I have a Chanukah confession to make. I like Christmas. My family has long been aware of my weakness and attributed it to my peculiar form of insanity; an eccentricity (that’s MY word - theirs is “nutty”) about Judeo-Christian affairs
I can’t help it. I know that I should feel “uncomfortable” month of December. A word many of my Jewish friends use. Why uncomfortable? I suppose because the season is full of reminders that numerically we’re a small island in a dominant sea of Christianity. Makes us feel “different”, they say. This uncomfortable sense of alienation is not unique to 21st Century American Jewry. We have lived as a minority within the grasp of every significant society that has molded the mind of Western man. Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Angle-Saxon, to name a few. And our defenses - those 613 “weird” dictates in the Torah – the Penteteuch - that accented and advertised our uniqueness - worked to perfection. The Christmas season, when the air is heavy with carols and bells and Christmas greetings, is the mildest of challenges.
Admit it. We’re a bowl of Latkes. Potato pancakes, next to the baked ham on the Christmas table; an owl in the Pear Tree. And as Gerard Manley Hopkins, a great Christian poet says, “Glory be to God for dappled things” - by which he means diversity - a recently rediscovered concept.
Sure we’re a minority. But we sent our intellectual explorers around the cultural currents of the world. Christmas reminds me of that, too. “White Christmas” by Izzy Ballin (Irving Berlin) and piles of Yuletide films and plays and books; and most significantly the child who’s the centerpiece of this adoration - all Jewish products. Maybe it’s a proud season for us.
This all dawned on me one December afternoon in 1938. Me and the rest of my third grade class were singing Christmas carols. “Noel, Noel, born is the King of Iiiiiisrael.” I was - as usual - shall we say Uncomfortable. Those alien songs underlined my lack of credentials for the affection of Betty Ann McIntosh. I didn’t have enough trouble - once a year for two full weeks she was reminded that I was some exotic species different from her own.
Then I heard more clearly the words of the song - “Born is the King of Israel”. Hey, this lyric had something to do with me and my kind.
Most of the kids didn’t even know what “Israel” meant. I explained it to classmates and did a little PR work in the process. This was a couple of decades before the Dead Sea Scroll excitement. Well before public awareness of Jesus the Jew: “the Little Lord Jesus” was one of us. They were singing hymns of praise to a Jew! He never knew the word “Christian” in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. This greatly relieved my discomfort. It still does.
But if you ARE one of the Yuletide uncomfortables, Christmas Eve you should warm yourself with a nice cup of tea and think; isn’t it amazing that my team is less than 2% of this nation, yet there’s the echo of klezmer music in the Christmas bells and a Jewish flavor to every course of the Yuletide feast, which is Christmas.
I like the music and the food. The lights, too. And best of all, the rare attention paid to civility and kindness. I think it’s a season when Christians earnestly examine their behavior and try to improve it. It’s a Christian Yom Kippur.
And as to those who talk about the materialism of Christmas; well it all depends on what kind of spectacles you’re wearing. Giving away your December paycheck in the form of gifts to others seems to me an excess of generosity, not the acquisition mania that characterizes materialism. So lighten up and thank the Lord that we live in the good ol’ USA and the knock at the door is only the mailman deliveriing a Chanukah present.
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