You may be surprised to learn that your rabbi has very fond Christmas memories. Most of my childhood was spent living in expatriate communities where the art of socializing was held in the highest esteem right up there with cultural sensitivity, and being a good packer. As the Christmas season approached, the party planning reached epic proportions. Though both my parents were Jewish, the highlight of the holiday calendar was the annual Christmas party at the Greenberg’s home (my maiden name). How did this happen? Because my parents worked at the international schools, we straddled the finely drawn borders of embassy and business interests, Peace Corps and military, missionaries and academics, local and foreigners who made up this bizarre community. Furthermore, my father was an extraordinary musician who traveled around the world with a grand piano. I don’t ever remember any party that did not center around him tickling the ivories, and folks gathered around belting out Christmas carols and show tunes. He could play anything, if you just hummed a couple of notes, he would launch right in. My mother loved playing the hostess. I remember elaborate smorgasbords with little Swedish meatballs and fancy toothpicks, almond spritz cookies that we kids got to help make, luminarios lining the walkways, ravishing poinsettias bigger and brighter than their scrawny cousins here, even mariachi bands. As children, the four of us felt the excitement of the preparations, the pride as the house filled recognizing important guests, the wonder as adults transformed after a few cocktails into funny versions of themselves, the buzz of conversation punctuated by laughter and the glow of candlelight that made it all seem magical. As long as we stayed out of the way, we were allowed to stay up late, sneaking food, observing outfits and eavesdropping on gossip. This was the 60’s and 70’s; there were lots of sideburns, big hair, and a sense of carefree confidence. This was my Christmas. No snow, no malls, but most notably, no conflict.
As Christmas approaches here, the thing I miss the most, besides my parents and big sister, is the sheer joy of celebration. I am sorry if this story offends those who know that this holiday commemorates the birth of Christ and what I just described borders on the pagan. I am sorry if this story offends those who know that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and your rabbi did. But in truth, this nostalgic reflection reminds me of how we have elevated conflict and superficiality over goodwill. Recently, I saw a crèche, and a few feet apart, a large menorah. They looked like they were having a stand-off. I had to laugh. I knew I would soon be getting the annual phone calls, and emails, or reading editorials about who is offended by what piece of plastic or aluminum situated on which piece of grass. Righteous voices will express concern about civil rights and separation of church and state. Everything from songs and greetings to the color of the sprinkles on cupcakes at school (red and green vs. blue and white) will be grist for the mill.
I get it and at the same time I don’t. I feel as Jewish eating a candy cane as I do a Snickers bar. I am a Jew if someone says “Merry Christmas” to me or “Happy Holidays.” My identity is not disturbed whether I sing Jingle Bells or Hava Nagilah. Sometimes I wish those who put so much energy into decrying the Christmas spirit in the name of Judaism put as much effort into Torah study, social action, caring about Israel or supporting their local synagogue. I understand the concerns we face living as a minority in a country that is predominantly Christian. However, let’s balance these fears. I place them next to the goodwill of my neighbors, the delight of my senses in the smells, sights and sounds at this time of year and in my unshakeable confidence that I am a Jew.
Rabbi Leah Cohen
Temple B’nai Chaim, Georgetown, CT, December 2012