A small people with a distinctive religion, the Jews throughout history have tried to avoid imitating the Gentiles (that is, everybody else), lest assimilation destroy the faith and the group that embodies it. In fact, Scripture’s passionate denunciation of idolatry led the ancient rabbis, “our sages of blessed memory,” to condemn certain practices under the rubric of “the ways of the Amorite,” meaning, don’t do things the way they do. Philip Roth captures the psychology in Portnoy’s Complaint: “They’ll eat anything, and they’ll do anything too.”

But there is assimilation, and then there is assimilation. Some decades ago, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Gerson D. Cohen, gave a lecture, “The Blessings of Assimilation in Jewish History,” that scandalized the faithful, because he saw good in adopting Gentile virtue and the beauty of other faiths. As between segregationists and integrationists, most American Jews concur and opt for integration, while preserving their own distinctive character. They do so because most Jews in this country take a more positive view of Gentiles. They wish to maintain a distinctive group life, but in ways comparable to those of their Gentile friends and neighbors.

True, federal racism has encouraged homogenization by classifying Jews as “whites,” just as the Israeli system assigns American Jews to the class of “Anglo-Saxons,” which would certainly have surprised not only Ethelred the Unready but also King Edward I (“the pious”), who found our forebears insufficiently Anglo-Saxon and booted them out of England. But the upshot is, we do not live behind ghetto walls and do not want to.

Still, the advent of Christmas brings an annual crisis into Jewish homes. Starting in early October and ending in January, the season underscores our differences: that it’s a rite we Jews cannot and do not practice. But while underscoring our difference, the holiday season also highlights our sameness. With the Supreme Court’s declaration that Christmas is really a secular, cultural occasion, the yearly explosion of greed and sentimentality in the name of piety no longer requires even the pretense of a religious occasion. True Christianity—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike—sees matters otherwise and now joins Judaism as another minority, one exiled from a common culture that has ruined its sacred occasion. Only Easter, more eggs and bunnies than the Risen Christ, still reminds the world that, once upon a time everywhere, and here and now in some isolated sectors, Christianity was and remains a great religion, not merely an excuse for giving, getting, and gorging.

One Christian practice that I admire is the lighting up of homes for the holy season. Here in St. Petersburg, where I live on the shores of Tampa Bay, the practice proves especially compelling. The lighted homes across the bayou, casting colored shadows on dark water, meet the light of the yachts on the bay nearby. On a spit of land, on one side of an inlet, Hanukkah candles are lit, from night to night, and across the waves, on the other side, Christmas lights respond. Somehow the dark knights of the Militant Separationists have not found their way to our corner of the world, to drive our holidays of light, both Judaic and Christian, off public property.

Ever since making our home here five and a half years ago, my wife and I have enjoyed the lights over the water. Last year, I got a leaflet offering a curious service: “We will light up your home, in your own design, supplying the wiring, lights, and the rest, putting up the decoration by December 1 and taking it down January 15, for $500.” What a great idea, I thought—I can have them light our house by the bay, with its balcony overlooking the park and the beach and the gentle waves, with a huge Hanukkah Menorah covering the front of the house, perhaps, too, a picture of Judah Maccabee, and a splash of light to stand for the enduring oil lamp. Since the Christians use green and red, we might use orange, blue, and white. Cooler heads prevailed.

But that led me to wonder, what would be so bad if we did? After all, living in the benign mixture of Southern and Midwestern culture that defines west-central Florida, who would misunderstand? Our neighbors would be no more bemused than they are by the sukkah (tabernacle) where we eat our meals from one fall to the next in our backyard, covering it with palm branches cut from our, and our neighbors’, palm trees (they are instructed by me exactly what date to have their palms trimmed, so they follow the lunar calendar to make sure that, on the first full moon after the autumnal equinox, we have plenty of front for the sukkah covering). True, my neighbor at first thought it was an outdoor Jacuzzi, and (fully clothed) we eat meals there (at least, at night, when it is cool enough).

Why not celebrate our holiday by adopting a practice that our Christian neighbors use to mark theirs—only in a Judaic manner? After all, some of our most valued rites and holy occasions are adaptations, and the principal events of the Christian calendar, Easter and Pentecost, not to mention the Sabbath/Sunday, come to Christianity from Judaism. In fact, Jews give gifts on Hanukkah, so their children will not feel left out, and no one today deems us less distinctive for that. If it makes our kids feel good to define “being Jewish” as getting gifts for eight nights, instead of only one day or night like their Christian friends, so be it.

Indeed, I can think of other Christian practices that would make Judaism a stronger and more distinctive religion in this country—regular church-going in large numbers, rather than the pitiful pick-up crowd that the Reform and Conservative synagogues get Sabbath mornings; self-respect and pride in their public celebrations, rather than the Marrano-type dissimulation that all but the Orthodox Jews pretend. Indeed, in my view, the most American of all Judaisms is Lubovitch Hasidism, with its huge menorahs in front of city halls all over the country, its massive congregations on Sabbaths, its pleasure in public witness to the faith in countless ways, its unashamed love of God. And 1 am inclined to think that when Jews begin decorating their homes for Hanukkah, the Lubovitch Hasidim will lead the way. Then people will think it is very Jewish and forget where it came from, the way they think that the strange clothes of the Lubovitchers are quintessentially Jewish, not remembering that the Polish nobility wore them 300 years ago.

One of the glories of Judaic life throughout the ages has been its capacity to adopt the great, and accessible, gifts of the Gentiles. If we gave the world One God and the Torah, we got a good reward. Other peoples gave us what we made distinctively our own, from my grandmother’s special dishes, which turn out to be pure Polish, to our own, special formulation of classical Greek philosophy in the Mishnah, the first Judaic holy book after Scripture (“the Old Testament”

Just now, someone very smart daydreamed in my presence, “Why can’t we sing ‘Adon Olam’ (the hymn that contains the principles of the faith, sung at synagogue worship on the Sabbath), to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’?” So I went and I tried it, and it works. The hymn for Hanukkah, “Mooz tsur” (“Rock of Ages”) is sung to the tune of an old German drinking song, but when we sing it. it is made holy.

So why not add to the light of the winter solstice not only a Hanukkah Menorah in the window, but Judah Maceabee in front, facing my neighbor’s Santa Claus and reindeer—facing them and, with all due respect, facing them down? We really do have a religion of our own, and m this country, which has transcended tolerance and accorded authentic freedom, we can enjoy it and even share its pleasures with our Christian neighbors.