A Jewish Christmas
I posted these reflections on December 25, 2021, during my involvement with the “8 Candles Sanctuary,” an interfaith group within the ServiceSpace community.
For those of us who grew up Jewish in the U.S., relating to Christmas can be complicated.
So I spent time this Christmas writing some reflections about the evolution of my “Jewish Christmas” and sharing them with friends in the “Eight Candles Cathedral.” It’s a community of eight people from diverse religious backgrounds, lead by Rev. Charles Gibbs, holding space as an experiment for an emerging interfaith practice.
I’d like to also share these reflections here with you.
For generations of Jews living in Eastern Europe, Christmas — sadly — was a time where they experienced hate and fear from Catholic priests and Christian neighbors who labeled them as “Christ killers.” And on Christmas the emotions and behaviors toward “Christ killers” could be especially strong. People could spit at Jews in public with no consequences. And the Jews would often return the favor, when no one was watching, by spitting at the local Church.
When my dad was a kid in the 1920s growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, the most important task for his parents, my Grandpa Harry and Grandma Rose, other than putting bread on the table everyday, was learning how to raise their kids to be “real Americans,” so that they’d be able to get ahead and prosper here.
Christmas presented a challenge. On the one hand, they had learned from their parents that it was their sacred duty as Jews to not have anything to do with Christmas.
On the other hand, they also saw it as their sacred duty to become good Americans. And everyone knew that Christmas was one of the most high-profile American holidays. So how to distance themselves from the Christian Christmas, while participating in the “American” Christmas? Or to put it another way, how to celebrate Christmas as Jews here in America?
The answer for them — together with many other immigrant Jewish families on the Lower East Side — take the family out for a Chinese dinner and then go a movie! The Chinese immigrant families, who also were not Christian, would go to work and keep their restaurants open on Christmas. And like the Jewish families, they were not yet accepted as “real Americans,” and were struggling to offer better lives to their children. So they were natural allies.
The custom spread to Jewish communities throughout the U.S., and continues to this day — even as Wendy and I have often enjoyed a Chinese meal with Jewish friends on Christmas, followed by a good movie. 🙂
My parents and many of their friends were the visible result of the success of their parents: affluent, living in the suburbs in homes of their own, preparing their children to enter college.
I grew up in an affluent suburban community of mostly white Protestants. There were very few Jews. My parents, Sam and Flo, held two important sets of values for themselves and their children. First, to be proud of our Jewish heritage, and celebrate it. Second, to blend in with the larger community as loyal, successful Americans.
So when December came around, we would first celebrate Hanukkah, and my brothers and I would get a present each night for eight nights. Not bad for a kid! Then when Christmas came around we would get a Christmas tree, decorate it, and put it in the window, just like all the neighbors. Only we would call it a “Hanukkah bush!” Then we kids got to hang our stockings under the tree on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning, like all the other kids in the neighborhood, we’d get to run downstairs with great excitement and see what presents Santa had brought for us. Wow! Not only did we get as many presents as our Christian neighbors, we got even more!
The problem with my parents’ Jewish Christmas was, that by the time I was in my teens, it all seemed pretty hollow and meaningless.
My best friend in high school was Tony. My father was a Republican Conservative Jew. His was a Communist atheist Jew.
When we started school every morning Tony and I had to participate, like everyone else, in saying the (Christian) Lord’s Prayer. And as Christmas season approached, we were expected to join all the other students in singing Christmas carols at assemblies.
During our Junior year, we decided that we’d had enough. We no longer wanted to participate in these activities that didn’t reflect who we were. So we began sitting silently during the Lords Prayer, and during Christmas carols. For a while no one bothered us, and everything seemed okay.
But things came to a head at the French Club Christmas Party. Our French teacher, a crusty middle-aged woman who had grown up in Nazi Germany and came to the U.S. after the War, would often remind us how disciplined and obedient teenagers were in Germany when she was our age. She required that all French students, if we wanted to pass her class and graduate high school, had to attend her Christmas party. Tony and I weren’t thrilled about this, but we didn’t see any alternative, so we reluctantly showed up.
Somehow we wound up sitting in the front row as the teacher sat down at the piano, sang French Christmas carols, and accompanied herself. And she had made it clear that she expected us to sing along with her, in a good French accent. For Tony and me this was too much. We burst out laughing.
The teacher banged on the piano, stopped the music, and turned around with flames coming out of her nostrils. “Human scum! Human scum!” she screamed. “Out! Out of my class!”
Tony and I grabbed our stuff and ran, laughing all the way. We wound up downstairs, in the men’s locker room, drawing graffiti on the walls that were not very flattering to the French teacher.
Soon the gym teacher came along. “What’s this, men?” he asked. When we finally explained, he insisted on marching us upstairs and watching as we apologized to the French teacher.
“We’re sorry for writing graffiti that disrespected you,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Tony, “and we’re sorry we called you a Nazi bitch.”
The good news — somehow we made it through high school.
Years later when I was living in San Francisco at the House of Love and Prayer, saying the traditional Hebrew prayers three times a day, I came to appreciate the human universality of the longing to connect with the Infinite. Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis and Sikhs would come visit, and we’d all pray together.
My teacher Reb Shlomo said, “we’re all on the same path; we’re just wearing different shoes.” There was no problem of a Jewish Christmas, any more than of a Christian Hanukah. As Reb Zalman and Matthew Fox together taught, “deep ecumenism” is about each of us learning more about our own spiritual journeys, thru the depth of experiencing something of each others’.
Fast forward a few decades, and it’s Christmas Eve in Half Moon Bay. My friends Richard and Martha, devout Catholics, invited me to join them for Midnight Mass at their church. As a Jew, I had never been to a Catholic mass before and I didn’t know if it would be right for me to be there. But it was a sacred event that they were inviting me to, and they were good friends and I trusted them, so I said sure.
When we got to the Church, Richard and Martha introduced me to Father John, the priest who would be conducting the Mass. He welcomed me very courteously and made me feel at home. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.
The Mass began, and I was surprised to notice how closely it seemed to track with the traditional Hebrew prayers. I recognized some of the same Psalms, in the same order.
But then it came time for Holy Communion. I knew that as a non-Catholic I could not be included, and would have to sit this one out, while everyone else went up for Communion. Father John picked up the wine cup and said the prayer in Latin. Then, looking into the crowd of worshipers, straight at me, he repeated the blessing, this time in Hebrew.
No one else in the church may have understood what he was saying or doing, but I did. He was recognizing my presence, and honoring me me by including me. It was an act of courtesy that I’ll never forget, a special Jewish Christmas!
Father John and I became friends after that, and would sometimes go up to San Francisco together to go to the movies.
Based on recent writings by both Christian and Jewish scholars, I have come to a deeper appreciation of Jesus. Of how Jesus can be seen historically as a radically creative first century rabbi who in his day was teaching Torah — in new ways — to Jews. And how the core values of Torah — love God, love your neighbor, love the stranger — can be brought to everyone.
So a Christmas question that this Jew is holding now: how do I want to relate to Rabbi Jesus?
A Jewish Christmas Now
So this year I’m grateful to my friends in the the Eight Candles Cathedral for holding a “place” where I can celebrate Christmas. And to friends in the greater ServiceSpace community, in the Torah Circle, OWL, and communities everywhere, who are committed to the reality that, in Reb Zalman’s words: “the only way we’re going to get it together, is together.” And I look forward to the new ways of celebrating Christmas, and all of our traditions, that are emerging.