Chanukah Confession

Chanukah and Christmas have obvious similarities: 1) They both fall in December, 2) They both delight the shareholders and managers of retail businesses, 3) They're both lighthearted holidays that don't sufficiently emphasize their religious/historical origins - to the chagrin of serious worshipers, and 4) Both festivals love light. Jews light candles. Christians light up evergreen trees. And finally, the two celebrations are both followed by a flood of bankruptcy filings by Christian and Jewish families who have blown the December budget on munificent gifts to kids who will forget their parents' phone number as soon as they grow up and leave home. But still, let me confess to my fellow Jews. I like Christmas.

My family has long been aware of this weakness and attributed it to my peculiar form of ecumenical insanity; an eccentricity (that's MY word - theirs is "nutty") about Judeo-Christian relationships. But my Jewish friends - most of them - don't dream I'm a Christmas lover.

I can't help it. I know that I should feel "uncomfortable" - a word most of my Jewish friends use frequently this last week in December. 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. Not a bad way to feel, I reply. I guarantee you that Moses and Elijah felt uncomfortable. So did Esther and Ruth and those agitated Maccabee brothers. Serene, comfortable people go to the shop everyday - make a living - stay out of jail - grow old and die. Their obituary never makes it to the history books.

This prickly feeling of alienation is not unique to 21st Century American Jewry. We've had three thousand years of practice in building sea walls around our island. 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" mitzvot (dictates) in the Pentateuch that accent and advertise our uniqueness - have 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 Tsimmes, next to their baked ham on the Christmas table; an owl in their 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. So, one reason I like Christmas is its reminder that we are different. I like to remind my children of this, too.

We have an island mentality. Sure we're isolated, but for three millennia we have sent our intellectual explorers around the cultural currents of the world. Christmas reminds me of that, too. "White Christmas", "Chestnuts Roasting on the Fire", and piles of Yuletide films and plays and books; and most significantly the child who's the centerpiece of this adoration - all Jewish products. Even the generous fat man in the red and white suit borrowed his ubiquity from Elijah, our messenger of hope who visits 10 million Jewish homes in a single Pesach night. Tell your kids that, too.

All this first 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 revelations. Well before public awareness of Jesus the Jew. But I understood that whatever historical or even current antagonism existed between the two sister religions; "this "Little Lord Jesus" they sang of - he was one of US. They were singing hymns of praise to a Jew who never knew the word "Christian" in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. This greatly relieved my discomfort.

But if you ARE one of the Yuletide uncomfortables on Christmas Eve, you should warm yourself with a nice cup of tea (flavored by a spoonful or two of bourbon, maybe) 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 that is Christmas. How could it be otherwise - its origins are Israelite Jerusalem.

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, fellow Jews, lighten up. If you really want to be depressed, wait for Tishu B'av.