My Gay Jewish Life At Christmas

The Season of Hanukkah is upon us. It’s my yearly reminder that I’m different.

The Season of Hanukkah is upon us. It’s my yearly reminder that I’m different.

I’m not sure if that is a blessing or a curse.  I’ll take it as a blessing now, but in my youth it only reminded me that I wasn’t like the other kids.  This annual celebration confirmed my alienation from the rest of the world. 

Could Judaism have prepared me for my coming out and I didn’t even realize it?  

Allow me to tell my story in two parts.

Part #1:  I grew up in Upper St. Clair.  Before you assume, it wasn’t the elite fancy section, but rather an average modest first-time home buyer’s neighborhood.  There were a ton of kids to play with; none of them were Jewish.  I was the only Jewish kid.

Along comes December with every kid getting excited and overly anxious for Christmas.  I was dreading each minute as it got closer.  

All of my neighbors started to decorate their houses after Thanksgiving; well, everyone but us.  Everyone was going out and getting their Christmas trees and decorating them; well, everyone but us again.   

So, at the end of each calendar year, I was different.  I knew that there was nothing wrong with me.  I am a human being just like them, but I didn’t get to play in any Reindeer games.  I’m not sure if this counts as a good or bad thing but giving directions to our house during this time of year was easy since it was the only one in the entire neighborhood that wasn’t lit up.  Yes, the only one.   

I lost my fear of speaking in public when I was put in the spotlight each year for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Annual Christmas (not politically correct yet) Show.  This started in first grade when I stood in front of the whole school wearing my yarmulke (it sits on top of your head) to give my class a history on the meaning of Hanukah. 

For this my mother printed on very large index cards what I was to read for the next five years of my life: “Hannukah is the festival of lights.  Jews from around the world celebrate Hanukkah for eight glorious days.”  I could go on, but I’ll let you google Hannukah yourself.

I’m sure none of my classmates listened to anything that I said except for the exclamations of “You get eight nights of gifts! WOW!”  What they didn’t know is that it was eight modest gifts including the last three nights of undershirts, socks, and underwear in that order.

There were days that I would come home crying to my mother about not being like the other families.  She would take me in her arms and tell me,“G-d made me just the way I am.  I was made special.”

I didn’t want to be special.  I wanted to put cookies out for Santa and then wake up to open tons of gifts under our Christmas tree , then brag about all the stuff that I got.  Being special wasn’t what I was looking for.  I wanted the glitz, the glitter and the toys.  Mostly the toys.

When I was in 4th grade, a Jewish family moved into the district with 2 kids.  Now my grade school had three Jewish kids in five grades.  Not too comforting, but I took it.  I still had to give that annual Hannukah speech though. 

I also had to sing Christmas carol after Christmas carol, mumbling “the little lord mmm-mmm lay down his sweet head.”  For 8 years of schooling, this was my routine. 

I knew there had to be other Jewish kids out there, but where?  Christmas would come and I couldn’t wait until the New Year’s when everything would go back to being normal and I’d feel a little less out of place. 

At some point here I knew that I liked boys.  Here we go with the story of again feeling a bit different.  But this time it’s more of a “here’s another thing you’re not the same as” type of feeling.  Remember that I’m surrounded by Christians who are preaching that Gays go to Hell. 

Hell, by the way is a Christian thing.  Jews don’t believe in hell. 

Could Judaism have saved me from a life of eternal hell?

Enter Part 2:  We moved to Monroeville when I started the 9th grade.  Monroeville was different.  There were a lot of Jews there. There were 4 in my home room.  I was amazed. Being Jewish wasn’t this odd thing anymore.  I was surrounded by many other “odd people” just like me. But I’d have to wait until December to find out for sure. 

To my surprise December came and there were other non-decorated houses in our neighborhood.  In fact, there was one right across the street from us.  I felt oddly empowered by the lack of holiday festivities around me. 

It was also great that I no longer needed to sing Christmas carols which meant that I wasn’t faced with mumbling mmm-mmm’s name.  Better yet, it was the first time I sang with a group of fellow students who knew the words of The Dreidel Song.  As we sang together about playing with a dreidel that we made of clay I realized I wasn’t the only Jew in the world. There were others like me.  I wasn’t so different after all. 

Looking back at my experiences, I see that my feelings of being alone and isolated as a Jew and then finding others out there that I could assimilate with and feel a part of community was almost a parallel journey to my coming out.  

My mother was right.  G-d made me special.  When I was coming out, I reminded myself plenty of times of that message.  I’ve also shared that message with my friends and especially those that are feeling a little bit different than the rest of society.  It’s our uniqueness that makes us fabulous!  

If self-identities were labels, then hand me two:  A gay and a Jewish one please.  Now that I’m older I can look back at my youth and feel fortunate. I now brag that I’m a rarity because I’m one of the few Jews that knows all the words to every Christmas Carol, even the one’s with mmm-mmm’s name.

This is part of my coming out story.  We all have them.  It’s important that people know that they aren’t alone in this world.  There’s a local project that I’d like to highlight called AMPLIFY.  AMPLIFY is a storytelling project, a community art project, and a historical archive project sharing the lived experiences of LGBTQ neighbors in Western Pennsylvania.  It allows us to tell our own stories with our own words.  Please check it out at www.pghlesbian.com/amplify.  Participation is encouraged.

Jeff Freedman (he/him) is a Pittsburgh native and is in his fourth decade of volunteerism for the LGBTQ Community.  Jeff is one of the founding members of the Steel City Softball League in 1981 and has been an active member of the LGBTQ Community ever since.  Jeff is currently a member of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission for LGBTQ Affairs.  He is a past Chair of the Pittsburgh Pride celebrations (’05-’07) and current Pittsburgh Pride March & Parade Co-Chair.  You would recognize him by his voice.  He was the loud one on the megaphone lining up all the March & Parade participants.  Jeff has a lot of great stories to tell and looks forward to sharing the printable ones with the QBurgh Community.