Tag Archives: Christmas

The Dybbuk of Christmas Past

By Matthew Kassel

Christmas doesn’t mean much to me anymore, though for the first ten years of my life, it was my favorite holiday. Pretty standard, even for a Jewish child, to be drawn in with eager spirit by that yuletide festivity. But you might wonder: why only ten years?

In my fourth year of elementary school, my parents decided that our family would stop celebrating Christmas, and that abrupt halt, to me, signaled the end of an era. Why were we, a secular Jewish family, celebrating this holiday in the first place? Well, as a child, my mom adored Christmas; she celebrated the holiday every year with her paternal grandmother. (My grandfather, her dad, converted to Judaism for my grandmother, a child of Depression-era Brownsville.)

Growing up, my mom was drawn in by the whole Christian aesthetic—not the Jesus stuff, but the sentimentality, the songs, the cookies. I think she wanted to share that with me and my brother and my dad, because it was a part of her.

We observed Hanukkah as a cultural rite, with a menorah and prayer and latkes. (We still do.) But I remember savoring Christmas more—the mystery and excitement of it all—and it’s hard for me to explain why my parents put an end to it. There was the obvious monetary challenge of doing two gift-heavy holidays at once. Then there remained the more ambiguous reason. We were becoming a Jewish family—my brother had just had his bar mitzvah—and celebrating Christmas didn’t seem to make sense anymore. That’s not to say I wanted it to stop at the time, but I don’t remember putting up any sort of fight.

My mom has a funny and slightly sad anecdote from her childhood. As a young girl, she asked her mother if their family was “church” or “temple.” When my grandmother authoritatively replied with a “temple,” my mom got upset, telling her that wasn’t what she wanted.  Too bad, my grandmother replied. That’s the way it is.

I remember waking up the first morning without Christmas and feeling this sort of emptiness that, in retrospect, reads as slightly funny and slightly tragic at the same time. The mystery was gone. It was too bad, as my grandmother might put it. But a new mystery had been put in its place.

For a few years after my parents put an end to Christmas, we still put stockings on the mantle the night before. It wasn’t the same without the tree, the morning excitement, the gleeful gentility of it all. I figured, with some regret, that we couldn’t go back. But frankly, I’m not sure if I’d want to now, even though I still envy the holiday.

Christmas is, however tenuously, a part of my past. I can’t ignore it.  I’m still drawn in by the anticipation, the cozy insularity of the holiday.  The difference for the last thirteen years of my life has been that Christmas now makes me feel like an outsider.

What I didn’t know that first morning I woke up without Christmas was that the combined absence and presence of a holiday I had come to love, the push and pull of two opposing yet highly enmeshed worlds, could have, for the first time in my life, presented me with a clue to what being Jewish might mean.

O Come, All Ye Chosen

Mid-November means that it’s officially pumpkin spice latte and peppermint mocha season at Starbucks. (What, you don’t measure time by the seasonal offerings of national coffee chains? You don’t know what you’re missing.) That also means that it’s time for the Starbucks holiday cups, those red, snowflake-bedecked beacons of wintry tidings. A Moment employee who spends many of her non-working hours lugging her laptop from one DC Starbucks to another, dismayed that the cups teetered into Christmas territory, sent the following email to Starbucks:

I love the seasonal coffee cups – when I was at school in Boston it made the winters a little more festive, and red is admittedly my favorite color. But I was wondering if you’ve ever considered doing a Hanukkah themed cup – maybe in metropolitan areas where there are large Jewish communities? The Jewish people have contributed much to the American ethos and American history – I think it would be a wonderful thing to acknowledge the festive traditions of an American community that has played such a role in our nation’s history. And while certainly not everyone in large metropolitan areas is Jewish, I know a lot of friends of mine of various faiths would be delighted by the idea and the inclusiveness, and it would be a great way for parents to introduce the topic of different religions to their children. Just a thought!

Yes, folks. Coffee cups at Starbucks: this is what keeps Moment employees up at night.

But, look! Starbucks wrote back! Will the Hanukkah miracles never end?

I think that your request for Hanukkah cup is a great idea.  What I am going to do is forward this to our Marketing team for their consideration.

We definitely want to provide items for a wide variety of customers, and we always want to hear what you think would improve your experience with Starbucks.  I appreciate you letting me know how much customers would enjoy this.

Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to improve what we do.

So if you see any blue-and-white, menorah-spangled cups at Starbucks, you’ll know who to thank.

My First Christmas, Again

by Steven Philp

This past Saturday my family sat around the Christmas tree to unwrap presents. We have a particular system when it comes to opening gifts; it takes careful timing and distribution to make sure that each person has something to open, that no one runs out of presents before anyone else. However, this year my pile was conspicuously small. The thing is, I had already opened most of my gifts earlier that month when my mother sent me a few things for Hanukkah. We had saved a few so that I wouldn’t be left out of the festivities. Yet, this was my first Christmas as a rabbi-certified Jew-by-choice; I was bound to be a little out of place.

While most Jews spend December 25th eating Chinese food with their friends and families, there are a handful of us who schlep across the country to visit relatives who observe the Christmas holiday with religious fervor. And unlike other converts who have started their own Jewish families, we make these trips alone: the only Jew among a crowd of Christians. This trip can be daunting; my own family was not excited about the prospect of my conversion. In fact, my mother had let the cat out of the bag the year before, during our traditional Christmas brunch. After arguing for a couple of hours, we agreed to disagree; the conversation was tabled for a later date, and I was sent home with a pile of books arguing for the saving power of Jesus.

That this particular Christmas coincided with Shabbat made it particularly appropriate for the negotiation between my new identity as a Jew and my desire to spend time with my family. If I went to services on Friday night, I was going to be late for Christmas Eve dinner. And if I wanted to daven the next morning, I was going to miss opening presents. My mom and I developed a compromise: I would attend ma’ariv but not shacharit.  Even then, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to my evangelical Christian relatives why I was showing up late for dinner.

I’m always a little nervous going to a new synagogue alone; nobody likes to be the stranger in a strange congregation.  Thankfully, Temple B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA welcomed me with warm curiosity. I fended the usual questions: where I was from, what I do to keep myself busy, who I was visiting in the area. And then: why wasn’t my family here with me? Well, I explained, they are back home celebrating Christmas. I was met by blank stares, so I continued, because my family is Christian. A few of the older congregants looked confused, if not a bit uncomfortable. So I decided to come clean: I’m a Jew-by-choice. The confusion gave way to a bevy of comments, good-natured and congratulatory, which had to be interrupted by the cantor because we were already ten minutes behind schedule.

The next morning my mom, stepfather and I arrived at my uncle’s house for Christmas brunch. Looking at their front yard, you would think that they had taken it upon themselves to unilaterally keep the “Christ” in “Christmas”: between the lights and the plastic reindeers were reminders of the holiday’s spiritual significance, captured best by a large sign staked in their front yard reading: “Happy Birthday Jesus.” In fact, this particular message was echoed throughout their house, even framed in the guest bathroom next to the red-and-green hand towels. I made myself useful by helping my aunt in the kitchen. The year prior, she had been particularly resistant to the idea of my conversion. So you can imagine my surprise when she asked if I was keeping kosher, in addition to being a vegetarian. I explained that I was the former insofar as I was the latter.

After clearing piles of wrapping paper and ribbons from the living room floor, we sat around the table to enjoy another December tradition: my great-grandmother’s chipped beef. That is, all of my relatives ate it; you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that chipped beef – a viscous puddle of aged beef, cream and butter – is not kosher.  Couple that with the fact that I haven’t eaten meat in five years, and I was relegated to eating the side dishes. But then, from the kitchen, my aunt emerged with a bowl of fruit and yogurt. She apologized for not having something better for me to eat. But the food mattered less than her effort to accommodate my needs. I realized that this experience – my first Christmas as a Jew – was not only my own, but shared among my family. As I was negotiating the space between my faith community of choice and that of my birth, so too were my relatives. And just as I was nervous about coming to the table that year, I suspect that each of them felt a bit of trepidation as well. Yet this is what Christmas is all about: to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Jew – divine or human – who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves, even when that stranger is in your own family.

An Interest in Hanukkah? Jon Stewart Sings!

By Mandy Katz

Hanukah caroler Jon Stewart

Hanukkah caroler Jon Stewart

“Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?” may be the first ever TV ditty sung a due by Jon Stewart and fellow faux-newsie Stephen Colbert. It’s part of Colbert’s upcoming TV special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All, airing Sunday on Comedy Central. Audio of the duet aired yesterday on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air — you can hear it on the show’s website (click “Listen Now” and skip to minute 7:07). Sample lyric: “Yes, indeed, 8 days of presents, which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.”

Colbert, the show’s host and selfdescribed “broadcasting legend,” also sings his own original carols. After all, the crusty newsman explains, perched on a piano bench in a cozy cardigan sweater, every time we hear one of those other, familiar, Yuletide standards, “someone else gets the royalty check. That doesn’t sound like Christmas to me.”

Colbert’s got some stage chops you would never have guessed at: a little soft-shoe, a cozy baritone. Stewart’s voice, too, isn’t half-bad. But he’s no Joseph Shlisky.

Photo by ninjapoodles.

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