said...

I grew up reform in the sort-of suburbs (actually, within the limits of city that had annexed my pretty suburban area 8 or 10 miles from downtown), but none of this stuff was goyish. I would say that the only things that were goyish were explictly Christian stuff (e.g. XMas trees) and maybe paying retail. Saying "Happy Holidays" on the other hand was Jewish (as opposed to the very goyish "Merry Christmas!") Not going to college was goyish.