The dilemma of the December Dilemma

It happens about the time shopping malls hire their Santas, schools schedule "Winter Concerts" and televisions start radiating even more images of children clutching trendy gadgets.

That's when Jewish groups hold "December Dilemma" forums to help parents survive "the holidays." In isolated segments of society, the season continues to be called Christmas.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg thinks this is all really strange.

"I always feel like an outsider, but not because it's Christmas," said the veteran editor of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver. "I feel like an outsider because so many Jews are talking about their 'December Dilemmas' and I don't have a 'December Dilemma.' In fact, I think the whole 'December Dilemma' concept is strange because it presupposes that what's going on in some other tradition is automatically going to take up a lot of space in a Jew's life."

In other words, Goldberg believes Jewish groups actually need to hold forums asking why so many Jews feel such strong conflicts this time of year. Ironically, the true "December Dilemma" is that Jews need to talk about a "December Dilemma" in the first place.

It's especially poignant, said the rabbi, that so many Jews fear that their children will "feel deprived" if they miss the commercialized and quasi-religious parade that dominates popular culture in December. He said this usually means there is a "hollow place" in the lives of these families, a place that should be filled with Judaism's own daily, weekly and seasonal cycle of traditions and teachings.

A child in a family that enjoys Jewish life and faith is less likely to crave a Christmas tree. Here's another irony: children who have, December after December, been taught the true meaning of the modest holiday called Hanukkah are also less likely to try to coerce their parents into turning it into a Jewish super-holiday. This year, the eight-day "festival of lights" begins at sundown on Sunday (Dec. 13).

But if a family's life is dominated by television, pop music, movies, shopping and other activities that have little or nothing to do with their faith, then it will probably feel tension during these media-mad and highly secularized holidays.

"I don't deny that many people truly feel conflicted and confused during this season," said Goldberg. "But I believe that this is evidence that something is radically wrong in the lives of many Jews. This is very sad."

Truth is, millions of Jews no longer practice Judaism and many others blend elements of other religions - such as Buddhism - into their faiths. Of America's 4 million to 6 million Jews, a 1990 poll found that 1.1 million claim no religious faith at all and another 1.3 million actively practice another faith. Researchers found only 484,000 American Jews who regularly attend synagogue or temple services.

Obviously, the "December Dilemma" also affects millions of homes in which one parent is Jewish, to one degree or another, while the other is Christian, to one degree or another.

Here's how Ellen Harris of Palo Alto, Calif., described December with Santa Claus and a menorah: "My husband and I aren't sure about faith, but we do feel that cultural and moral educations are important for our kids. They don't identify themselves as Jews or Christians, although they talk about both faiths openly. I think it is healthy for them to know the differences and for them to know about things that don't have answers." She offered her views on "Melding The Religions" in Disney Online's "December Dilemma" pages.

That says it all. However, Rabbi Goldberg is convinced that a small, but fervent, minority will avoid spinning in the holiday blender by turning to quieter celebrations built on Jewish tradition. And for the majority, its sense of season schizophrenia will probably fade.

"The whole concept of the 'December Dilemma' is based on the idea that people still feel some tension between their Jewish faith and what's going on around them," he said. "One would have to conclude that, as more Jews lose any real sense of Jewish identity, we will hear less and less talk about a 'December Dilemma.' "