If you think New York is a tough place to be a Jew on Christmas, try Venice.
Every year, right after Thanksgiving, New York City seems to turn overnight into one giant display of dazzling Christmas ornaments. The lure of illuminated store windows and sweet-smelling candy canes is hard to resist for adults, and just impossible for young Jewish children.
A couple of winters ago, my then 5-year-old son, backed up by his younger sister, walked in and announced bluntly: “We need to go buy a tree and celebrate Christmas!”
Taken aback, I reacted like your typical Jewish mom, giving my kids a brief boring lecture about how Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, but on the other hand we have Chanukah and a whole bunch of other awesome holidays. At which point Gabo burst into tears, exclaiming: “But Christmas is for everybody!”
He seemed so deeply distressed that I switched to emergency mode and quickly packed the whole family for a Christmas trip to the Five Towns, an orthodox neighborhood in Long Island.
In this lovely Jewish bubble, comforted by my friend Rivkah’s unsurpassable desserts and distracted by her various kids, Gabo soon forgot about his holiday envy. However, somebody else was brooding over her own childhood feelings of Christmas exclusion, and that was me.
If you think it’s hard to grow up Santa-deprived in New York, imagine being in Venice a few generations ago, one of only a handful of kids in school that were exonerated from the then-prescribed weekly hour of Catholic catechism in public school.
Being deprived of Christmas inspired a whole set of self-flagellations: “Does Babbo Natale (Santa) hate me?” “Santa won’t bring me presents, so surely the Befana (a female Santa-like figure of Italian folklore) will punish me with coal or ignore me as well?” and most of all: ”Why do my parents not come up with a non-denominational Presepe (a nativity scene) that looks a lot like a really cool Playmobil set?”
Venice at Christmas is perfect rapture, its canals twinkling with the reflections of holiday lights, classical notes emanating almost magically from churches and palaces.
However, for those of us not toasting with their families around a festive table, it’s missing a critical element: open Chinese restaurants and movie theaters! Unable to observe this alternative tradition, most Italian Jews and non-Christians spend the day suspended in utter boredom.
Aware of the issue, the Italian va’ad kasherut granted us a little consolation prize, and made sure that (almost) every year, Italy’s favorite Christmas cake, Panettone, is made available in a kosher version.
In Italy, it’s often distributed and sold through the network of small kosher stores in the various Jewish communities. Expatriates can sometimes go into a frenzy trying to get their parents to send them one, or they track down which brand with a kosher certification is distributed in the United States or Israel. (Rumor has it that this year it should be Melegatti).
As a last resort, I once spent the whole day making my own Panettone! Assuming you’re not that desperate, buy one or substitute sponge cake. Whether enjoyed with a glass of sparkly prosecco to ring in the new year, dipped into a latte for breakfast or binged on all day on the actual holiday if you feel bored and left out, it will give you a satisfactory taste of Italian Christmas envy.
This my favorite way to serve it.
Alessandra Rovati is an Italian food writer and lecturer based in New York. In addition to her published articles and recipes in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Joy of Kosher and several international publications, Alessandra writes Italian-Jewish culinary history on her web site, DinnerinVenice.com. Alessandra has been a featured guest on a variety of television and radio programs and has spoken at universities and cultural institutes. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest for more classic Jewish Italian cuisine recipes.