Around the time of Thomas Balazs’s confirmation into the Lutheran church, his father sat him down and explained that he and Thomas’s mother had been born and raised as Jews, survived the Holocaust in Hungary, and converted to Christianity upon their marriage to spare their children the danger and indignity of growing up Jewish. Thomas returned to Judaism in the fifth decade of his life. But it was several years later—ice-skating with his own son to the sound of Christmas carols the day before Thanksgiving—that he first found himself missing the Gentile holiday of his youth:
Until that moment, the first ten years without Christmas had been surprisingly easy for me. . . . So it was odd when I found myself singing [“Jingle Bell Rock”] along with Bobby Helms as [my son] and I skated around the rink. . . . [But] I don’t have any Jewish memories to compete with [my fondest memories of childhood Christmases] because, of course, I wasn’t raised Jewish, didn’t even know I was a Jew until I was thirteen. But then again, I do have at least one kind of Jewish memory of Christmas in the ’70s. . . .
I wanted something special for my mom. Our neighbors were having a garage sale, and there was this blue ceramic vase shaped like a fish that I thought was pretty cool. It only cost 50 cents, so I got it for my mom, and she kept it with our other tchotchkes for the next 40 years or so. But when I bragged to one of [my older brother’s] friends that I had bought this vase for my mother at the garage sale, his response was, “You bought your mother a present at a garage sale? What, are you a Jew?” I was, but I didn’t know it yet. It’s always been a bit of a mixed-up holiday for me, I guess. . . .
If it’s true, as some say, that one can never stop being a Jew, it’s also true that you can never quite shake off Christmas once it has worked its way into your system; it’s cultural DNA. In my case, it’s also a by-product of growing up in a traumatized Jewish household of modern-day Marranos. It’s the result of living as a Christian for four decades. And it’s a consequence of there being some really great Christmas songs.
Did I mention my boy’s name is Judah? There are lots of reasons we chose that name. One was so he would have a moniker that both his American and Israeli cousins could pronounce (as opposed to, say, Yitzḥak). . . . A bigger reason, though, for me at least, was that it was based on the name Judah—that is, from the tribe of Judah—that the people once known as Hebrews and Israelites came to be called “Jews.” Unlike me, my son will always know he was a Jew. He can’t help it. The word is built into his name. His name is the foundation of the word.