Tag Archives: Christmas

Celebrate vs. Participate

Christmas raises the perennial questions in the American Jewish community: Can we be part of holidays that are not our own? Natalie Portman demonstrated a way for our interfaith families to do it as she explained to Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show, November 29, 2016 (the 28th or 29th of Cheshvan, depending).

We Jews invite others into our tent all the time. The Jewish sense of hospitality is to welcome the stranger, without regard to their particular beliefs. We welcome everyone into our Sukkah; the Shabbat dinner table is open as well. So what happens when the tables are turned? How do we accept the mitzvah of their hospitality, even when particular beliefs do not coincide with our own? When the Jewish world meets other faiths or traditions, there are borders and boundaries that need to be navigated.

How might we participate if we are not able to fully celebrate?

American Christmas begs this question. The basis for the holiday is, of course, the Christian belief in the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful and beautiful message of God’s love and hopes for the world. But it is not our theology. However, the commercial interests in our country have continued to secularize the holiday and as traditional boundaries between religions have become more porous, Christmas has permeated the American landscape. All in all, a holiday dedicated to “peace on earth” and “goodwill toward men” is not a bad thing to embrace and arguably the real problem with these sentiments is that they do not endure throughout the entire year. Furthermore, although many Jews have spouses that convert to Judaism, Jews are intermarrying. Both of these realities create a space in which non-Jewish family traditions and beliefs come up against Jewish traditions and beliefs. And in an increasingly open culture, many Jews would like to enjoy the spirit of the holiday.

Christmas has become an American holiday for many, including many American Jews. The theology has been all but completely stripped away for many, and for the others, the theology is greeted as something non-threatening. The question for us is whether we engage. And if we engage, how do we do so while keeping our own sense of authenticity. For couples that come from different faith traditions, such as Natalie Portman’s, she shows us how to honor our birth families and celebrate together. Although Ms. Portman’s husband, Benjamin Millepied, converted, his family has not. The two of them have respectfully brought the two families together without sacrificing their chosen identity. For some Jews, this is not a conversation in which they care to engage. But for those of us who live in this space, and those numbers are steadily increasing, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to connect, build bridges, and find common ground. If we do, the possibilities are extraordinary.

Happy Holidays!

Shabbat Shalom and Merry Christmas

dovesThis year Shabbat and Christmas coincide.

 Although our theologies are different, Jews and Christians share values of the Divine; this is a time of peace, love and hope, a taste of the world to come. This year, as we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, we continue to build bridges of learning and understanding. We are finding opportunities in what we share even as we celebrate our differences. As it was for the visiting Angels for Shabbat in the song Shalom Aleichem, so too we pray, “May this always be so.”Shabbat Angels


Wishing our Christian brothers and sisters  a very Merry Christmas and to my fellow Jews a Shabbat of peace and wholeness.

Appropriate or Participate?

NatlMenorahTree Historically, Jews have been actively influenced by the cultures in which we have lived. We learn and borrow from the cultures we live along side. Often our holidays are influenced by these civilizations. Today in the United States we also have the opportunity to take part in national celebrations as full-fledged Americans. How do we, as modern American Jews, engage in rituals that bind Americans together? How do we participate without risking our identity? We have done it with Thanksgiving, but can we do it with Christmas?

 There are now effectively two Christmases in the United States. There is Traditional Christmas and there is American Christmas. Traditional Christmas is the religious celebration of the birth of Christ. It is an event with deep meaning for those of the Christian faith. The themes of Divine Love, Peace on Earth and Goodwill are universal values at the core of this deeply religious and holy holiday.

 Traditional Christmas is properly the purview of Christians. We cannot presume to enter that space, only respectfully watch from the outside. However, secular American Christmas has become a quintessentially American holiday. It has been reframed and modified into an earthly and commercial season that traditionally started with Santa arriving in front of Macy’s during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and continuing with other markers including the major retail events known as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

 American Christmas is a secular event that builds on the values of Traditional Christmas but has been reimagined through a secular and highly commercialized lens. Stripped of its religious elements, American Christmas embraces the joy and other positive emotions of the holiday. Christmas Trees, festive lights and decorations, Rockefeller Center, the windows of Lord & Taylor, Rudolf, Santa Claus, Burl Ives, Irving Berlin, Christmas Songs of all kinds. The list goes on and on.

 American Christmas is a time for good cheer, holiday parties, gift giving, family gathering, tree decorating. It has greatly influenced and elevated our celebration of Chanukah. A message of goodwill towards all, peace and love still underlies the season. The promotion of these universal values is something we might actively embrace. Interestingly, we already do it from the other side.

 Chanukah has become one of the most popular celebrated Jewish holidays. This is in response to the overwhelming presence of Christmas but also because we have actively promoted Chanukah as part of the American landscape. There is hardly a public square that does not contain a large menorah. Chabad is ubiquitous, lighting the Chanukiah across America from the Washington Mall to the Suburban Square Shopping Center on the Main Line in Philadelphia. Dreidels and Latkes have become part of the American consciousness. Chanukah is promoted as a proclamation of Judaism as a public good, espousing universal values for all to embrace. As we have given the gift of Chanukah to America, can we accept the gift of American Christmas?GiftsunderTree

 We claim to be a nation that shuns the boundaries that separate us. Our millennial generation has embraced that message. And they have an important point, for we can maintain our identity while sharing with others. Opportunities to bring us together as a human family are too few and deeply needed. We often find ourselves separated from others by fears and prejudices that could and should be set aside. Sharing the universal messages of American Christmas with our fellow citizens might be an opportunity to build bridges that deepen our relationships.  For our sake let’s celebrate and embrace the holiday season.

 Happy Holidays, Chag Sameach and Merry Christmas!

Happy Holidays

TurkeyWhen is it okay to participate in holidays traditionally reserved for others?

 Most of us are preparing for Thanksgiving. We have embraced Thanksgiving as the quintessential American holiday, and as such, we will be planning travel to visit other relatives, prepare a bountiful table and of course watch the Macy’s parade in the morning and football thereafter. American Jews embrace Thanksgiving, just like all other Americans, but we struggle with other American holidays. Although almost all of us celebrate Thanksgiving, many of us still wrestle with Halloween and most of us would not consider celebrating Christmas.

 These three holidays are iconic parts of living in America. And all three share religious backstories. Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ is certainly the most obvious. Halloween is grounded in pagan rituals and Thanksgiving is essentially a Christian Sukkot, rooted in a Christian religious tradition of gratitude for God’s bounty. What makes the secularization of this holiday such that we are able to embrace it and celebrate, stripping it of its original grounding and retelling the story in a way that it can become ours, and why are we unable to do likewise with the others?

 Many of us kept our children from Trick-or-Treating worried that dressing up in a costume and participating was an affirmation of a pagan ritual of witches and warlocks. However, Halloween has been stripped of its religious meaning. I read recently how one rabbi used a creative Jewish lens through which the celebration included sharing excess candy collected by her children with the less fortunate. One of my fonder memories is taking my son by the hand, dressed in a costume that mom created, while I was dressed up as a giant hamburger. The only bad part of Halloween was the stomach-ache and crash after my sugar high from over indulgence.

 Christmas is a more complicated situation. But in this age of acculturation, interfaith couples and of course commercialization, there are places where we can enjoy the holiday. I say that very cautiously and carefully because I do not want to be disrespectful of those that hold this as a sacred holiday. However, the Coca-Cola inspired Santa Claus and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer both pale in comparison when I faithfully listen as Bing Crosby sings White Christmas in the movie of the same name (Bing also sang it in Holiday Inn). Irving Berlin’s classic homage yearns for us to be able to embrace this American holiday as our own. As many of you know, coming from an interfaith background, I am familiar with the beauty of a family gathering, honoring my grandmother, and sharing gifts on a day devoted to love and togetherness. We as modern American Jews need to figure it out.  And in our own unique way, we have already begun.

National Menorah Lighting

National Menorah Lighting on the Mall

 We have substantially ramped up the Chanukah holiday celebration.  This is however a contrived response to a Christmas in which we long to participate. Without reservation I fully support the increase in joy we bring to our “minor” religious holiday including the latkes, Chanukah cards, 8 days of presents, parties and so on.  We go a step further in our “Chinese food and a movie” ritual on December 25. The question is whether we maintain a fictional “Chinese wall” separating holidays, holding steadfast to our modern re-interpretation of Chanukah, or can we consider an American Secular Christmas?  I submit that celebrating one holiday does not preclude the other, nor does such a celebration threaten our core beliefs. Instead, acknowledging Christmas in a modern American Jewish context can bring us in closer alignment with the Jewish dream of acceptance in America and more importantly, serve as a significant learning opportunity to share with our children what these holidays might mean metaphorically and Jewishly.

 Happy Holidays and Chag Sameach!

I Love Santa

I love Santa. As a boy growing up, my mom would dress me in my “Sunday Best” and take me to Macy’s to sit on the big guy’s lap and tell him about all the stuff I was supposed to get. This lovely tradition stopped when I started checking each Santa to see if the beard was real. The presents and the love however did not cease. Even way back then, Santa was an American experience that I enjoyed and fondly remember.

The Santa Claus experience was not rooted in my maternal line of Orthodox and Conservative Jewish generations preceding my mother. On my father’s side however, my Grandmother, a Southern Baptist, embraced Christmas and helped to push the borders of Judaism in our world.

My Grandma was a lady, full of grace in every sense of the words. She was elegant, kind, sweet, devoted and deeply loving. My grandfather and she fell in love while he was on the road as a traveling salesman staying in my great-grandmother’s boarding house in Dallas, TX (a wonderful story unto itself). They eventually returned with a child in tow to the Orthodox world of the Jewish Bronx. But Grandma never converted.   Grandpa once remarked that he would never ask that of her, and for reasons of her own, she never did. Grandma did however fully support the raising of a Jewish family and I remember her actively participating in every holiday and ritual, even including supporting the State of Israel. I recall her standing with me at my Bar Mitzvah, lighting the Chanukiah and making latkes, and so many more experiences too numerous to mention. She could not have been more involved or a more important part of my Jewish identity and upbringing even though she remained a Southern Baptist.

As a way to honor my Grandma, we celebrated Christmas. It was a time that the Levin family gathered together to share a family meal and exchange presents. In actuality, the kids received the presents. I remember sitting in Grandma’s living room in the apartment on Schenk Avenue surrounded by wrapped boxes impatiently waiting for my turn to open them up; we opened gifts one at a time according to age, so that each child would savor the experience. We usually came to this celebration wearing the new cowboy boots and cowboy shirt with the snap buttons that Grandma had already bought each of us, a nod to our Dallas heritage. My mom struggled for years with the Christmas tree, but eventually she learned to embrace it. These childhood experiences were ones of love and warmth that remain in my heart.

My experience of Christmas is not religiously Christian. It is however deeply beautiful and meaningful and incorporates some of the best values religion has to offer. It has enriched my life and filled me with wonderful memories of people I hold dear. It has helped to shape me into the person and rabbi I am today. My concern is that I am able to share the wonderful blessings that I enjoyed with others.*

* A few of my colleagues are engaged in a conversation about the topic of Santa and Christmas in the public domain.  These were my thoughts on the matter.