December 14, 2000
Choosing to See the Forest
Not one of my children ever asked if we could have a Christmas tree.
The Christmas season dilemma arises for so many Jews in our city that it sadly deserves attention and comment. When I was a boy, growing up in a parochial Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood, I certainly harbored no yearning for a Christmas tree at home. I was thrilled with my little homemade menorah and our family's nifty electric menorah, which we placed in the living room window.
All of East 57th Street between Farragut and Foster Avenues had menorahs, all except for the block's one Christian family, the one with the tree. I barely knew their daughter, Kathy, but she once confided to me how much she wished that she, too, could have a menorah like everyone else on the block, instead of a tree. Over the years I have thought back to Kathy, as my life's travels took me out of Brooklyn's shtetl to a stint as rabbi in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. (Don't laugh - it comes right before "yarmulke" in some dictionaries.) I served a year in Louisville, Ky., not only clerking for a brilliant United States Court of Appeals judge but also serving as a volunteer rabbi for a small congregation there. And that experience brought me to Cincinnati. And, of course, I was rav of a synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.
Through all those experiences I, too, have encountered the Christmas season's presence. At the yeshiva day school I founded in Woodland Hills, we had to contend with parents' desires that we schedule vacation time between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Taking my daughters to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm and Magic Mountain my first winter here, I was visited with Christmas everywhere - not much different from Yarmouth, Louisville, or Cincinnati.
Santa Clauses and tannenbaums and songs of a virgin mother and her infant. The songs are ubiquitous and cannot be escaped, whether at the malls or in the movie theaters or at the supermarket. The television programs all have special Christmas episodes. It really is quite everywhere. And every channel seems to have rights to telecast "It's a Wonderful Life," which really is a wonderful movie.
Interestingly, not one of my children, reared these past two decades in these amalgams of secular society, ever asked me whether we, too, could have a Christmas tree, just as I never had asked for one when I was growing up.
Like me, they always were thrilled with their portion - the holiday with the menorah, with the eight days of presents (even though one day always was set aside for Abba's archaic thing about giving collector postage stamps), and with its own beautiful melodies that, thanks to Israel's songwriters, transcend the tired children's ditty about a dreidel made of clay. Chanukah, even though one of Judaism's lesser holidays, amply satisfied their souls as they grew through childhood. Never once did they feel denied.
This personal background experience, extending several generations, highlights the utter lameness of parental claims in assimilated Jewish circles that "we need to have a tree in our house for the kids. It is wrong to deny our children the same holiday symbols that everyone else has, that all their friends enjoy. We just take the 'Christ' out of our Christmas." How simply stated, but how terribly unsatisfying, coming from men and women, often quite sophisticated in so many other ways, who descend from their own rich culture and heritage.
We live in an exciting time and in an exciting place in American history, an era rich with cultural pluralism and a recognition of the benefits of preserving the cultural quiltwork that is America. African-Americans have evolved Kwanzaa into a major cultural event. Mexican-Americans joyously have made Cinco de Mayo part of this city's must-celebrate days. There is no shame, no yearning for someone else's holidays, someone else's traditions.
Christmas is not our day. It is a day that commemorates the birth of a Jewish child who hundreds of millions believe was the Messiah. But we humbly do not share that belief. Indeed, our respectful understanding that he was not the Messiah constitutes the linchpin that ironically differentiates most culturally assimilated Jews in Los Angeles from their Christian neighbors.
For those among us who do not observe the Torah traditions, who do not make Shabbat their special day of enjoyment and delight, who do not behold the cultural beauty of kosher restaurants and kosher foods, who do not study the Tanach or Talmud, who think Jeremiah was a bullfrog and that mikveh refers to a federal judge who used to be an Illinois congressman - ironically, the only point of departure that individuates the assimilated Angeleno Jew from her Christian counterpart is that Jews respectfully demur as to Jesus as Messiah.
But how sad it would be if our community were left with no component of meaningful self-identification other than that negative salient: the common belief that Jesus was not Messiah. And that is why the "Christmas Dilemma" offers an extraordinary challenge or opportunity for us to contemplate not merely what Judaism is not, but what Judaism is. In an era in which a president memorably asked what "is" is, it is fair for Jews to ask what "Judaism" is. It is not about a tree of another religion, marking another faith's holy day. It is something else.
But what is it?
Is Judaism about a superior ethical way of life? A higher humanistic calling? The suggestion sounds appealing to secular Jews, but it is not satisfying, because there are just too many wonderful Christians around us who also live the ethical, moral life. What motivates them: the Mother Teresas? The Doctors without Borders? The people in Santa Monica who serve free meals to the homeless on Thanksgiving? The builders of shelters for battered women? And what of the man - perhaps not Christian either - who stood in front of that tank in mainland China a few years ago? Or the Dalai Lama?
So it is not a love of ethical humanism that distinguishes Jews from those around us. And it just can't be that Judaism is special merely or even primarily because its adherents have shared victimhood at the hands of marauding Crusaders, torturing Inquisitors, and barbaric pogromists, Nazis, and Communists. Rather, it is something else. It must be something else. Something embedded in our history, in our shared experiences, and ultimately - we cannot avoid reaching this denominator - in our Torah and Talmud. Maybe this Christmas is a good time to set the tree aside, to pull away from the Christmas reruns, and instead to look at that forest of Judaism - and to sign up for a class in serious Jewish textual study, whether at the synagogue or the Aish HaTorah Center or the Jewish Learning Exchange or at any of the many Jewish institutions in this city that offer a text-based alternative to camping out in front of a tree that belongs to someone else's culture and heritage. If trees ultimately become paper and paper becomes books, we may recall that Mohammed called us the Children of the Book. Why not explore the forest this winter?