A Yeshiva boy and Christmas

When I was 20, I spent my junior year in college in England. When classes let out for the last two weeks of December, I traveled to Morocco, where something life-changing occurred.

What happened was that I felt a longing, even an emptiness, I had never before experienced. Something was missing from my life, but I could not at first identify it. I knew it was not about being without friends or family — after all, I hadn’t been with family or friends in England for the previous three months. And it wasn’t about being alone — I had gotten used to traveling by myself.

This sense of missing something kept gnawing at me, until one day I realized what it was: I missed the Christmas season. I missed that time of year in America.

At first I denied it. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home and in yeshivas, I had obviously never celebrated Christmas. How could I miss something that I never had? And being so Jewish, how could I miss the quintessential Christian holiday? It seemed religiously wrong, maybe even sinful.

But I could not conjure up any other explanation: I was in a non-Christian country, and therefore I heard no Christmas songs, saw no Christmas decorations, and Dec. 25 was just another day.

I subsequently spent a lot of time reflecting on this. It made little sense to me: Why would a yeshiva boy miss the Christmas season?

I came to two life-changing realizations. First, though my yeshiva world did everything possible to deny the existence of Christmas — for example, we had school on Christmas Day, and “midwinter vacation,” as it was called, was at the end of January, not at the end of December — this yeshiva boy really liked the Christmas season.

And, second, this Jew, whose yeshiva upbringing taught him to think of himself only as a Jew, was in fact an American as well.

Though it took more than a few years to fully realize just how deeply American I was and how much I appreciated American Christianity, it was Christmas in Morocco in 1968 that first opened my eyes. And I was never the same.

My youth in New York had consisted of an Orthodox home, Orthodox shul, Orthodox yeshiva, Orthodox friends and Orthodox Zionist summer camp in which only Hebrew was spoken and which was entirely Israel-oriented. Of course, I was an American, but how was I supposed to feel American? Little in my life reinforced that feeling (except for my father’s stories and picture books from his years as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II).

In that Orthodox world, American identity was not denigrated, just ignored. Anything Christian, however, was sometimes denigrated and always avoided — with one exception: Every year, in my home, we four Orthodox Jews would watch the Christmas Mass from Rome. We were fascinated by the pageantry and ritual.

So, until I was an adult, my contact with Christians and Christianity was almost nonexistent — except for Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I remember as a youngster aching to speak to this ultimate Other — a Christian. What were they like, I wondered? Did they really only have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven? Did they not have to do anything? I remember having “Christian-envy” as a child: They could drive every day of the week and eat whatever they wanted and still go to heaven — what a deal!

The Morocco revelations — that I missed something Christian and that I felt quite American, not just Jewish — were, therefore, a jolt.

As the years passed, I not only made peace with my American identity and with my enjoyment of the Christmas season, I came to treasure that season and to fall in love with America and its distinct values (what I call the American Trinity: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum). While director of a Jewish institution — the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley — I volunteered to be a Santa Claus for the Simi Valley Rotary Club, of which I was a member. So, during the same week that I led Shabbat activities for a thousand Jews, I also went to my Rotary Club meeting (what is more American than the Rotary Club?), and I played Santa Claus at a local department store.

It is that season now, and I never fail to get goose bumps when I hear Burl Ives sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” let alone when I attend a live performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” surely the most glorious religious music ever composed. I love hearing people wish each other “Merry Christmas.” When my yarmulke-wearing children were younger, I used to take them to see beautiful Christmas lights on homes.

Those who wish to remove Christmas trees from banks and colleges and other places where Americans gather are not only attempting to rob the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas of their holiday, they are robbing this committed Jew, too.

And, to think, I first realized all this in a Muslim country.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.