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Let's vow peace and goodwill like we mean it

Uncle Sam
A fresh scented fir tree lovingly decorated with ornaments of great sentimental value, each with a story of where it was bought or who made it as a kid. Piles of gaily-wrapped presents peeking out from beneath the fragrant branches. The family gathered around singing carols and drinking hot chocolate and eggnog. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Well, that's my fantasy anyway. See, I'm Jewish, and so I've never celebrated Christmas, but all my Christian friends did, so I grew up with a very strong case of Christmas envy. On my street, you can tell that we're the Jewish family -- amidst the houses bedecked in holiday lights, our house stands dark and undecorated, except for the Chanukah menorah, which we light in the window for eight nights. There are a few other Jewish families with similarly unlit houses, and I bet those parents get the same "How come we can't have lights and a tree?" that my kids ask me and I asked my parents ... one of the challenges of being a religious minority.

This lifelong Christmas envy was part of the inspiration for my first novel, "Confessions of a Closet Catholic," in which the main character, Justine Silver, a vertically challenged, frizzy-haired Jewish girl obsessed with chocolate (sound familiar?) gives up being Jewish for Lent. It's a humorous exploration of faith and family relationships, but I wrote it as a way of answering some of the serious questions that bemused my teenaged self. Questions like "What does faith mean to me personally, as opposed to just being something that my family does?" and "Why do we all fight each other in the names of our different gods instead of looking for the things we have in common?"

Apply that to the political realm, and you've got my greatest wish for the New Year -- that we try to look for our shared goals and beliefs instead of focusing on the issues that divide us. I also hope that politicians and media figures will stop for a moment before they open their mouths to consider the dangerous ramifications of their rhetoric. I've started a big new writing project and one strand of research involves the "experiments" perpetrated on twins by the notorious Josef Mengele, so I've been reading a great deal about the concept of "racial purity." It's made me extremely uncomfortable to hear concepts like "ideological purity" being bandied about in political discourse, particularly when the same people who are touting that concept are leading rallies against health care reform at which they stand in front of banners depicting Holocaust victims, and appear to be unconcerned by the use of such imagery.

These times of economic hardship are scary for all of us. History has shown that periods like these provide fertile ground for extremist ideas to take root, because as Depression-era radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, leader of the Christian front and well-known anti-Semite, said: "Someone must be blamed."

But how about instead we take a step back from the brink and search for those ideas we share in common; for example, the love we have for our families, and our country. How about we try to figure out how each of us can do our part to shed light unto the world?

As for me, I've learned to enjoy my neighbors' Christmas lights without any pangs of envy. They bring cheer and illumination to the darkness of the Winter Solstice, and best of all, I don't have to do any work to put them up or take them down. I just sit back and enjoy the beauty. Merry Christmas!


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Uncle Sam
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