December 10, 1998
How Green is My Envy?
When my daughter, Samantha, was 6, I got a call from our synagogue's Hebrew-school principal.
"Do you have a Christmas tree?" DiDi asked.
"Is that a serious question?"
"Samantha says you do. She told the class today that you have a Christmas tree and that it's right near the fireplace," she insisted. "Is it true?"
At first, I was appalled by the inquiry. Then I laughed at myself, having foolishly thought I could insulate my child from Christmas. There's not a kid in America, of any religion, who doesn't spend some time pining for a Christmas tree. In fact, it's a national rite of passage: Christmas Tree Envy. Even youngsters in day schools go to the mall. They'd have to live in a tunnel not to know that red and green are important colors of the season.
So now that she reached this stage, what was I to do about it? For many Jewish parents, "the tree" is the religious equivalent of the conversation about sex -- dark and dangerous territory. We avoid any such discussion until the kids raise it first.
"We have Chanukah," we say, as if having a holiday of our own evens the score. Of course, it does not.
Most of what's written on the so-called December Dilemma suggests that the problem is only a matter of education and pride. We're told that Jewish children can avoid Christmas Tree Envy by learning about their own holidays, taking joy in their own history and celebrating Chanukah as a minor ritual that teaches the values of toleration.
Good beginning, but hardly enough. The biggest problem with Christmas is that it is undeniably beautiful, holy and spiritual. Its music is deeply moving. A home with a Christmas tree is filled with good smells, wonderful colors and, yes, fun. To deny that we, as adults, recognize the beauty of another tradition and that we, in our own way, are moved by "Silent Night," at least on the level of harmonics, is preposterous and, worse, paints us as Scrooge. Bah, humbug.
But there is another approach, one based on our own tradition, as well as common sense. For it is important that all children, Jews not excluded, develop the capacity to respect a friend's success, attainments and possessions. Our Yiddish grandparents have a word for this talent -- farginen -- and it is an important skill to master all year long.
To fargint someone means to allow another person to enjoy what he or she has, free from resentment, belittlement, threat or fear.
Farginen, writes Rabbi Nilton Bonder in "The Kabbalah of Envy" (an invaluable book for every Jewish library), "means to open space, to share pleasure; it is the exact opposite of the verb to envy."
Bonder's book demonstrates just how overpowering a disease envy can be. In fact, the sages assert that three things reveal a person's character: his "cup" (meaning his appetites); his "pocket" (how he earns a living); and his "rage" (the envy by which he lives in the world).
As adults, we know how difficult it is to fargint someone's good fortune. A friend's book lands on the best-seller list, while yours is just getting off the ground. A screenwriter's script is optioned, while yours gathers dust. Competition can kill us. The discipline to fargint assuages the competitive urge, allowing us to recognize another's accomplishments and feel content with our own.
If we don't practice farginen when we're young, it won't get easier later on. Samantha was about 4 when she first regarded a beautiful wreath on a door.
"Yep," I muttered, but, afraid she would want one for our home, I tensed into silence. And she said nothing more. Later, she admired Christmas carols. "Nice," I said, my voice tight. And she fell silent again.
But what had I taught her but to censor herself? This was no good, in ways that had nothing to do with December. By age 6, many children, like Samantha, experience not only Christmas Tree Envy but envy of all kinds, including sibling rivalry and schoolyard brawls. If she can't fargint Christmas, how will she deal with college entrance exams or a friend whose home is "better" than ours?
So when Samantha came home from Hebrew school, I asked her if she liked Christmas trees. She looked at me suspiciously. "They are beautiful," I said. She thought I was nuts.
"Would you like to see one?" Yes, of course. So off we went to the mall, and began to fargint.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her guest will be Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgHer book, "A Woman's Voice" is available through Amazon.com.