Why some Jews struggle during the holidays

Lonely woman is sad on Chanukah.

For interfaith families, divorcees and the community’s most vulnerable, this time of the year can give rise to complicated feelings.

Sophia, 30, a lawyer in Vancouver, says she gets a queasy feeling in the pit in her stomach every December.

Growing up as one of the few Jewish students at her public school, she often felt isolated at Christmastime, a reality that’s familiar to many Jewish kids raised in a largely secular, yet nominally Christian milieu. “It was that sense of, ‘My family is different from other families,’” she said.

As Sophia got older and entered into romantic relationships – first with one non-Jewish partner and later with another one – the loneliness she described feeling at this time of year morphed into a sense of unease around navigating interfaith partnerships.

“I normally don’t feel a gulf between me and my partner. But he looks at Christmas and sees something benign. I look at it and see something threatening [to my Judaism]… I think a lot of Jewish kids were raised to see it as [an assimilationist] threat, as a time that is supposed to be loving and family-oriented, but that for me, at least, will always be alienating… It’s hard [for my partner and I] to find our way to each other across that,” she said.

Like Sophia, many Canadian Jews have complicated feelings about the period known as the “holiday season.”

Many are happy to celebrate Chanukah and reap the benefits of getting time off work or school without the corresponding familial and financial pressures associated with Christmas.

But while some Jews feel that not celebrating Christmas inoculates them against the stresses of the season that are widely expressed in the media and by non-Jewish friends or relatives, other Jews struggle at Christmastime.

And not surprisingly, the segments of the community that are most vulnerable – the elderly, the unwell, the socially isolated or those in financial straits – tend to be hardest hit.

Rabbi Lionel Moses of Montreal’s Shaare Zion Congregation, a Conservative synagogue, said the challenges faced by Montreal Jews in need at Christmastime aren’t a result of the holidays themselves, but the fact the city effectively shuts down at that time.

“In Montreal, from Dec. 22 to Jan 3… you could shoot a cannon down the street and it wouldn’t hit anyone,” Rabbi Moses said, explaining that as a result, fewer social services are available for those who rely on them.

Many staff at synagogues and social services agencies – Jewish and otherwise – book time off between Christmas and New Year’s, he said, and for many Jewish families with school-aged children, that week is their only opportunity to take a family vacation.

“There are fewer [service] staff to run things and develop programs,” Rabbi Moses said.

“I think middle-class families tend to either go away at this time or to manage [staying in town]. It’s the more vulnerable among us who are left alone, such as older people whose kids and grandkids leave 87-year-old Bubbie at the [nursing home] or alone in her apartment, saying, ‘She’s got food. She’ll be fine for the week’… and, obviously, the poor.”

As a possible solution, he suggested that local community service organizations – synagogues included – combine resources to ensure that at least a few staff members are in town during the holiday period to run activities for vulnerable people.

“I think the community could do a better job, and it might be something I raise at the [next] Montreal Board of Rabbis meeting,” he said.

Al Benarroch, executive director of Jewish Child & Family Service in Winnipeg, said that in his city, the holiday period is so abysmally cold that the vulnerable populations his agency serves – namely, seniors and people with mobility issues – are more isolated than usual.

His organization makes extra effort at this time of year to bring them not just necessities, but cultural items such as chanukiyot.

He said the agency recently launched a “bikur cholim” initiative, which entails training volunteers to provide a “Jewish visit” to individuals who are shut in at home or an institution.

“This time of year, these visits become even more meaningful… the [volunteers] will bring electric menorahs to those who shouldn’t be lighting candles… Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Passover – these are times when we see people emotionally missing families. They start reminiscing about sitting around the chanukiyah… It’s important to bring connection to these people.”

Christmas, in particular, has an impact on the agency’s Jewish clients, Bennaroch added, since what is billed in the wider community as the “season of giving” can underscore for those in need the feeling that they are “going without.”

Rabbi Jordan Helfman, assistant rabbi at Toronto’s Reform Holy Blossom Temple, said part of the value of Chanukah, at least in the northern hemisphere, is that it helps to alleviate some of the challenges of the season.

“It’s dark and cold outside, and we’re lighting lights together to fight against that – to spread warmth and love into the darkness,” he said. “That’s why I believe many religions have winter festivals at this time of year.”

While Chanukah is not discussed much in the Talmud, there are a number of chassidic texts about spreading light amid the darkness, Rabbi Helfman said.

“It’s a common modern trope when you look at Chanukah. Especially as Jews moved into eastern Europe and it got colder and darker, you start to see more Jewish writing about that [concept].

Lynn Kaplan is a divorce doula and coach in Toronto who serves clients across Canada undergoing separation or divorce. She approaches divorce through a Jewish lens and weaves elements of Jewish texts into her coaching model.

Kaplan, whose Jewish clients are mostly from Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist backgrounds, stressed that the busiest months in the “divorce world” are January and February, as most people – both Jewish and non-Jewish – feel a sense of “We just gotta get through the holidays.”

From what she’s seen, like their non-Jewish counterparts, most Jewish couples view the holiday season as a special time when children are off school and families are “supposed to” be together.

Many, therefore, wait until after it’s over to break the news of their separation to their kids.

“The society we live in has chosen to make this time of year very pressured in terms of you’re supposed to be happy and having fun… Many Jewish families go away at this time on what often end up being their last vacations as a family,” she said.

Unlike those couples, despite the distance she feels from her partner at this time of year, Sophia and partner are otherwise quite happy. But as a Jew, she finds that the season provokes anxiety in her.

“It brings to the forefront all the challenges of having a religious identity that’s counter to [your country’s] mainstream religious identity… When we have our holidays, we don’t see [television] commercials about them. At Christmastime, we’re getting all these messages about this thing we’re not a part of.”

On top of that is the fact the wider culture creates a kind of “dead time” around the December holidays, when many Jews are also away from work or school, Sophia said.

Breaking from routine in this way can exacerbate feelings of loneliness among people who celebrate Christmas, but don’t have family or friends to do that with, she added, and Jews aren’t immune to the media messages about the importance of being with family.

“There’s all this messaging that you shouldn’t be alone, so if you are, it feels worse than usual… A lot of Jewish families don’t get together at this time, or, if someone is more isolated or has lost a loved one… they can be alone in a way that they’re often alone, but the loneliness feels more profound, because it feels like everyone else isn’t [lonely],” she said.

Even for Canadian Jews living in predominantly Jewish communities, the frenzy around Christmastime is difficult to avoid. Coupled with the cold and darkness of the season, it can make this time of year especially tough for those who lack solid support systems or struggle with loneliness or mental health issues.

As Sophia put it, “I think it’s always important to have counter-narratives around the joyfulness of the holidays. The only thing worse than being depressed is being depressed while feeling like everyone else is having a good time… Sure, we don’t have the Christmas tree or the Santa hat, but we’re running on the same cycle. We have the same pause in our daily routines and the same potential for feelings of isolation.”