Wednesday, December 25, 2013

An Attitude - and a Kiddush HaShem

Photo credit: Aish
Comedian David Steinberg (an alumnus of HTC) was a regular guest on the old Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson hosted it. He once told a humorous story about how his immigrant father would look out the window on Christmas day and hope it wouldn’t snow. When it did, he would say in resentful tones, ‘They got their White Christmas!’ Carson laughed.

I bring up this story to point out how some Jews view Christmas. They resent it. I can understand why. Until the mid twentieth century, and certainly prior to the Holocaust, Christians were not all that kind to us.  They considered the Jews to be eternally responsible for their god’s death. And Jews have suffered at Christian hands since the founding of their religion. Sufferings like pogroms, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust. The resentment is clear - but in our day misguided. Christianity has had an unprecedented about face in the 20th century – starting with Vatican II. And their attitude has only improved since then. This includes not only Catholics, but Protestants as well. Especially Fundamentalist Christians who number in excess of 50 million people in this country. I’ve been though all this before. But never in the context of Christmas.

The truth is that in years past, I felt pretty much the same way.  As an American who loves his country and all that it has done for me, my family, and its Jewish citizens I have always felt like I was part of this great experiment in democracy called America. Except on Christmas. During this time of year with all the music, decorations, and “Christmas Cheer” in the air, I felt like I didn’t quite belong. Not that I ever agonized over it, but I did have this somewhat uncomfortable feeling about it.

Over time, I have come to realize that Christmas as it is now celebrated in this country is more about the warm fuzzies of family, big meals, good wishes, and gifts than it is about anything religious. The theme is one of brotherhood, good will, and peace on earth. Perhaps the biggest symbol of this day is a fictional character in a red suit that hands out presents to people who have been good. The religious aspects of this holiday are left inside the church. One hardly ever hears about these religious aspects outside of it.

So when I hear Christmas music now and see the department store Santas, it does not bother me at all. Nor does it bother me when I see a Christmas tree or houses adorned with Christmas decorations (otherwise known as Sukkah decorations, especially in Israel). I think my attitude can be summed up with the following rather famous anecdote. (video below)

During Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan’s confirmation hearings, Senator Lindsay Graham -knowing she is Jewish - asked her what she did on Christmas day. She responded “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” 

This really is the kind of positive attitude we should all have. It is not our day and we all do our own thing on it without any sense of being lesser Americans. We ought to respect the fact that the vast majority of Americans are Christians and celebrate this holiday in the most positive of ways. Unlike pre- Holocaust Europe, there is no intent by any of them to blame us for anything. That the world around us celebrates this holiday and we don’t does not mean we are any less American. That is built into the constitution. We ought to recognize that.

In fact I would go a step further. I agree with Rabbi Benjamin Blech who actually sees Christmas as a positive day for Jews. And that we should actually feel good about this day! Even though we have separation of church and state - America is a religious country.  Most Americans believe in God (and the bible to one extent or another). ‘In God we trust!’ is printed on our currency. And as Rabbi Blech points out: 
The United States identifies itself as “one nation under God.” Belief in a higher power has been the source of our divine blessing. And as Jews I think we ought to recognize that today the greatest challenge to our faith is not another faith, but faithlessness. Our greatest fear should not be those who worship in a different way but those who mockingly reject the very idea of worship to a higher power…
Living among Christians who demonstrate commitment to their religious beliefs to my mind is a far better example to my coreligionists than a secular lifestyle determined solely by hedonistic choices. 
I think he’s right about that. It is long past the time to reject all the old notions about the ‘evils’ of Chrstmas and instead be happy that our Christian neighbors have religious values without any of the antiSemitism that accompanied it back in pre-Holocaust Europe. Instead of all those old negative feelings we should be happy that they still celebrate their religious beliefs.

In a somewhat related way, I want to conclude with a Berl Wein ‘Christmas story’ by Jonathan Rosenblum that was a huge Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Wein was once invited to meet with the Christian editor of the Detroit Free Press.  The editor proceeded to tell him about his immigrant mother’s experience as as a domestic maid for an Orthodox Jewish family where the father was the president of his Shul. The family had left her to take care of the house while they went on vacation during the Christmas season. 

Not knowing anything about Judaism the young girl noticed that there was no Christmas tree in the house. She was so bothered by this that she ended up spending her own money on a Christmas tree and other decorations for the house - inside and out. When the family came back, they were needless to say shocked by what they saw. How would they ever explain this to their Jewish neighbors?! Here is the rest of the story:
The head of the family entered the house contemplating how to explain the Christmas tree and lights to the members of the shul, most of whom walked right past his house on their way to shul. Meanwhile, Mary was eagerly anticipating the family's excitement when they realized that they would not be without a Christmas tree.
After entering the house, the head of the family called Mary into his study. He told her, "In my whole life no one has ever done such a beautiful thing for me as you did." Then he took out a $100 bill -- a very large sum in the middle of the Depression -- and gave it to her. Only after that did he explain that Jews do not have Christmas trees.
When he had finished telling the story, the editor told Rabbi Wein, "And that is why, there has never been an editorial critical of Israel in the Detroit Free Press since I became editor, and never will be as long as I am the editor."
The shul president's reaction to Mary's mistake -- sympathy instead of anger -- was not because he dreamed that one day her son would the editor of a major metropolitan paper, and thus in a position to aid Israel. (Israel was not yet born.) He acted as he did because it was the right thing to do.
That's what it means to be a Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God's Name. It is a goal to which we can all strive.
Could not agree more.