The most intriguing thing for me as I sit and write this is the question continuously going through my mind. Although I write this for everyone, is this piece more important for those close to me who are Jewish, or those close to me who are not? Maybe I’ll have my answer by the time I finish it, but for now let me first begin by wishing all those who celebrate the holiday a very Merry Christmas.
Now that I may have lost the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Atheists among the readers let me continue.
Let me begin by stating the obvious. Jesus, as we all know, was Jewish. So being Jewish on Christmas is a complicated concept to begin with. This past week I had a mini debate with someone who insisted that Jesus converted to Christianity. I insisted that was not true. This person insisted they were told that in school, while I assured them they were never told any such thing. Now of course I can’t be sure what the teachers actually said, but to the best of my understanding Jesus lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. Christianity was the religion formed from those who followed him and believed him to be the Messiah as understood by Jewish teachings. To the best of my understanding Jesus never turned away from Judaism, he just created a following of those who felt he was the Messiah, or Savior which subsequently caused him to be seen as a problem by many in the Jewish hierarchy, an issue that causes some to accuse the Jews of killing Jesus, even though in reality it was the Romans.
Now that I may have lost the ignorant and anti-Semitic among the readers let me continue further.
I was very fortunate to grow up in a household that was, in many ways open-minded. Christmas decorations, movies, and music were all appreciated for their beauty and not seen as a threat to our religious makeup. The result of this is me being an adult Jewish male capable of enjoying the atmosphere in households with Christmas trees, decorations and Christmas music and lights. It’s all very nice and uncomplicated and allows me to enjoy whatever situation I am thrown into, or dare I say even pursue this time of year. What all this does not do is answer the one question. What does it mean to be Jewish on Christmas?
Well the first answer is very simply, it depends on the person. I know that to some Jewish people it means nothing. Although some do find it diametrically opposed to all they believe in, for many of those that fall into this category it is not something negative, merely something insignificant. I understand this point of view because to those who focus entirely on the religious aspect, Christmas is something to be celebrated only by those who believe in Jesus being more than a man. I remember a trip I took to London that included me being there on December 25th. The majority of my friends, people who I went to an Orthodox Jewish day school with, were getting together with their families for “Christmas dinner”. In fact I was told that in the days leading up to Christmas the Kosher butchers sold turkeys by the dozens and ended up selling out of them completely. To these friends of mine this was clearly not a religious pursuit, rather it was an opportunity to get together with their family and have good food and some fun. Not unlike Thanksgiving Day in the United States.
I dare say that to some Jews there may even exist a phenomenon that could be called Christmas envy. It is why sometimes we say Merry Christmas first, just to get a “same to you” response. After all, who wants to be excluded from “good will to all men”? I sure as hell know I don’t.
Now that I may have lost those who feel the use of the word “hell” is inappropriate and not Godly let me conclude.
I like Christmas. It is a nice holiday, filled with good food, pretty sights and the best of intentions. If you believe as I do, that the major difference between Jews and Catholics is really only whether or not the next coming is the first one or the second, you have no trouble with any of the religious significance. When no religiously motivated hatred exists on either side, all that really matters is the fact that people are getting together with those they care about, or at the very least like enough to be at a party with. For many Catholics who indeed celebrate Christmas, the religious significance is not what is even important to them about the holiday. Instead it’s the decorations, food, and family, making it not at all complicated for me to justify my enjoying it as well.
So to all of you who celebrate, or to those of you like me who have a good time any time I am invited to be part of the celebration, Merry Christmas.
And should there be any out there who I lost at this point because they felt that as a Jew I should not be so comfortable in speaking of the beauty that can surround Christmas, I urge you to read the following excerpt from the book “Jew Face”. It is indeed one of my personal favorite excerpts and speaks of my parents and their experience on Christmas Eve 1944 in what was then Nazi-occupied Holland.
Excerpt from “Jew Face”:
It had been close to a year now since Sipora had arrived in Lemerlerveld, and although she hoped and prayed that she would not have to live out her days in the conditions in which she currently found herself, the te Kieftes had been extraordinary in their treatment of her and Nardus, and the people of the village had made her feel as much at home as they were able to under the circumstances.
There was no hatred toward the Jewish people in Lemerlerveld. However, being that the population of the town was mainly Protestant, Jewish practices, customs, and holidays were not part of the life here, and living there meant that Nardus and Sipora could not practice their faith. With the positive treatment they received, they were welcomed by Bertus and Geeske, as well as their family and friends, to celebrate their events and holidays.
So on December 24, 1944, as the German forces had fallen in the south, and the Allies moved closer to what they all hoped would be the end of the brutal occupation of Europe, Nardus and Sipora were invited to join the Christmas Eve dinner and celebration at the Oosterwegels household.
For one night, it felt like all the horror, sadness, and tragedy was frozen in time. The night was a special one. The atmosphere was wonderful. The home was filled with the warm glow of candles and the aroma of a special meal. The guest list was a mix of people from town, Bertus and Geeske with their two children, Bertus’s brother with his family, underground activists, Communists, and Nardus and Sipora. Maybe the specter of an impending Allied victory made the evening more special, but the warmth and joy present on this night was something neither Nardus nor Sipora would ever forget.
There are days, events, and situations when the world feels like one place, when people who come from different backgrounds and different beliefs come together under God’s watchful eye and show that even with all the force and determination of evil forces, good still survives and, on occasion, even thrives. When the manner in which you worship takes a back seat to the basic fact that you do worship. And all that has happened and will happen doesn’t matter for those moments that get frozen in time, bring joy to many, and give everyone the hope that there will be a reason to continue on with life’s efforts.
Christmas Eve 1944 in Lemerlerveld, in the Oosterwegel household, was one of those nights, and Sipora and Nardus were glad to be part of it.