December’s not an easy time to be Jewish. Semites are surrounded by cultural references that have nothing to do with them. Gentiles assume that anyone of Jewish heritage cares to celebrate Hanukkah (many don’t) and that it’s as important a holiday to Jews as Christmas is to Christians (it’s not). Half-pint Heebs must watch their peers get heaped with expensive gifts or swept away to elaborate family gatherings during school vacations while they sit at home with eight days worth of chocolate coins and nothing to do. And grown Yids are stuck at least two days a year with few options for leaving the house other than Chinese restaurants (because Buddhists and Taoists don’t celebrate Christmas either) or movie theaters (because this is the day film companies give a gift to themselves).
But there are upsides. Along with Passover, this is the one time of year the rest of the country – and grocery stores’ ethnic foods sections -- seems to recognize Jewish culture (however misguided its focus on Hanukkah instead of, say, Rosh Hashanah). While our friends and neighbors get frantic over gifts and gatherings, we can enjoy some mostly mellow time off. And best of all? This is a fantastic city in which to be Jewish, whether you want to celebrate your culture or simply not be forced to celebrate someone else’s.
Whether or not you care about Hanukah, this is a time of year when many non-practicing Jews are reminded of their Jewishness. If you’d like to get in touch with that side of yourself – outside the sometimes intimidating (or, let’s face it, boring) constructs of Jewish holidays – there are several great ways to do it.
First up? Anything going on at Sha’ar Zahav (290 Dolores, SF. 415-861-6932, ), a welcoming center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and hetero Jews – and their friends – that embodies the open-mindedness I love about both Judaism and San Francisco. In particular, I love that the temple hosts an Interfaith Giving of Thanks (Nov. 24, 7 p.m. Donation of nonperishable food items encouraged.), in which the congregation joins with neighborhood faith communities for a service of praise, prayer, and song meant to give thanks for the gifts in our lives. Also hearteningly inclusive? Friday Night Spirit (Dec. 18, and various dates throughout the year. Snacks at 5:45 p.m., service at 6:15 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m. Open to the general public), a monthly event geared towards kids and their families who want to welcome the Sabbath with traditional and new Hebrew and English tunes followed by dinner and a schmooze.
Another awesome opportunity is the Jewish Holiday Cooking (Dec. 6, 12 – 5 p.m. $76. Held at a.Muse Gallery, 614 Alabama, SF. calico-pie.blogspot.com ), a class taught by the queer-friendly chefs at Calico Pie. And you don’t have to be a member of the tribe to learn the secrets to perfect latkes, culturing your own crème fraiche, or making applesauce from scratch. Just don’t tell your Bubbe that your goyishe friend cures a better gravlax than she does.
So you’ve decided you do want to celebrate Hanukkah? Good for you. There are plenty of ways to do it in the Bay Area, from super reform lighting ceremonies to orthodox services. As for me, I’m most likely to celebrate at A DeLIGHTful Chanukah, the service and celebration that includes not only songs and dancing but live music by the Bay Area klezmer ensemble KugelPlex and (best of all) latkes at this reform temple that “celebrates the diversity of Judaism.” (Dec. 11, service 6 p.m., dinner 7:15 p.m. $10-$18, plus unwrapped toy donation. Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California, SF. RSVP at 415-346-1720 x27, www.sherithisrael.org .) Or perhaps I’ll attend an event like Holiday Fun Day (2:00 p.m.-5 p.m., free) or Hanukkah in Argentina (Dec. 16, 6:30 p.m., $40-$45) at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (3200 California, SF. 415-292-1200, ).
For a San Francisco twist on the Festival of Lights, you might consider the Festival of Rights, a Super 8 festival featuring eight short films curated by the Jewish Film Festival and featuring beer tasting with Shmaltz Brewing Company (the bi-coastal brewery that makes He’Brew, the Chosen Beer, right here in Cole Valley), live bands, and DJs. (Dec. 12, 7 p.m. $10-$15. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission, SF. 415-655-7800, www.thecjm.org ).
And if I had kids, there’s no question I’d take them to Kids’ Bagels n’ Blocks at Beth Israel Judea, a congregation known for its progressive, egalitarian Judaism and its member representation in the Pride Parade. For older kids, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco also hosts a variety of winter camps between Dec. 11 and 18, with focus on swimming, dance and gymnastics, basketball, cooking, or trips to amusement parks.
What do you do on Christmas Day (a Friday this year) when the stores are all closed, the TV’s only showing Miracle on 34th Street or the Macy’s parade, and all your friends are with their families pretending to like their gifts? Look to Jewish organizations, of course.
The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco will be open (Dec. 25, 1-4 p.m., free.) for swimming, movies, arts and crafts, or even a service project for individuals and families who want something to do other than sit in a dark movie theater. For those who want buddies while they celebrate the traditional Jewish Christmas, join JCCSF’s club for individuals and couples in their 40s, 50s, and 60s also will host Movie and a Meal (RSVP to Shiva Schulz at email@example.com  late in the week of Dec. 21 for details), a no-host film followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant. Also open on Christmas Day is the Contemporary Jewish Museum (Dec. 25, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., free), featuring free admission to see exhibitions like There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak (the exhibit about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are).
It’s too bad Heeb Magazine’s Heebonism event isn’t being held in San Francisco this year, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have options for Christmas evening. Of course, there’s always the beloved Kung Pao Kosher Comedy show (Dec. 24-27, 6 and 9:30 p.m. $42-$62. New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific, SF. 925-275-9005, www.koshercomedy.com ), now in its 17th year and featuring Jonathan Katz (yes, that one), Brian Mallow, and Lisa Geduldig.
But don’t forget that most bars stay open during Christmas, and more and more non-Asian eateries are following suit (check www.opentable.com  for a list of restaurants with reservations available). My personal favorite? Jack in the Box (it’s rumored that Jack is Jewish). It might not be high-brow, but there’s a certain entertainment value in pretending your curly fries are payots.