That left-out feeling at Christmas can be a chance to learn, grow

Dan, a client exploring his connection to Judaism, wanted to get my thoughts on Hanukkah. At least, that’s how the conversation started. But, as often happens when Jews and their loved ones talk about Hanukkah, the talk soon turned to Christmas.

“I hate to see my daughter feeling left out,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. We make a big deal of Hanukkah, but it can’t compete with Christmas. A few days ago Ella told me that everybody else at school has Christmas, and she started crying.”

We all — kids and adults — know what it’s like to feel left out. It hurts. And even worse is when we conclude that we must be less lovable, less competent … or just less … than the people who seem to be included.

“Let’s look more at that ‘left out’ part,” I said. “How do you usually help Ella when this comes up?”

“Ella feels left out when other kids get more sweets than she does, but that’s OK,” Dan explained. “In that situation it’s just how our family does things. When she feels left out by friends, it’s not always so clear. If I think they really are excluding her, I encourage her to speak up. If as far as I can tell they aren’t, I try to be understanding. I comfort her, let her know how much we love her.”

“That makes sense. So how does feeling left out at Christmas fit in?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not that other people are excluding her … and it is just how our family does things,” Dan responded. “But then why do I feel so bad, even guilty, about it?”

A good question. I invited Dan to explore it.

Dan remembered that, as a child, he felt left out at Christmas. Being Jewish hadn’t seemed like a positive to him, so it felt like his parents were depriving him of Christmas for no good reason.

By the end of our session, Dan decided that perhaps the problem wasn’t Ella feeling left out.

“I need to get clear on why I care about being Jewish,” he said, “and what I want to offer Ella that’s positive about it. That’s the piece that never made sense to me as a kid. For some reason I do care, but I still haven’t figured out why.”

Thinking further, Dan realized that he could actually share this exploration with his daughter. “What’s something small you could start with,” I asked, “that sounds pretty easy, and enjoyable?”

He decided to take Ella to a bookstore to pick out a few Jewish kids’ books together. Over winter vacation they’d have more family time than usual, and he could read them to her.

“Well, this is a little scary,” he said. “I thought I was going to find a way to make Ella feel better, and now I have a project I think I’ve been avoiding for years. At least Ella and I can start together — I’m probably at the children’s book level myself. But that’s OK. I want to be the kind of parent who really offers my children things that matter.”

How about you?

Do you have painful reactions — feeling left out, jealous, angry, protective of yourself or your children — during what has become, for many of us, a couple of months of Christmas?

If so, you might try to do what Dan did. Let me break it into a few steps for you.

First, slow things down. Dan began by trying to figure out how to make Ella feel better. If he’d rushed to make his discomfort go away, he might have offered a quick fix that wouldn’t really have addressed the situation, and might have made it worse.

Second, broaden your perspective. See if you can look beneath the immediate circumstances, and your reaction to them. What makes this situation so distressing? Chances are there’s a frustration, question, need, longing, or other issue that was already present for you, that you’re being reminded of by whatever’s happening now.

Third, reflect on what you really care about. Dan realized that he wanted to offer Ella something he never received — a sense of why being Jewish matters. That was far more important to him than preventing her from feeling left out right now.

If this season reminds you of your connections to, and perhaps confusion about, or alienation from, being Jewish, I invite you to pay attention. There are ways to address these mixed feelings, to explore your longings and, if you want, to create Jewish connections that are truly alive and nourishing for you, and any family you have.

Rabbi Bridget Wynne grew up culturally Jewish in an interfaith family, and was ordained by the Reform movement in 1994. She is the author of ”Jewish Your Way,” which is available free at rabbibridget.com. She offers free “clarity sessions” to help people examine their relationship to their Jewishness. She lives with her family in Albany.