A Jewish Christmas — 2021

A Jewish Christmas — 2021
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.

My Great-Grandparents
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.

My Grandparents
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
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. 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’.

Father John
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 they were good friends and I trusted them, so I said sure.

The priest, Father John, performed a creative act of kindness so I could feel included, in a way that was harmonious for me, in the Holy Communion. That was a special Jewish Christmas! Father John and I became good friends after that.

You can see the complete story at:

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 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.

A Christmas Eve in Half Moon Bay

A Christmas Eve in Half Moon Bay

Some 20 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 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.

Father John and I became friends after that, and would sometimes go up to San Francisco together to go to the movies. 

Lesson in a Dress Factory

Lesson in a Dress Factory

I’ve been blessed with many role models for guiding my values. My father, Sam Coopersmith, was the earliest.

He was the youngest child of Jewish immigrant parents who came to the U.S. from Europe when they were in their teens. Growing up in a neighborhood of crowded tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, young Sam’s dream was to attend college, become an accountant, and be able to live comfortably with a family of his own in a nice house in a nice neighborhood away from the city.

But the hard times of the Great Depression put an end to that dream. Like everyone else during the the depression, he had to work wherever he could find it. After he married my mother Florence, her father, my Grandpa Max, gave Sam a job as a shipping clerk in his dress factory in Jersey City. Sam was hard working, smart, and ambitious, learned the business quickly and soon was able to open up a dress factory of his own.

His business thrived, and my two younger brothers and I grew up in a nice house in that quiet, affluent suburban town that my father had dreamed about.

For a few weeks each summer when I was a teenager, I’d ride to work with my father at 5:30 AM, travelling on the Jersey Turnpike as the sun was rising, from our quiet, tree-lined little town, to the grimy, grey, industrial section of Jersey City. I got to earn some money, and he got to educate me about the family business. I started as he had, as a shipping clerk.

And I got to see his values on full display, in his kindness to his workers. He seemed to be on close personal terms with every one of his hundred or so employees. The union would repeatedly try to organize his workforce, but they never made much headway. Because on his own he always paid them higher wages, and offered better benefits, than  the union contract offered. It was clear to me what he was about: work hard, show an interest in people, and treat them well, always be honest, and always keep your word.

One day a guy in a very fancy suit came into the factory, and asked me where Sam was. I pointed to the loft above us, above the factory floor, reachable by a creaky wooden stairway. The man thanked me and walked up. 

I had never seen anyone dressed like that in the factory, so I was curious. I went up to a dark place in back of my father’s office where there was a crack between the boards and I could see in and hear what was being said.

“Sam,” the man was saying, “the Boss sent me here because he really doesn’t understand why you’re not using our trucking services. And between you and me, I don’t think he’s going to be patient much longer. You understand?”

It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. Most of us growing up in Northern Jersey in the 1950s knew about the Mafia. But I had never seen them. Now I could see it — the Mafia was right here, putting the squeeze on my dad!

“Look Mario,” Sam said, “I understand your point, I really do. But like I told you before, my hands are tied. My contract with my customer (a department store chain) says I have to use their trucking. I can show it to you if you want.”

Mario shook his head, waved him away, and they went back and forth for a while. Then Sam went and opened up a cabinet, and pulled out an elaborately wrapped present. “Mario, I think your wedding anniversary is coming up later this month, am I right?” He was right. “I think your wife will really like this,” he said. Mario took the present.

“And by the way, I know the boss’ son has a birthday coming up. He’s a Yankee’s fan, right? I think he’ll like these. Great seats, right behind first base.” And he have him an envelope with the tickets. They talked some more and Mario left.

I didn’t mention anything to my father as we drove back home at sunset. I knew he wouldn’t me to know about such things. But I saw what I saw, and knew what I knew. My father had managed to avoid the clutches of the Mafia, not only because of his street-smarts, which clearly were considerable, but mainly because of the way he cared about, and understood, people.




Aryae’s 77th

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Six Lessons (Plus One) from My First Awakin Circle

I’m restarting this blog after having been on hiatus for a while. Why now?

It’s the timing of three apparently unrelated events that’s leading me to do this:

1) I’ve just completed a piece I was asked to write for ServiceSpace (ServiceSpace.org) that would be nice to publish here;
2) this website, which mysteriously disappeared for a while, just now has mysteriously turned back on;
3) it’s time to start my annual road trip.

Synchronicity? Go figure! So here goes!

Six Lessons (Plus One) from My First Awakin Circle

Have you ever found yourself standing in front of a door with the strange feeling that, if you choose to open it and walk inside, life will never be the same? For me, on a balmy summer evening in 2013 in Santa Clara, California, standing at the front door of the home of Dinesh and Harshida Mehta, I felt that this was one of those moments. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and walked inside.

I was greeted in silence by a man about my age with a calm demeanor and a sweet smile, who put his hands together and bowed to me. This must be Dinesh, I thought. I wasn’t used to being greeted in this way. But I immediately understood his message, so I smiled back, placed my hands together, and bowed to him.

My first Awakin Circle lesson: we share silence here; we acknowledge and honor the divine in each other.

Dinesh silently showed me into the living room. There was a large circle of cushions on the floor, and a few seats on couches and benches against the walls. I felt embarrassed. It had been years since I had sat for any length of time on a cushion on the floor, and imagined it would be quite uncomfortable. On the other hand, who was I to assume the privilege of sitting in one of the comfortable chairs? Dinesh, seeing my dilemma, silently guided me to one of the chairs and invited me to sit.

My second lesson: here we care for each other with kindness and generosity.

What an extraordinary experience that hour of silence was! The mind was wandering to all kinds of places. In the weeks that followed, as I continued to come back week after week, I would gradually come to understand that that was really the point: to learn to observe the wandering mind and emotions without being attached. And to open to something larger. But what was most extraordinary to me, sitting for an hour with a room full of strangers, sharing the space, sharing the silence, sharing the collective energy of which we were all part, was the intimacy. In a way that I hadn’t expected, how connected we all seemed!

My third lesson: the power of simply sitting together in silence.

Then it came time for the circle of sharing. Each week there’s a passage that gets read – eclectically sourced from teachers and people of wisdom around the world – followed by the opportunity for all of us to share our reflections.

There were roughly 50 of us in the room. “How much time do we each have?” the circle anchor asked. “53 seconds!” said Hafiz, smiling.

There would be no signal to each of us when our time was up; we each got to self-monitor. As a life-long facilitator of circles and group conversations, I was interested in how this would work. It turns out that some people spoke way longer than their allotted time, and that made me uncomfortable. I thought, is this fair? How will everyone get their turn?

But what happened was remarkable. When someone would speak for a long time, typically the next several people would speak very briefly, or pass. Most people seemed unattached to how much time they had to speak.

“How does this work?” I asked Nipun later. “My experience is that when one person is long winded, others get nervous and want to claim their space to speak as well.”

Nipun smiled. “When we sit for an hour in silence together, we get connected,” he said. “It may not always be conscious, but our behavior changes. There’s a shift from me to we.” Later I’ll learn that there’s more to it. It’s not only about the hour of silence each week. It’s also about the giving spirit of kindness and generosity with which people here consistently treat each other. It starts with the conscious intention and practice of the Mehta family, and ripples through all of us.

Lesson number four: in a community infused with kindness and generosity, where people sit in silence together, there is less ego and more caring.

Finally there was the third hour, the wonderful meal served to us by Harshida and the team of volunteers working with her in the kitchen. As I got to the front of the line Harshida, whom I had never met before, looked me in the eye, smiled most warmly, handed me my plate of food with both hands, and silently gestured to make sure I had as much of each kind of food as I wanted. Wow! Later, as we were all sitting in silence at the various tables, eating, she and others came around with more trays of food to offer us seconds, and thirds.

Later when I walked up to thank her for her generosity, she simply shrugged and said, “Thank you for coming to our home and spending the evening with us!” Harshida has a full-time job at a bank. Yet somehow, every week for the past 21 years, she’s found the time to clean and prepare her house, and prepare a meal for 50 people. I’ve heard Nipun tell the story many times about how his mother, with complete sincerity, will say to anyone who thanks her, “Thank you for coming to be with us!” Why? Because it is we, her guests, who give Harshida the opportunity to serve. Wow!

Lesson number five: for someone totally committed to service to others, giving is it’s own reward.

After the meal there was time for people to interact and speak with each other. I found that, having shared the past three hours with 50 strangers, random conversations happened quite easily that were warm, friendly and comfortable. I was surprised at how quickly these conversations could get deep and intimate, and how those of us from very different backgrounds could discover important things we had in common.

Lesson number six: the Awakin Circle tills the soil for beautiful friendships to grow.

My final lesson didn’t arrive until a few weeks later, as I was starting to learn more about the scope of the ServiceSpace community. Awakin Circles all over the world. Global Awakin Calls each week, Karma Kitchen gift-economy restaurant meals all over the world, DailyGood good-news publication, and so much more.

“This is all too much for me to get my mind around,” I said to Nipun. “I don’t understand how it’s all happening!”

Nipun laughed. “If you told me you understood ServiceSpace, I’d know you didn’t!”

So I’m learning to live with the wisdom of not always needing to understand. And to pay attention instead to stilling the mind and finding small ways to serve others. And that makes all the difference.  

Three Weeks

It is written that King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. It stood for about four centuries before being destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. After the Hebrew exiles returned from Babylon in 539 BCE, they built the Second Temple, which lasted over 500 years before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. According to tradition both were destroyed at this time of the year, called the Three Weeks (17 Tammuz – 9 Av on the Hebrew calendar). Every year we observe the Three Weeks as a time of mourning and solemn reflection.

In ancient times the rabbis reflected on the question: what are we to learn from the destruction of the Temples? Their inquiry took them to two themes: what we value, and how we treat each other.

Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9B:

The First Temple, why was it destroyed? For three things within it: idol worship, sexual transgression, and bloodshed.

But the Second Temple, where they were immersed in Torah, mitzvot, and acts of lovingkindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was senseless hatred. This comes to teach that the weight of senseless hatred is equivalent [to the total of all the other three].
(Oral tradition committed to writing around 5th century CE)

This year with the Three Weeks falling on June 30 – July 21, I’ve been reflecting on events in the U.S. today. A national government that no longer represents the majority of its citizens, wantonly engaging in senseless hatred, cruelty, destructiveness.

In the U.S. our “holy temple” has been in the values and ideals of American democracy. Although we’ve been painfully slow to live up to these ideals, they’ve always served as the guiding light that unites us, and toward which we, the American people, aspire and progress. But today my heart is breaking as I stand by helplessly, forced to watch the daily destruction of our democracy.

Is this the “Three Weeks” for America? Am I exaggerating? Can we still save our country?

Soon I’ll be joining with thousands of Americans in California and across the country to do what we can to help save our democracy by helping people vote in the coming election. But for now I’m sitting quietly with the question: what can we learn from the Three Weeks about the right course of action for today?

Ibn Ezra commenting on Leviticus 19:17:

“Don’t hate your brother.”

This is the inverse of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Behold how these mitzvot, both of them, are planted in the heart. And those who cultivate them shall remain in the land. Because it was senseless hatred that destroyed the Second Temple.
(Spain, 12th century CE)

Rav Kook

Since we destroyed ourselves and the world through senseless hatred, then surely we can restore ourselves and the world through senseless love.
Orot Hakodesh (Holy Lights), Israel, 1938

Rabbi DovBer Pinson:
[The Three Weeks] is a harsh time to be sure, a time of Din / judgment, yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, it is also a time where we can more easily feel close to [God]…. It becomes clear that all of our sufferings are meant to wake us up to our higher self and purpose, if we but heed the call.
(The Months of Tammuz and Av, U.S., 2018)

Breslover Hassidim
Senseless love is good for the world!
(20th century)