By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Dec 07, 2007 at 10:01 AM

I heard an NPR report the other day about a woman raised in Brooklyn who moved to Israel, then back again. She was simply beside herself, describing the differences in the ways that Hanukkah is recognized and celebrated in the United States compared to Israel. And, as an American Jew, myself, I've heard this oft-repeated rant all too many times. My message to this radio columnist: Deal with it.

There was a time when I got up in arms over Christmas. I remember feeling left out during band concerts in middle school, or when my public high school put up a Christmas tree. I cried, "Separation of church and state" 'til I was blue in the face, but nothing changed, and ultimately, no one cared.

Let me make this crystal clear: I still strongly believe that government-sponsored public displays of any religion are wrong, whether it's a city Christmas tree or a county Menorah or a giant Buddha atop City Hall (never gonna happen, but you get my point). It's less about offending me than hurting the feelings of the next person, particularly the impressionable children who don't need additional stress to conform. I think people seeking a dose of religion should get their holiday cheer from their churches, synagogues or mosques (or not at if they so choose), and not from their local, state or national governments.

But time has given me a little perspective with respect to my simmering Christmas angst. No, this isn't a Christian nation, but the reality is that a scant 2 percent of America's population identifies themselves with Judaism (the number is somewhat higher in major cities, but not by much). So, including Hanukkah songs in the holiday concert, while a nice gesture, isn't proportionally representative. And I certainly appreciate when clerks wish me "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," but when they don't, I remember this:

Most people who are filled to the brim with holiday cheer aren't trying to single out people who are different from them. Maybe they're not thinking it through all the way, or maybe they assume, and logically so, that a vast majority celebrates Christmas. But more importantly, for about one month out of the year, Americans donate generously, give coats to kids and toys to tots. They donate their time to soup kitchens and prop up the economy with their over-zealous gift giving. Who can find fault in this? If only it lasted all year long ...

For me, December has turned into a time of Zen reflection. I just tune out the over-the-top decorations, the incessant Christmas music, and I try to ignore the tax-payer funded displays of religion. I still don't like it, but in a way, it reminds me that I'm not exactly the same, and while American Judaism is the ultimate and sometimes sad tale of assimilation into Western society, December is the time reminds me that my dogma is unique, special and increasingly rare.

One of my favorite days of the year is actually Christmas Eve, when my friends Corey and Laura -- both gentile -- join my wife and I for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, seemingly along with every other Jew in Milwaukee. It's an annual tradition, and when we're done we head to Waukesha to spend time with my in-laws, most of whom know only two Jews (my wife and me), but always make me feel right at home.

But back to that radio report. I'm sure that NPR commentator had a much better time in Israel during Hanukkah, and it being the world's only Jewish nation, that makes sense. But the United States is still a melting pot, and while it sometimes feels like others' beliefs are being thrust upon us, we still know, inside, that we can believe what we want.

So when someone wishes me Merry Christmas, I smile and say, "Thank you, Merry Christmas to you, too." When someone wishes me Happy Holidays, it's even better.

But when someone goes out of their way to wish me Happy Hanukkah this year, I know they've paid me the ultimate compliment by acknowledging my beliefs.

And that's the best holiday spirit there is.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.