“Happy Holidays”: It’s What
We Jews Say This Time of Year

By

Leonard Zwelling

         The other day on MS-NBC’s only politically balanced broadcast, Morning Joe, journalist Sam Stein made the observation that led to
the title of this piece. It’s not so much that we Jews feel left out at this
time of year. The commercial power of the few million of us is obviously of
sufficient importance to convert a relatively minor holiday, Hanukah, into a
major one simply because its timing each year approximates that of Christmas
and both holidays have traditions of gift giving, even if Hanukah gifts were historically
“gelt” (money) not presents until the 1960s when Barbie intervened. Passover and
Easter may actually have similar historical roots, but the co-celebration of
Christmas and Hanukah is a rather recent invention mostly of Madison Avenue.

         Now don’t mistake this for a complaint. I love Christmas. In
fact, I miss Christmas now that carols cannot be sung in public school. My kids
have never had the opportunity I had to march down the aisle at a high school’s
Christmas Choir Pageant holding a real lit candle (pre-fire codes) and singing O
Come All Ye Faithful. When carols come on the radio and Dr. K and I sing along,
it still startles us that Richard and Andrew don’t know the words. Not only
are Christmas carols some of the truly most beautiful music in the world, some
of the most famous Christmas songs of recent origin were written by Jews like
White Christmas (Irving Berlin) and The Christmas Song (you know, “Chestnuts
Roasting..”) (Mel Torme).

Even
as a kid, I loved Christmas. Every public school classroom had a Christmas tree
(except my mother’s as she would not allow it. I come from a long line of
flaming liberals who took that “establishment of religion” stuff in the First
Amendment very seriously). It was hard being Jewish in Stratford, CT before my
family moved to Lawng Oiland in 1956 where I finally met other Jews. New York
was easier, but we Jews had no illusions that we were living in anything other
than a Christian country. That meant we could either resent Christmas (other
than the days off) or embrace it as much as we could. Most of us Jews took the
latter path and I have never regretted it. Heck, I even drove my rabbi nuts
when he found out that I played Santa Claus on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) to
raise money during my senior year of high school. I was more than happy to
adopt a Christian symbol as my own for a good cause.

Many
years later, when the ruling forces (the lawyers) at MD Anderson wanted to cleanse
the Lutheran chapel of any Christian symbols at the request of a large donor
who offered to refurbish the space if it was made devoid of crosses and such, I
objected. I was a member of the Chaplaincy Fund board that had fiduciary
oversight of the endowment given to Anderson’s chaplaincy program by the
Lutherans in the early 1970’s and that endowment included the chapel as a
Christian space but open to all for use, including Jews and Muslims. As is usually
the case at Anderson, the money was being used as an excuse to change the
rules. It was remarkable that I, the lone Jew on the board, objected so
vehemently to deChristianizing the religious space, but I would have none of
this holier than thou, politically correct nonsense dressed up as a defense of
the First Amendment. When the powers at Anderson played that First Amendment
card and said a state space could not harbor these Christian symbols, I said
fine, make the changes, purge the crosses if you must to get your money, but
give all the Lutheran’s money back with interest over the past 40 years. And,
oh yes, I also said cut the cross off the top of the chapel so that the
Chronicle can see what you are doing. Anderson’s lawyers backed down. Score one
for the Christians and for the Jews.

When
I took my kids to Israel, I insisted that they walk the Via Dolorosa (Jesus’
final path) with me and stop at each of the 14 stages of the Cross. The walk
ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the putative site of the
Crucifixion (although the guides told us this is unlikely as the ancient Romans
would not have crucified people in the middle of downtown Jerusalem). I made
sure my children were well aware of the story that is so essential to the
majority of their countrymen even if it is not to them.

As
my close friends are aware, I love Christian philosophy. I think that Jesus is
as good a guide for personal behavior as Moses. Christianity also calls on the
highest of man’s beliefs and surely man’s unique intellect and judgment for it
is a religion of individual faith (could there be a better, more lonely role
model for faith than Jesus on the cross?) guided by internal forces where my
religion is far more one of the external forces of 613 commandments guiding
humanity.

So
from Santa Claus on the streets of North Bellmore to the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City,
Christianity has been a big part of this Jew’s life. I don’t miss the snow of
my childhood in New York, but I do miss the school carols, the choirs and the ornamented
and tinseled trees that one by one have become much smaller parts of the
American landscape replaced by Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Small businesses
shutter closed and malls expand. iPads have replaced bikes as the gift of
choice. The closest thing to a Christmas carol on Top 40 radio is usually
Brenda Lee or Bruce Springsteen not Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby.

This
is a great country and I am not suggesting that we go back, but I do miss parts
of those days when Christmas didn’t have to compete with any other holiday and
its meaning was expressed more in song than in sales. I miss that, a lot.

Happy
Holidays!

Leonard Zwelling