I recently emerged from my annual "Nutcracker haze" — four straight days of watching a lavish family Christmas party; life-size mechanical dolls; mice battling toy soldiers; a brightly lit Christmas tree that grows to the ceiling; a nutcracker come to life that turns into a handsome prince with the toss of a slipper; spinning snowflakes; twirling flowers; thrilling acrobatic feats; and kings and queens and fairies in a dreamland "Kingdom of Sweets," all set to the stirring score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
I loved every minute of it.
Every year, for the past 10, my daughter Elizabeth has danced in seven performances of "The Nutcracker" presented by the Irine Fokine Ballet Company at the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, while I am among the cadre of dedicated "stage parents" behind the scenes. We help with everything that needs to be done, outside of dancing: quick costume changes; picking up coffee and bagels for the cast; assisting with props; sewing soloists into tutus; ushering ticket-holders to their seats. Well, you get the picture. Liz has been a soldier; a party girl — three times; polichinelle (the little dancers who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt) — twice; an angel — three times; a flower in "Waltz of the Flowers" — twice; a snowflake — four times; Merleton (also known as Marzipan or "Dance of the Toy Flutes") soloist — twice; and Spanish soloist.
Coincidentally, Liz’s partner in this year’s solo variation was Morgan Sicklick, another nice Jewish girl, from Woodcliff Lake.
So, you may wonder, why do I encourage my daughter to participate in a production like this, which makes no secret of its Christmas theme? And what about the eight weeks of weekend rehearsal, filling time that could, theoretically, be spent immersed in Jewish community life?
It’s long been my contention that exposure to other cultural traditions is important and not a threat to my children’s Jewish identity, given the strong cultivation of Jewish pride and practice in our home. In fact, the arts offer an ideal avenue, at once neutral and enriching, to broaden and deepen their understanding and appreciation of differences. Even at 9, when she was first cast in the role of party girl, Liz was surely under no illusion that dancing at the Silberhaus Christmas party made her a real celebrant. Chanukah was, is, and always will be, her holiday, knowledge deeply ingrained through years of family observance and dreidel-spinning contests with her religious school classmates at the synagogue Chanukah party.
There’s no denying that the ubiquitous allure of Christmas can present a challenge to Jewish children this time of year. But I do believe that the best way to tackle the so-called "December dilemma" is to embrace Christmas cheer — at arm’s length. Attending a performance of Handel’s "Messiah," making a trip into New York City to see the magnificent tree with ornaments from around the world on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attending a performance of "The Nutcracker," renting seasonal favorites like "White Christmas," "It’s a Wonderful Life" or "Miracle on 34th Street" (the original, please), and yes, even checking out the elaborate Christmas windows at Lord & Taylor enable us to enjoy others’ displays of piety without having them encroach on Jewish values.
This approach calls to mind an incident that occurred years ago when my middle daughter, Sarah, was all of ‘ 1/’ years old. Invited to trim the tree at the home of her best friend from the Montessori preschool she attended, Sarah spent a wonderful afternoon with the Singerline family, observant Catholics. When I picked her up, after she excitedly described to me the day’s activities, she innocently asked, with her own special charm, "When will it be time fol us to put up owl Chlisimas decolations?" I quickly reminded her, "We don’t put up decorations because we don’t celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Chanukah and light the menorah. It’s just as much fun." As a wail went out from the car seat behind me, I felt like laughing and crying at once. In that instant, a piece of her innocence was lost as I lifted the magic spell of Christmas from her world. But I knew that in that same instant, Sarah was gaining far more than she was losing: a lock on her Jewish identity. Sharing in friends’ traditions does not mean sacrificing your own.
As Elizabeth graduates this spring, ending her decade-long "Nutcracker" run, my only regret is that ‘005 has marked the last year of this delightful ritual — for both of us. Although Elizabeth will be away at college, I do, however, still plan to attend at least one of the troupe’s seven superb performances next year. Please join me.