8 things for Jews to do at Christmastime


SAT | DEC 24

“FIDDLER ON THE ROOF” SING-A-LONG

All fans are invited to screenings of the classic musical film “Fiddler on the Roof.” With audi- ence participation, movie trivia and guest hosts, it’s sure to be a memorable evening. Sing along to “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and more. “Fiddler on the Roof” will screen at six Laemmle venues across Southern Cali- fornia. 7:30 p.m. $15 to $18. For tickets and more information, visit laemmle.com/fiddler.

ELON GOLD & FRIENDS: “MERRY EREV XMAS”

Enjoy an evening of comedy featuring comedian Elon Gold. Show times: 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. $35. Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 656-1336. ” target=”_blank”>infinitelight.la

OM SHALOM YOGA: HAVDALLANUKA EDITION

Say goodbye to Shabbat, welcome another day of Chanukah, stretch, sing, listen, have a bite and delight in your inner glow and outer light during Om Shalom and Beth Chayim Cha- dashim’s Havdalah and Chanukah-themed yoga practice. Bring a yoga mat, towel and water, and dress in comfortable exercise clothes. Light vegan finger food will be served. Om Sha- lom Yoga is led by Zack Lodmer and assisted by Jason Gamer and Cantor Juval Porat, and features live music. 6 p.m. $15 (No one will be turned away for lack of funds). Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. ” target=”_blank”>matzoball.org.

SUN | DEC 25

HOLIDAY MEAL

All are welcome to join Temple Adat Elohim’s annual holiday meal. The event is open to com- munity members throughout the Conjeo Valley, from the homeless to those who are seeking ca- maraderie during the holiday season. This is a volunteer-driven event. 11:30 a.m. Free. Social Hall at Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. ” target=”_blank”>lajfilmfest.org.

Israeli rabbis say Christmas trees not ‘kosher,’ raising questions of synagogue and state


‘Tis the season, but some Israeli rabbis are not feeling the Christmas spirit.

Rabbinic officials in Jerusalem and northern Israel recently issued separate statements saying that displays of Christmas trees are against Jewish law. Other Israelis rushed to the defense of the ornamented evergreens.

The difference of opinion over Christmas highlights the disagreement about the role of religion in the Jewish state.

In a letter that emerged Tuesday, the Jerusalem Rabbinate urged hotels in the city not to put up Christmas trees this year.

“As the secular year ends, we want to remind you that erecting a Christmas tree in a hotel contravenes halacha and that therefore it is clear that no one should erect [a tree] in a hotel,” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote to hotel managers.

The letter also said it was “appropriate to avoid hosting” New Year’s parties, reminding hotel managers that the New Year is properly observed at the beginning of the Jewish calendar.

A day earlier, the rabbi of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a prestigious public science and engineering university in Haifa, forbade students from entering the student union on campus because of the presence of a Christmas tree in the building.

“The Christmas tree is a religious symbol — not Christian, but even more problematic — pagan,” Rabbi Elad Dokow wrote in a Q&A on the religious Srugim website. “Halacha clearly states that whenever it is possible to circumvent and not pass through a place where there is any kind of idolatry, this must be done. So one should not enter the student union if it’s not necessary to do so.

“This is not about freedom of worship. It’s about the public space of the campus,” he added. “This is the world’s only Jewish state. And it has a role to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and not to uncritically embrace every idea.”

Dokow compared the Christmas tree’s display to letting students declare that Jerusalem does not belong to the Jewish people or allowing a Spanish food festival that “prominently featured pork.”

Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as a provisional constitution, enshrine its status as a “Jewish and democratic state.” But the proper balance of these two parts of Israel’s identity is an open question.

The Supreme Court in Israel has consistently protected the right to freedom of religion, which it finds in a constitutional law protecting “human dignity and liberty.” How far that right extends into the public arena is unclear.

A private hotel, though it serves the public, has clearer discretion regarding religious expression than a public university, said Shuki Friedman, a religion and state researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

“No one can oblige a hotel to put up or take down a Christmas tree,” he said. “On the other hand, when we talk about a university, it’s considered a public space. Whether a university puts up a Christmas tree or refuses to put up a Christmas tree, it could be legally challenged.”

Friedman said it also depends on who is using the space. In Nazareth, an Arab-Israeli city in northern Israel with a large Christian population, a public Christmas tree would clearly serve the local population, he said. Conversely, Friedman added, the Western Wall is “one place there will not be a Christmas tree.”

The Chief Rabbinate — the highest Jewish authority in Israel and overseer of the Jerusalem Rabbinate — last year offered some protection to displayers of Christmas trees. Under threat of a petition to the Supreme Court, the Chief Rabbinate issued guidelines stating that its kashrut inspectors could not revoke the kosher certifications of hotels over the trees or Shabbat violations.

The Technion responded to its Christmas tree controversy with a statement saying that Rabbi Dokow’s words “expressed his personal opinion and not that of the Technion.”

“Even before the Technion opened it gates about 100 years ago, its founders stated that the institution they hoped to build would be open to all, irrespective of religion, ethnicity and gender,” the statement said, noting that religious and secular Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians from around Israel and the world study “side by side” there and students of “all religions and communities” help manage the student union.

“The union, it goes without saying, celebrates all the Jewish festivals and, concurrently, it allows students from other religions to express themselves with respect and tolerance. The different festivals are celebrated in a range of ways, including, in this case, a Christmas tree beside the Hanukkah menorah.”

Knesset member Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List of Arab political parties accused Dokow of incitement. In a letter Monday to the Technion’s president, Peretz Lavie, Jabareen said, “There’s no need to elaborate on the gravity of these statements, and the serious offense to the Technion’s Arab students and to Israeli Arabs in general. These statements contain clear incitement to racism, in violation of the law, and therefore also constitute a serious criminal offense,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

According to Haaretz, Technion student Peter Hana said “an absolute majority of students, as well as management and the dean,” supported the Christmas tree, and “only a handful of students and the rabbi himself chose to come out against it.”

Deck the halls or don’t: Jews and Christmas


Patrick Emerson McCormick, an entertainment attorney who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism after meeting his Jewish wife, Jessica. Even after their marriage, though, he continued to keep a small Christmas tree in his home office. He had grown up with one and felt the tree did not have any religious significance. 

“I struggled with it,” he said. “At first, I wanted one not for religious reasons, but it held personal meaning for me.”

He changed his mind after his daughter told him she’d been teased at school for celebrating Christmas.

“I really thought there was a way to have a Christmas tree in our house that was personal but without ‘celebrating Christmas,’ until one year, our daughter, who is now in sixth grade — I think this was when she was in third or fourth grade — she was complaining to me in the car that other kids were making fun of her. She goes to public school and other Jewish kids in the school, they were making fun of her because she was celebrating Christmas,” McCormick said. “I said, ‘We don’t celebrate Christmas.’ She said, ‘You have a tree in your office.’ 

“There won’t be a tree in our house this year and it’s a unanimous decision,” McCormick said. 

With streets and shopping malls decorated with Christmas lights, music on the radio playing Christmas music (much of which was written by Jewish composers), and decorated evergreens glowing in the windows of people’s homes, any Jewish person — particularly converts and those in interfaith relationships — would be hard-pressed not to experience an inner identity struggle. This year, with Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah coinciding on Dec. 24, the challenge may be more difficult.

Nick Soper, who was raised Episcopalian and considers himself non-practicing, and his wife, Stacy, who is Jewish and the owner of a jewelry company, are expecting their first child in January. Every year, they adorn their home with both Chanukah and Christmas decorations. 

“We get around to putting out a few Jewish decorations and a few Christian decorations; that’s about the extent of it,” Nick said. “Both members of the committee have to agree upon the aesthetic. She’s not usually too enthusiastic about traditional commercial Christmas colors, like green and red. We have wood and earth tones and the sprig of some sort of plant. She’ll do red or green, but usually not both.”

More complicated, however, has been dealing with their in-laws. Stacy’s parents celebrate Chanukah exclusively and Nick’s celebrate Christmas. Stacy recalled one Christmas at her in-laws’ home when she found the Christmas tree decorated with a Chanukah ornament.

“I thought it was thoughtful and kind. I knew where the intentions came from,” Stacy said. “I don’t have a personal connection to ornaments or any Christmas decorations, but I knew they meant it to be a recognition [of my faith].”

These types of situations are so commonplace that there even is a term — the “December Dilemma” — to refer to Jews grappling with identity during Christmas. Of the Jews who responded to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center titled “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 32 percent said they had a Christmas tree in their home the year before, and 71 percent of Jews who were intermarried put up a Christmas tree the previous year. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, which prepares individuals for conversion to Judaism, said he often interacts with people who are eager to embrace Judaism but continue to feel a connection to the tree. 

“They are very happy, even overjoyed, to be embracing Judaism, but the Christmas tree represents a transitional object, like a baby blanket, linked to memories and feelings in a profound way,” he said. “People express discomfort about giving up the Christmas tree in the same way a child feels about giving up a treasured teddy bear.” 

Greenwald also has a personal experience with the holiday conflict. His father-in-law — whom he describes as a “ragin’ Cajun from Louisiana” — celebrates Christmas. Greenwald said he believes the Jewish way of handling such a situation is to remember how much value Judaism places on family. 

“Christmas is an incredibly important time of the year to a significant portion of my family by marriage. … [However,] when I travel to be with my family for [Christmas] celebrations, it doesn’t challenge my Jewish identity,” he said. “It affirms my very Jewish commitment to family.

“I believe very strongly that religion should not be a wedge that divides people from one another,” Greenwald added. “If a family gathers to celebrate [Christmas], I can’t imagine God or Torah is served by us boycotting that.”

During a Nov. 29 broadcast of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, who has been married to her non-Jewish husband since 2012, said that this year she will be having a Christmas tree in her home for the first time in her life.

“It’s kind of every Jew’s secret wish to have a Christmas tree,” Portman said.

Her comment prompted a negative response from Aish, an organization committed to helping nonobservant Jews reconnect with their Judaism.

“How sad and painful it is that this prominent actress is sending such a wrong message at exactly the time we need to embrace our Jewish identity and distance ourselves from the powerful influences of the pervasive non-Jewish culture,” said a recent Aish.com article titled “Natalie Portman’s Christmas Tree.” 

The backlash to Portman’s statement struck a nerve with Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, a resource for interfaith families and couples interested in exploring Judaism. Stein said identifying with Judaism and having a Christmas tree are not mutually exclusive.

“It is possible to maintain one’s Jewish identity while still admiring or even celebrating aspects of Christmas,” Stein, a Reform rabbi whose father was a Jew by Choice, said in an email.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, rabbinic director at Judaism by Choice, an organization that offers classes on Judaism for those considering conversion, said it’s possible for Jews to feel more Jewish during the holidays, not less. He recalled that when he was in his late teens, his Jewish identity intensified by his reacting against the Christmas season. When he moved to Israel at age 21, he felt like he missed Christmas — which isn’t celebrated there like it is here — because he had nothing to stand against in opposition.

Today, decades later, with two grown children, his perspective has evolved.

“I enjoy Christmas music, the season and the decorations,” he said. “I enjoy seeing homes lit up. I enjoy the season. But I don’t celebrate it in my own home.”

Christmas crusade for peace (and an independent Palestine) in Bethlehem


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

A light with stars and snowflake Christmas lights, every year the city of Bethlehem, which is known as the birthplace of both Jesus and Christianity, hosts a series of Christmas celebrations. From parades and lighting a Christmas tree almost as big as the one at Rockefeller Center in New York City, to restoring mosaics at the famous Church of Nativity, the city is looking to promote itself and to strengthen the Christian community. 

Palestinian officials say Christmas celebrations are a chance to show the world that the Palestinians can govern themselves and to encourage others to support a two-state solution for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Of course it is in our interest to have a two-state solution,” said Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See. “Here in Palestine, we are working to consolidate and to strengthen the roots of Christianity in Palestine.” 

According to Kassissieh, while about half of the residents of Bethlehem are Christian, only about 2 percent of all Palestinians in the West Bank are Christian. Promoting and strengthening the religion, however, is one of the top priorities of the Palestinian Authority, he said.  

Given the current political instability in the Middle East with the ongoing civil war in Syria and the armed conflict between ISIS and Iraqi forces in trying to retake Mosul, the region is losing many of its churches and connections to Christianity. Bethlehem is promoting itself as a defender of peace and stability. 

“Politics here are so multilayered,” said Ian Knowles, a Christian icon painter and the director of the Icon School in Bethlehem. “And Palestine, especially Bethlehem, is right on the fault line between many of these different forces.” 

The Icon School, which is affiliated with the Princess School of Traditional Art in London, teaches local and international students the technique and importance of icon painting. It is the only icon school in the Middle East. 

“Bethlehem is the place where, for Christians, matter suddenly matters,” Knowles said. “God becomes a little baby, he becomes part of the material world, and so what you can see becomes graced and full of something deeply spiritual.” 

The school has a dozen local Palestinian students. 

“It’s an art which is inherently hope-filled and hopeful,” Knowles said. 

Aside from promoting Christianity through religiously motivated artistic endeavors, the city also has generated both financial and political support from the international community in restoring and renovating the Church of Nativity in the Old City of Bethlehem. 

Built in the year 332, the church, which Christians believe is the actual birthplace of Jesus, was falling apart, especially with bad leaks in the roof. 

In 2009, after lengthy negotiations with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Franciscan Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree calling for renovations to the Church of Nativity. 

The Palestinian government raised money to cover some of the expenses of the renovations; however, the work could not have been accomplished without financial support from many European and other Middle Eastern churches and countries. Spain, France, Hungary, Russia, Italy, Greece and even Morocco and Kuwait all contributed to the restoration. The total cost of restoring the church is just under $20 million and the work is expected to be completed in 2019. 

“We are supporting the Christian presence here in Palestine and in the Holy Land not only by preserving the Palestinian Christians but also by preserving and renovating their churches,” said Minister Ziad Al-Bandak, an adviser to Abbas. “Palestinians, in general, are for the two-state solution.” 

In accordance with the negotiations, the Holy See recognizes the state of Palestine based on the borders from 1967, which are the borders established after the Six-Day War, and, in return, the Palestinian leadership gives the Catholic Church full autonomy in the area, according to Kassissieh. 

Christmas is fast approaching. According to Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, the city will have a procession of the patriarchs, a celebration before the Catholic midnight Mass on Christmas, a Christmas market and a number of plays and exhibitions showcasing the holiday spirit.  

Recently, the city, along with two international choirs and thousands of other visitors, lit the Christmas tree. 

“We lit the tree with a golden color because our message of Bethlehem is written with a golden font — it never rusts,” Baboun said. “The justice of the Palestinian cause is written with a golden font because it can and it will never rust.” 

The city of Bethlehem, only about 20 minutes from the city center of Jerusalem, is located in Area A of the West Bank, meaning it is under complete Palestinian civil and military control. Yet, residents say, they do not really have complete control, as Israel built a controversial barrier, which local residents call a “wall,” around the city, cutting it off from much of the West Bank.

Palestinian officials say the surrounding Jewish communities, which they call “settlements,” have led to a high unemployment rate of almost 30 percent, according to Samir Hazboun, the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. It also has led thousands of residents, many of them Christians, to leave the city and emigrate abroad.

Khalil Shoka, a Palestinian historian, said, “The younger generations are looking for a brighter future and they don’t find it here due to the impact of the separation wall and the Israeli policies, so most of them prefer to leave.”

Merry Holidays!


Once upon a time, Americans were honest: They said, “Merry Christmas” and talked about “Christmas vacation.” Then, in an ingenious attempt to honor diversity, Americans switched to, “Happy holidays” and began referring to “the holiday season” – a purportedly all-inclusive, religiously and culturally appropriate, pan-American time of year that was still all about Christmas. True, the occasional Hanukkah, Ramadan, or Kawanzaa bone was thrown out there, but it was often at inappropriate times, such as two weeks after that holiday had passed, or with inappropriate greetings, such as “Happy Ramadan,” which, seriously, who wishes someone a happy fast?

Images and music are shortcuts for conveying ideas and eliciting feelings, and together they rally people around central themes. Images and music of “the holidays” center around decorated trees, Santa Claus figures, sleigh bells, reindeer, and – especially where there are no religious minorities around to bitch about it — nativity scenes and Jesus references. (Think “Joy to the World,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” for starters.) As an Iraqi-American Jew, those images and songs are a far cry from being culturally appropriate or even distantly relevant to me. And yet, I am expected to get all warm and fuzzy from them – ie, swept up in “the holiday spirit.”

Changing the language of Christmas was not a step toward multicultural celebration, but it was a brilliant marketing coup. The switch not only covered up America’s blatant preferential treatment of Christianity, which is decidedly unconstitutional, but it made Christmas (emphasis: Christ) even more insidious, taking the dissent-squashing Scrooge concept one step further:  Since “the holidays” are now touted as a universal, religiously- and culturally-inclusive celebration, what kind of asshole can possibly object to them?

Memories of Christmas Past

When I was a little girl, I attended orthodox Jewish day school. During late December, my mother, sister, and I would drive around our neighborhood in San Francisco, admiring the pretty Christmas trees in people’s homes and sharing which were our favorites. Because I had not yet been shoved under the Christmas bulldozer, I was eager to appreciate and, in my own way, participate in the celebration of someone else’s holiday. Then when I was eight, I was switched to public school, where it was compulsory for all students to make Christmas decorations and, for those of us in the music department, to sing Christmas carols and play Christmas songs. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas… It was like an hysterical mantra, all up in my face for an entire month.

I remember how, in fifth grade, a Jewish girl and I conspiratorially drew menorahs and Stars of David throughout the winter wonderland poster the class had to make. Debbie and I characteristically did not get along, but we were a team that day, the two of us with our markers, in a bold act of 10-year-old insurgence. We had complained to the teacher about religious discrimination, and while she would not back down from promoting Christmas, she did authorize us to “add [our] holiday symbols” to the poster hanging on the front of the door. Oh, we added them alright, giggling as we drew, and once we were done, there was no doubt that Jews were in da house.

Meanwhile, the only Jew in choir, I fought the fact that we were forced to sing the gamut of Christmas songs – from explicitly religious numbers like “Noel” and “Silent Night” to more symbolic ones like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When I raised my objections, the teacher justified these songs by pointing out that we also were singing “I Had a Little Dreidel.” I distinctly remember thinking how inane it was to compare a dreidel song (about a plastic toy) to a Jesus song (about the Christian god). In addition, I could not help but notice that the Christmas songs outnumbered the dreidel song by, oh, about a million to one.

As I recall, after back-and-forth negotiations, the teacher and I compromised by agreeing that I would not sing the explicitly religious songs but that I would sing the general Christmas songs. I have a vague memory of her telling me to just move my lips, though not necessarily lip sync, for the songs I was not singing, so that it would not “look weird” that I was just standing there. The teacher and I disagreed, but I am not sure how that matter was resolved.

I do remember really going at it with full gusto for the dreidel song, all the while aware of the irony: Iraqi Jews have nothing to do with dreidels, and it was in fact a source of contention at my Hebrew school that the Central and Eastern European Hanukkah traditions, including dreidel games, were pushed on everyone — touted as the Jewish traditions. My dad, in fact, used to re-educate my sister and me regularly after school, leaving me wondering why we bothered going in the first place. “What did you learn today?” he would ask us. “We learned about Chanukkah,” we would reply. “We don’t say Chanukkah,” he would inform us. “We say H’nikah. What else did you learn?” he would continue. “We learned how to play dreidels,” we would say. “We don’t play dreidels,” he would advise us. And so on.

Out of the pot and into the fire – from one hegemony to another, clinging to whatever pieces most closely resembled my identity.  But I digress. Let us return to Christmas.

Preferential Treatment of Religion

In high school, I was the first chair flutist in orchestra and band. As soon as I discovered that all the performances were on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath, I advised the teachers that I would not be able to perform with them, for religious reasons. Each teacher (one married to the other) publicly yelled at and humiliated me in front of the class in response, with the orchestra teacher kicking me out altogether and the band teacher demoting me to last chair.

Then, beginning in November, I was expected to play one Christmas song after another. I believe I refused, because I distinctly remember the band teacher cornering me when I was leaving class one day, informing me that such-and-such Christmas song was written by a Jew, and why couldn’t I be like that man. Parenthetically, another time, this teacher cornered me while leaving, advising me that so-and-so orchestra conductor was a Seventh Day Adventist but still performed on Friday nights, because he felt closest to Gd through his music; so why couldn’t I be like that man.

Meanwhile, I was barred from joining choir, because – as I then knew by then to clarify ahead of time – all the performances were on Friday nights, and the teacher did not want to accept anyone who could not attend performances. Then again, the choir got heavy into Jesus songs in late November, so perhaps it is just as well that I was not involved.

Because of the sabbath conflict, I also was barred from joining the theater group, despite the fact that understudies were used in case students got sick; I could not even think about joining any of the athletic teams, and I was kicked out of the debate team, despite the fact that numerous competitions were held on Sundays. In the latter case, my high school had one of the top debate teams in the state, and the coach wanted students to have enough practice with the Saturday matches so as to also win the Sunday events. 

In my junior year, I would not have been able to take drivers education class, were it not for a combined effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council and my friend Colleen, who walked across town just after dawn one Saturday morning (before the buses started running), to sign up on my behalf. The school had patently refused allowing me to sign up on Friday, and it had taken a major battle just to allow someone else to do it for me on the day of registration.

Not only did teachers systematically exclude me from all extra-curricular activities in school, in a decidedly unconstitutional refusal to accommodate my religious observance, but a number of them actively antagonized me for my religious observance. Take the example of my geometry teacher during freshman year:

In the beginning of each year, I approached all of my teachers with copies of a Jewish calendar, in which I had drawn big red circles around the dates where I would be gone for religious observance. The holy days came one week after another throughout September and October — R’shana, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Simhath Torah – what you might call the “holiday season” for the Jewish community. Being that these observances coincided with the beginning of the school year, it was always challenging to keep up with my school work. As an orthodox Jew, I could not do any studying during these days.

I was in the honors programs of the best schools in the city — including an exclusive magnet high school, where students routinely came to school sick, even with fevers, because it was so difficult to catch up with the copious amounts of work, after falling behind. I, meanwhile, not only took five or six challenging Honors and Advanced Placement classes each semester, but also missed about 10 days by the second month of school, because 1) the holy days added up to seven days, 2) people came to the synagogue when sick, 3) I slept as little as one hour a night when I was not observing sabbath or a holy day, so as to catch up on my school work, and 4) my body was worn down as a result of the exhaustion, stress, and exposure to illness.

To stay ahead as much as possible, I asked teachers to advise me of the lessons and assign me homework in advance. When I approached my geometry teacher, he literally threw the calendar in my face, barking at me, “If you want to take a vacation, that’s your problem!” Throughout the semester, he proceeded to deliberately assign quizzes and tests – including pop-quizzes and pop-tests that comprised significant portions of our semester grade – on the day of or the day after Jewish holy days. I was a straight-A student throughout my life, despite the fact that even in middle school, I was sleeping just a few hours a night, so as to catch up on my school work after the holy days. And yet, this man made it so impossible to succeed that I got the first C of my life.

Both academics and extracurricular activities count for college, and I got heavily dinged on both fronts. My parents complained to the principal of my school, but he did nothing. Meanwhile, the math teachers were so consistently awful that I ended up having to drop out of honors, and I struggled so much with chemistry that I quit just one semester before the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. And so, while my peers took the AP tests for math, science, and English, as I had planned to do, and while they were then exempt from freshman math, science, and English in college, as I had planned to be, I only was able to take the AP English test – not surprising, considering that my English teachers were the only ones to caringly accommodate my religious observance. In fact, it is not surprising that I ended up a writer today. People walk through doors, not walls.

On that note, I am forever grateful to my high school class advisor, for sticking her neck out on my behalf. My high school debate team was in fact so amazing that we did not have a high school valedictorian, but rather, a high school historian and salutorian – both of which were selected through speaking competitions. My school had no tolerance for speeches that were anything less than riveting. The original date of the competition was scheduled on Passover, to my exasperation. I approached my high school class advisor in tears, begging her to get the date changed. “I have not been able to do anything throughout all four years of high school,” I cried. “I just want this one opportunity.” Gd/dess bless this woman, she went to bat for me and got the date changed.

And so I competed against state champions from my high school debate team. And kicked their collective ass. As the class historian for Lowell High School circa 1987, I have this to say to the high school debate coach who would not let me compete on Sundays, because I would not have the experience on Saturdays: Suck it.

What does this all have to do with Christmas, you ask? As I was forced into the Herculean struggle of juggling my religious and school lives, and as I was punished in active and passive ways for being a Jew, those who celebrated Christmas got not just the day of the holiday handed to them on a silver platter, but an entire two weeks around it. To add insult to injury, Christmas does not even have prohibitions against working, studying, driving, turning on lights, writing, or any of the other myriad of things that makes it impossible for religious Jews to participate in school or work life on Jewish holy days. So while Jews and other religious minorities struggle to keep up their grades or hang onto their jobs while taking off just the very days of their religious observance, those celebrating Christmas get half a month off for partying. Talk about “taking a vacation.”

Which all goes to say, as Christmas cheer has been shoved down my throat at school, at work, in the supermarkets, on television, in government offices, and pretty much anywhere else I have turned, for an entire month (and now for ¼ of the entire year), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every year of the past four decades of my life, and as my tax money has gone to fund aforementioned cheer, well, let’s just say I have not exactly been “in the spirit” of things.

The Fascist Vibe of the Christmas Spirit

The question is why Christian and Christo-Secular people (let’s face it – there is no neutral secular culture) feel the need to celebrate Christmas in such an in-your-face, mass-hysteria, all-encompassing way. It is as if “Christmas spirit” cannot exist unless absolutely every single person gets into said spirit.

By way of example, let us bring to mind the story of a Jewish family living in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. All the neighbors were lighting candles and putting those candles in brown paper bags, then placing the glowing bags in front of their homes. The Jewish family politely declined to participate, explaining that they were Jewish and therefore did not celebrate Christmas. Well. The neighbors would have none of that, so a few of them lit an extra candle, put it in a paper bag, placed it in front of the Jewish home, and bolted.

Compulsory Christmas. Uniformity masquerading as universality. You. Must. Celebrate. Christmas.

Then there is the story that happened one fine December day at a public school with a predominantly Christian student body. When a Jewish student politely declined to participate in the Christmas festivities at school, one of the Christian kids violently slammed that Jewish child against a locker, yelling, “You just don’t get it! This is a holiday about peace, love, and good will!”

Need I elaborate on what is wrong with this picture?

When I think of Christmas, the following words come to mind: fascist, dogmatic, imperialistic, dissent-squashing, cultural-bulldozing, all up in yo business, pain in the ass, murderous day. Yes murderous. Over the centuries, across the Christian world, Christmas was a favorite day for massacring Jews. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, touted as the son of Gd who, according to Christian narrative, was murdered by scheming, crooked Jews. The entire premise of Christianity, in fact, is the scorn, hatred, and rejection of all things Jewish; after all, why be the spinoff religion, when you can be the real deal? Some justification must be created. While that is another article for another time, and one that most likely will get me into pretty hot water, the idea is that Christmas is loaded, and not just with shiny presents.

Speaking of loaded, about a decade ago in San Francisco, a politically-correct office manager invited all the employees to bring to work a symbol of their holiday. Because, as we all know, “the holidays” are about everyone. So this Jewish guy, with whom I am proud to say I am acquainted, brought a gun and placed it squarely on the table. Everyone, of course, was horrified. He advised them that Hanukkah commemorates the revolt against Roman occupation of ancient Israel; that it is a holiday of armed resistance.

Word.

And just how did Hanukkah come to be Christmas Jr.? In Iraq, Jews lit the Hanukkiah (special candelabra), sang a song or two, and donated money to yeshiboth (Jewish learning institutions) to preserve Jewish continuity; because, again, Hanukkah commemorates Jewish resistance to assimilation and therefore is all about preservation of Jewish identity. Here in America, however, Hanukkah has been blown up into the Christmas psycho-twin. You have one day of presents? Fuck you. We have eight.

Here’s the thing: While I do hold Jewish parents and the Jewish community accountable for resisting Christian temptation and Jewish distortion, I also hold the larger society responsible not only for making Christmas culturally mandatory, but also for creating such a frenzied Christmas environment that those who do not celebrate Christmas are outright pitied. Perhaps if there was a little more awareness of and value for diversity – true diversity, not just compelling minority groups to masquerade as the majority group – Jewish kids wouldn’t be so distracted by, and Jewish parents wouldn’t be so pressured by, all that Christmas bling.

Let me set the record straight: Not only do Jews neither control nor run the United States, but it is damn challenging to be an orthodox Jew in this country. If perhaps the leadership at our schools and places of work stopped wishing us happy holidays during Christmas and instead put all that good cheer into finding ways to accommodate Jews who miss school and work for Jewish holy days, without penalization, chances are that more Jews would celebrate said holy days. With solid identity and pride stemming from the practice of our own tradition, Jews very well might stop dabbling in Hanukkah bushes and otherwise denigrating our legacy by mutating ourselves into second-rate imitations of Christian and Christo-Secular Americans.

As public institutions close on Christmas, as public streets get decorated with Christmas symbols, as Christmas music blasts out of every loudspeaker of stores that characteristically decorate the shopping bags with Christmas images (thus forcing Christmas into every home, like it or not), and as everyone from the bus driver to the bank clerk to the café barista wishes customers “happy holidays,” without stopping to question whether the customers actually celebrate said holidays, the message being sent to religious minorities, around the clock and from every direction, is this: You do not belong. This is not your country. This is not your culture. You are “other.”

A core impetus behind Hanukkah bushes and the like is the desire to be “part-of.” We should, however, be able to belong as we are — without having to be subsumed by someone else’s identity and narrative.

The Christmas PR machine is not only so overwhelming but also so compelling (and I say this as a professional publicist: brilliant marketing) that one year in high school, I consciously chose to allow myself to be swept up in the “Christmas cheer” tidal wave, just to see what it felt like. I distinctly remember enthusiastically embracing my friend Amanda, as both of us jumped up and down, shouting “Merry Christmas” in the orgiastic fervor typical of Christmas spirit. Amanda looked radiant. I felt hollow. Far better to be the salmon fighting the current, I concluded, than to be a fish swept up in someone else’s tide.

For many years, I educated people when they wished me “Merry Christmas,” or more recently, “Happy Holidays.” “I don’t celebrate it/them,” I would reply, “but you have a good one.” Frequently, people responded with pity – either through looks or words. Finally I gave up. It was easier to just say “thanks” or just reply with “take care” or the like, instead of educating each and every single person crossing my Christmas-free path. But then when my neighbor Jill wished me Merry Christmas on December 25, as I was taking my bike out of my house to go for a ride, I just had to say something. “I’m Jewish,” I said, reminding Jill of a fact she knew perfectly well. “Can’t I just wish you Merry Christmas?” she replied, with a tone and body language indicating that she was bestowing me with a precious gift, and I was spitting it back in her face. “I’m. Jewish.” I replied, exasperated. And that was pretty much the end of Jill’s and my relationship.

I have no objection to the celebration of Christmas in and of itself. I object to the fact that it is celebrated in a way that steam-rolls over the identity of those who do not celebrate Christmas. It is touted as the universal pinnacle of human experience, as if there exist no holidays that offer comparable happiness or spirit or connection with others. It also, annoyingly, takes over the calendar. December 24 and December 25 no longer exist. They are, quite simply, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And everyone in this culture is expected to know not only the dates but also the lore, songs, and customs of Christmas, whereas those who celebrate Christmas are not expected to know the same for holidays of religious and ethnic minorities.

Imagine if I were to wish store clerks, Tizkoo leshanim raboth unemoth (may you merit many pleasant years) before R’shana (the Jewish New Year). Blank stares and oooh-kay confusion would ensue. Chances are that even you, dear reader, have no idea what I just said.

On that note, if someone really wants to be all-inclusive, wishing everyone “happy holidays” in December simply does not cut it. Instead, one should take a minute to find out what holidays someone in fact celebrates, and say the appropriate greeting at calendar-appropriate times. In the age of Wikipedia, there is truly no excuse. The information is all right there, on the mighty internet. But even a simple gesture in December, like saying “happy holidays if you celebrate them,” can go a long way. The implication is, “I recognize that you, Christmas non-celebrator, exist.” Pretty cool.

Meanwhile, Christmas has been extended from a month-long assault to a full-on seasonal one. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Christian new year have morphed into one gigantic “holiday” mush, and one can now purchase Christmas stockings in the aisles right next to the Dracula masks. Yay.

There are of course those who say that Christmas is not at all Christian, but rather secular or Pagan. I see the Christian stronghold in all of these assertions. Christianity conquered and converted Pagans, as Christianity conquered and converted, if not outright massacred, every other religious group it could get its hands on. Christianity not only co-opted the holidays and customs of these various groups, in yet another brilliant PR coup, but Christianity is in its very foundation based on the co-opting (and bastardization) of Judaism. And while most Americans celebrate Christmas not through mass but through exchanging gifts, it does not take away the Christian roots of Christmas. Just look at the name: CHRISTmas.

As a former client of mine articulately and succinctly states, “Religion creates culture.” Most Americans may not be Christian and may not celebrate Christmas for Christian reasons, but secular America is imbued with a Christian sensibility so deep at the core of this country that it takes a religious person of another faith to see it. Similarly, white people can’t see whiteness because white equals “normal” in our society. It is the status quo. It therefore takes a person of color to see how very white our culture is.

The blind imposition does not stop at Christmas. There is also the whole issue of “New Years.” All new years are qualified – Jewish new year, Persian new year, Chinese new year – except one: Christian new year. The Christian new year is simply “New Years.” As with Christmas, we are all expected to bow down to and celebrate this new year as our own. “But it’s secular,” people say, looking at me oddly, when they wish me, “Happy New Year,” and I inform them I do not celebrate it. Secular? Really? We’re now in 2013 AD – Anno Domini, ie, the year of our Lord. Anything before the year 0, which is assumed to be the year that Jesus was born, is “[insert year] BC” – Before Christ. Secular my ass.

Only one person, other than my mother, seems to have any awareness of this issue. “Does it annoy you that the world operates according to a Christian calendar?” my friend Danielle once asked – Danielle herself being an awesome, independently-thinking woman from a Christian background.

Christmas and the Jewish-Christian Relationship

Again, the central question is why Christians and Seculo-Christians cannot just honor their holidays privately. What is this compulsion to shove their holidays in everyone’s face, to make everyone celebrate their holidays with them? It is invasive, imposing, dare I say violent. One might even call it severely co-dependent. As in, I cannot wear a red dress unless you, too, are wearing a red dress; therefore, I will force you to wear a red dress, even if you virulently hate red dresses, so that I am able to wear my red dress in a sea of red dresses, which is exactly how red dresses should be worn at all times.

A telling example is the hubaloo over Christmas at my mother’s Jewish independent living center. The center accepts people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, the non-Jews of whom have launched, over the years, a mission to erode the Jewish character of the center. Dripping with Christian and Christo-secular entitlement, they have been offended not only by the presence of Jewish celebration – such the kosher kitchen – but also by the absence of Christian celebration. The Christian and Christo-secular residents in fact created such an uproar that today, when you walk into this Jewish institution, established and funded in large part by Jewish organizations, you are assaulted by a Christmas wreath, larger-than-life size Christmas tree, and miscellaneous winter-wonderland paraphernalia.

In addition, when residents were given permission to decorate their personal apartment doors, and only their personal apartment doors, with Christmas imagery, a few residents took it upon themselves to also decorate the walls surrounding and across from their doors. Now one is assaulted by Christmas imagery from all sides, while walking past certain units.

It is all par for the course of how Christianity has operated over the millennia. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, Catholic leaders routinely corralled Jewish leaders and forced them into compulsory religious debates. The juries, of course, were totally rigged, and the whole debacle was a setup to justify the massacre and expulsion of Spanish Jews. Catholics could not just practice Catholicism and allow Jews to practice Judaism. Jews had to practice Catholicism. Or else.

And so we come to a core issue at the root of Christianity in general and Christmas in particular: Christianity is founded not only on the rejection but also on the villainization of Judaism. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, not only said to be the son of Gd, but said to have been murdered by the duplicitous, scheming, deceitful, cunning, shrewd, and ultimately evil Jews who therefore cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted. Therein lies the reason people are so willing to believe that Jews run the media, banks, government, and fill-in-the-blank:

Jews killed Gd.

Seriously, you cannot be more of a scary, two-timing, butt-fuck asshole than if you have killed Gd. And herein lies the implicit, if not explicit, justification for the persecution of Jews throughout Christian countries, over the millennia. Jews are the perfect scapegoat, because Gd-killers are obviously evil and therefore are most certainly behind anything and everything unseemly in society. One can never, under any circumstances, trust Jews. They may seem warm and friendly, but that’s just the devil in disguise.

And here’s the kicker: If Jesus did in fact exist, he was a Jew – killed like other Jews, on the cross, by the Roman empire conquerors of ancient Israel, in a grotesque, brutal, horrific punishment for simply being a Jew. Not only were Jews murdered on crosses in their own land, but for the next 2,000 plus years, Jews were collectively blamed, punished, and massacred for the possibility that Romans murdered a fellow Jew on a cross, for the crime of being a Jew.

What?!

To make things even more perverse, Hanukkah specifically honors the Jewish revolt against the Romans during the very period that Jesus supposedly lived and died on that there cross. And now Hanukkah cowers in the shadow of Christmas. Unbelievable.

I could overlook the Jew-hating roots of Christianity and Jew-murdering history of Christmas, in the interest of knocking back a few eggnogs with all the shiny-faced, well-meaning Christian and Christo-secular types, if only Christmas were not shoved down my face 24/7, with the demand that I, too, revel in its halo of glory — as if Christmas were central to my very existence. But 1) the public celebration of Christmas is a blatant violation of the American Constitution, whose tenets I hold dear; 2) Christmas is compulsory, both culturally and financially, therefore stealing my freedom of choice; 3) religious minorities are penalized for celebrating their own holidays on the very day of said holidays; and 4) it is impossible to escape Christmas – not only on the holiday itself, but now, for an entire quarter of the calendar year.

Which all goes to say: Christmas cheer? Not so much. Christmas is, quite simply, a yearly assault that I do my best to power through – turning off all forms of mass communication where I do not have total control; avoiding all public gatherings that are not specifically of a religious minority (ie, Christmas-free); and shopping with earplugs, so that Frosty the g*damned Snowman stays the fuck out of my head.


A pioneering Jewish multicultural educator, writer, healer, musician, and public relations manager, Loolwa Khazzoom now synthesizes it all through music-driven programs with her band, Iraqis in Pajamas – facilitating irreverent motivational speaking programs. Her work has been featured in media including The New York Times, CNN, and Rolling Stone and can be found at Loolwa.com (new website launch in January).

Forgotten Christmas messages


Toward the end of each year, millions of people across Europe flock to traditional Christmas markets to enjoy hot mulled wine, listen to bands playing carols and enjoy the bright lights piercing the icy dark. Many also attend churches and concert halls for a traditional performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” After the joyous opening, the tenor sings,“Da machte sich auch auf Joseph … aus Galilaea … in das juedische Land zur Stadt David” (“Joseph went into the Land of the Jews … to the City of David ”), followed by the alto singing “Rise up Zion, and abandon your weeping …” 

Premiered in 1734, these words were sung more than 200 years before the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948 and even longer before Israel occupied that “Land of the Jews” (renamed the “West Bank” between 1949 and 1967) following the Six-Day War.

Today, UNESCO all but denies the 3,000-year-old Jewish connection to Judea, including Jerusalem, with its magnificent Temple that the Jew Jesus visited. 

The European Union states, where hundreds of millions celebrate Christmas, just supported another United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Israel, using the Arab/Muslim term for the Har Habayit (aka the Temple Mount.) 

Some churches, as in New Zealand, have changed references to “Israel” and “Zion” from their prayer books.

What goes through their minds as they listen to those old Christian texts?

During the same festive season, many parents take their children to productions of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” written 57 years after the “Christmas Oratorio.” The story, incorporating Freemason themes, is based on the European Enlightenment’s age of reason, equality and liberty, which fired the imagination of both Mozart and Thomas Jefferson, his senior by 13 years. Both these men would become icons of Western civilization — the very issue being debated in a turbulent Europe today.

Has the enlightened world of Mozart and Jefferson been dumped for mindless populism and political correctness?

In contrast to Europeans today, the deeply religious Bach understood that the Jewish people were tied to the “Land of the Jews” for thousands of years, which is reflected in language, beliefs, rich archaeological finds, ancient references to the House of David, and the pilgrim festivals of Sukkot, Shavuot and Pesach that are celebrated to this very day.

In short, the Jews are the indigenous people of Israel and, despite exile, always maintained a significant presence in their lands. Indeed, the first census of Jerusalem, taken in 1840, attests to Jews being the largest group, which soon became an absolute majority.

Yet Jews are treated very differently from other indigenous people such as Native Americans, the Sami in Scandinavia or the Ainu in Japan. Why?

A major reason is that the early Christian theologian Augustine, arguably the founder of Western Christianity, asserted that Jews be regarded as “eternal witness,” as pariahs, which would render them homeless, unloved and impoverished. Their status would be seen as a triumph of Christianity and serve as a warning to Christians. 

This “eternal witness” epithet became a dominant force in the treatment of Jews. It was reflected in European culture with Wagner, Degas, Agatha Christie, T.S. Eliot and many others. Significantly, the anti-Jewish Hep-Hep riots in Germany, the Mortara Affair in Italy, the Dreyfus Affair in France and the Nazis of 1933 all occurred in post-Enlightenment Europe. 

The treatment of Jewish students on some American and European campuses today, eliciting at best tepid responses by authorities, is therefore of serious concern. A few weeks ago I wrote about the courageous aboriginal leader William Cooper, who demanded justice for both his own people and the Jewish people in Germany. 

Where are the William Coopers on campus?

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activities against Israel occur in various forms. Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, for example, is permitted to use only the Red Crystal, instead of the Star of David outside its borders, including eastern Jerusalem and other areas of “the Land of the Jews.”

Bishop Desmond Tutu is a strong advocate of Israel’s total isolation and inverts the Holocaust yet receives Germany’s prestigious prizes. The Kairos Palestine Document, which advocates boycotts against Israel, has been signed by mainstream churches and endorsed by the World Council of Churches. Conductor Daniel Barenboim, Edward Said’s protégé, who vociferously supports boycotting Israel, received Germany’s Peace Prize. Palestinian resistance advocate Felicia Langer was given Germany’s highest award by former President Horst Kohler. She speaks at churches, comparing Israel to apartheid, referring to its leaders as war criminals. Demonizing Israel has become de rigueur on campus by those who disgrace scholarship.

Students often hide their Jewishness while other Jews, such as Nathan Braude, principal violist in the Brussels Philharmonic and a professor at the Royal Conservatory Ghent, are told to sign onto BDS before accepting their positions. In Germany, official Jewish community mail is now sent in plain envelopes, minus the Star of David logo, as recommended by the police. World and community leaders do not even react to these outrages.

Any wonder then that the German Ministry of Justice has stated that the documented levels of anti-Semitism in Germany for 2015 are three times that of 2014?

What happened to the Age of Reason? Has it been replaced by mindless populism and political correctness?

The pariah status of Jews and Israel is some 1,600 years old. It is not about Jews being “bad,” but rather about being Jews as Jews. After all, Hitler said that “conscience is a Jewish invention.” 

When millions of families, academics, church goers, secular traditionalists and BDS supporters across Europe and the United States gather at their beautiful trees on Christmas Eve, will they ponder the text, “Joseph went to the Land of the Jews?” Or, will they blindly follow a populist mantra that contradicts enlightened reason, let alone historicity?


Ron Jontof-Hutter is a writer based in Melbourne and Berlin where he is a Fellow at the Berlin Center for the Study of Antisemitism. He is the author of the recently published satire on populist anti-Semitism, ”The Trombone Man: Tales of a Misogynist.”

Make ‘Fiddler’ a Christmas Eve tradition


On Thursday night last week, 1,500 Los Angeles area Jews gathered in six Laemmle movie theaters in Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Encino, North Hollywood, Pasadena and Claremont for sold-out screenings at the eighth annual Christmas Eve “Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Along.” I was honored to host the event at the Ahrya Fine Arts. It turned out to be a profound experience of Jewish community. 

The most remarkable surprise was who turned out – a veritable tableau of Jewish Los Angeles. As I greeted the 400-plus movie-goers in the lobby, I expected to see mostly baby boomers like me who embraced “Fiddler” when it opened on Broadway, September 22, 1964 and who loved the 1971 movie version. They showed up, but so did whole families with young children, a troupe of high school students who had recently performed in a production of the musical, a scattering of millenials, couples, singles, friends, and a group of 80 organized by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (which, full disclosure, is a part of Tribe Media Corp., publisher of the Jewish Journal). There were kippah-wearing Orthodox Jews, leaders of Conservative and Reform synagogues, secular Jews, rabbis, Israelis, Persians and Russians. A few came in costume: a Hodel wearing a sheitl and carrying a broom, a Perchick, a Golde. I was dressed as Tevye – and therein lies a story I told the crowd from my memoir, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing).

In 1966, I performed the role of Tevye in a United Synagogue Youth production at Beth El Synagogue in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, to standing-room-only crowds. Hardly anyone had seen the show; it was an impossible ticket on Broadway. Only one curious thing about the experience: the synagogue called the performances “A Night of Jewish Music.” I never understood why – until last year. “The whole thing was totally illegal!” John Adam Ross, the director of theater arts at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin told me. “There were no rights for high school productions in 1966. But, you realize Ron, you were probably the first person ever to play Tevye outside of Broadway!” I contacted Alisa Solomon, professor of journalism at Columbia University and author of a wonderful book about the making of the musical, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof to ask if this could possibly be true. Her answer: correct, there were no rights for high school productions to produce the show in 1966, but by then, there was a national touring company and an Israeli production of “Fiddler.” So, perhaps I was the third actor to play Tevye outside of Broadway. I showed the crowd at the Fine Arts a photo of me, age 16, as “Illegal Tevye.”

After a trivia contest (the question that stumped everyone: “What two actresses who played roles in “Fiddler” went on to star together in a smash TV series?” Answer: Bea Arthur as Yente and Adrienne Barbeau as Hodel in Norman Lear’s magnificent “Maude”) and a warm-up rehearsal led by anyone who had been in a production of “Fiddler,” the movie began to whoops and cheers. With the lyrics to every song captioned on screen, the sing-along commenced in full voice, a choir of 400 Jews of different backgrounds, religious levels, and political beliefs coming together as one community – singing about traditions, romances, dreams of being rich (“it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either!”), miracles, l’chayims, Sabbath prayers, sunrises…and sunsets. We nodded at the clever and insightful lyrics, penned by Sheldon Harnick, now 91 years old and still active: “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us.” We laughed, we cried, and we resonated with Tevye and Golde as their familial roles are challenged.  We shuddered as pogroms force the families of Anatevka to flee Russia as refugees.

“Tevye was my great-grandfather,” I told the crowd during the intermission. “My zaydie, my grandfather Louis Paperny, emigrated from Minsk to the United States of America in the early 1900’s as did many of your grandparents and great-grandparents. Like many of your ancestors, he left behind everything to seek a better life in America where he could build a family, a business and a community…as did families from Iran and the former Soviet Union more recently.”

When the evening ended, I asked the President of Laemmle Theatres, Greg Laemmle, why he initiated this event eight years ago. “There is something about all of us Jews being together on Christmas Eve. My grandmother left Russia as a young girl during the Revolution, bouncing around Western Europe before coming to Los Angeles in 1939.  And yet, even after forty plus years in the United States, she would still feel a sense of foreboding at Christmas and Easter.  Why?  Because she still lived with the fear that these were the times when a violent pogrom could erupt out of nowhere.  For me, that was part of the motivation in creating a Christmas Eve event.  And obviously, ‘Fiddler’ is a natural choice.”

The themes of refugees and immigration animate the newest revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in a production that opened on December 20, 2015, to rave reviews.  (Spoiler alert!) In a controversial decision by esteemed director, Bartlett Sher, the play is bracketed with a framing device that has Danny Burstein, the talented actor playing Tevye, in a modern red parka telling the story as family history – “A fiddler on the roof? Sounds crazy, no?” Even more stunning is the conclusion of the show which offers an unmistakable nod to the global refugee crisis unfolding before our very eyes.

At American Jewish University this coming semester, I will teach a seminar in “experiential education” to our graduate students in Jewish Education. I cannot think of a more unusual, engaging and moving experience of Jewish community outside of a great prayer service than the “Fiddler on the Roof “ Sing-Along. I encourage you to get your tickets early for next year’s sure-to-sell-out screenings. 

As the crowd filed out of the theater, the comments were universally positive. “Wonderful show!” “I hadn’t seen the film in thirty years – it holds up.” “I wanted my children to see it so they would understand.” “So much fun to sing along!” My response: “Thanks for coming. We’re still here. Shabbat shalom!”


Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University and author of The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing). 

United Nations to recognize Yom Kippur as official holiday


The United Nations will for the first time recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday.

Starting in 2016, no official meetings will take place on the Jewish day of atonement at the international body’s New York headquarters, and Jewish employees there will be able to miss work without using vacation hours, the Times of Israel reported Friday. 

Other religious holidays that enjoy the same status are Christmas, Good Friday, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

In a statement issued Friday, B’nai B’rith International, which in a 2014 Op-Ed for The New York Times pushed for the international body to recognize Yom Kippur, said it “welcomes” the news.

In 2014, ambassadors from 32 countries signed a letter in support of recognizing Yom Kippur.

“This is a modest, common-sense step toward fairness for personnel at the United Nations and respect for Judaism as a major world religion,” the B’nai B’rith statement said. “It should be emulated at the U.N.’s offices across the world, and built upon across an international system in which politics often supplant mutual respect and equality.”

“We strongly commend the diplomats of the United States, Israel and many other nations who made possible the progress seen yesterday,” the statement added.

How to not spoil your interfaith kids during the holiday season


“We get twice the presents!”

Most interfaith kids will utter this classic, and rather obnoxious, boast at some point during childhood. I have to admit, it makes me wince and grit my teeth a little. As an interfaith child myself, I understand all too well that bragging about Christmas and Chanukah gifts can be a defense mechanism designed to dazzle and deflect those who view interfaith families with skepticism and disapproval. 

But as the parent of two interfaith children, now 17 and 20, it was crucial every year to at least attempt to reduce the avalanche of holiday packages, boxes and bags. I really did not want my interfaith kids to feel entitled, superior or somehow wealthier than their single-faith playmates.

To be honest, I did try to give my kids double the gifts, but I wanted those gifts to be metaphorical or experiential, not material. The plan was to bestow on them deep connections to both Judaism and Christianity, education in the history and rituals and beliefs of both religions, and opportunities to celebrate with extended family on both sides. In lieu of buying stuff, my husband and I tried to focus on creating deep sensory memories for our children: frosting gingerbread houses and frying latkes, hanging ornaments and dancing around the menorah.

OK, so we are not total Scrooges, or Grinches, or ascetics. Each child got one pile of gifts for the holidays, and “Santa” delivered that pile on Christmas morning. I do understand why some families who don’t celebrate Christmas give a huge mound of presents on Chanukah instead. But giving two piles of presents on two overlapping holidays seemed to me like a misguided attempt to make the two holidays equal. 

Part of the beauty of celebrating both religions for our family is that Chanukah does not have to compete with Christmas. Instead, we let Chanukah be a more modest holiday, appropriate to its modest place in the Jewish liturgical calendar, where it stands behind Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in terms of importance.

Part of our strategy was to communicate with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles our intention to try to keep the gift-giving under control, and instead focus on those who are truly in need. One visionary great-uncle gave donations to a different charity each year at Christmas in lieu of presents, and wrote a letter about his choice to each member of the extended family. My mother has taken to donating goats and sheep and chickens in the name of each of her grandchildren through Heifer International. And each year, we shepherded our children to the local Alternative Gift Fair, where they made charitable donations in lieu of Chanukah gifts on certain nights: drumming lessons for youth in detention, psychotherapy and fresh local vegetable deliveries for low-income Washington, D.C., residents, and bicycle-repair kits for people in Uganda and Honduras.

And cumulatively, over the years, I must admit they got a lot of toys and clothes and books.

But being an interfaith family provided fresh incentive each year to focus on the carols and the klezmer, the firelight and the candlelight, and spending time with both sets of relatives. It took a conscious effort to keep Chanukah and Christmas from disappearing under a drift of torn red-and-green and blue-and-white wrapping paper. 

We did not always succeed. But I hope that if you ask one of my nearly grown kids about the benefits of being part of an interfaith family, you will get a deeper answer than “Twice the presents!”  

Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter, is the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.” She blogs regularly at onbeingboth.com, Huffington Post and The Seesaw interfaith advice column at The Jewish Daily Forward. You can find her on Twitter @BeingBoth.

Jews get into the Christmas spirit


Sonny Calderon still remembers the words his outraged 8-year-old son cried out when he learned Santa Claus wasn’t real, that his father had been perpetuating a myth: “I hate you, and I hate the way your farts smell.”

Calderon relived this traumatic moment on Dec. 10 in front of a packed house at hipster-hangout El Cid, where the irreverent, nondenominational collective East Side Jews held a storytelling show called “Light Up the Night: Holiday Mashup.”

“It was a very L.A. moment, having this flamenco venue on Sunset Boulevard, with Jews coming to talk about Christmas. It was a great melting-pot moment,” said Zan Romanoff, program coordinator for Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center
(SIJCC). East Side Jews operates under the aegis of SIJCC.

As the smell of paella wafted and sangria intoxicated, five storytellers, including Calderon, took the stage. The evening acted as a middle ground between the two holidays, Christmas and Chanukah, and — at least for one night — the two holidays got along famously.

Romanoff, who is an occasional contributor to the Journal, kicked off the night with ease by introducing the storytellers. The 27-year-old, who has a Jewish father and a formerly Catholic mother who has since converted, asked the audience to tweet the evening (#eastsidejews) “so we can take back our hashtag!” To which one person in the audience whispered, “Who took it?” 

Immediately after, Brett Fromson, Deanna Neil and Tannaz Sassooni performed “Instagram,” a millennial rendition of Paul Simon’s 1973 single “Kodachrome.”

Storyteller Becca Frucht, a Southern belle with an interfaith upbringing, talked about her family’s iconic “Chanuk-as” (Chanukah + Christmas) parties in a town where, as Frucht described it, “There’s more fried okra than Jews.” Meanwhile, she donned a Christmas-inspired yarmulke that just about summed up the evening.

Storyteller Avishay Artsy, a news producer at KCRW and a Jewish Journal contributor, prompted his story with a precursor about his notions of Christmas. 

“The music is great,” he said, “granted, all the music is written by Jews …” 

Artsy, who is in a committed interfaith relationship, discussed his own qualms about the holiday’s illustrious staple: the Christmas tree. (See his full story in the Dec. 12 issue or online at

My menorah and my Christmas tree


For me as a youngster, Christmas was always something others did.  But I married a non Jew and in our early years together, experienced a great deal of conflict over his desire for a Christmas tree.  For several years, each December, we engaged in the same heated discussion that went something like this: 

“We’re not getting a Christmas tree,” I insisted. “It represents all we are not.  It is at its heart a celebration of something Christian and I am not a Christian. To participate in Christmas, for me, would be an insult to my Eastern European ancestors who died in the Holocaust.  It’s just not our holiday. And every year when Christmas rolls around the fact that we are ‘other’ is rubbed in my face.  I am a Jew in a non-Jewish world.”

“But for me Christmas has nothing to do with religion,” he replied. “It’s secular.  I don’t go to church.  It has nothing to do with Christianity for me. It’s about family and being together, showing appreciation for each other, exchanging gifts, bringing light to each other during the darkest, longest days of the year.” 

I couldn’t accept that. “Nope, not for me.  Sorry.  I cannot insult my parents or my ancestors.  I will never have a Christmas tree or a ‘Chanukah Bush’ in my home, ever!” 

But to be honest, I was conflicted. The girl in me who went to Yeshiva through 8th grade, and Jewish summer camp every summer, never drove on the Sabbath, and didn’t eat shrimp until she was in her 20’s, was saying, “Watch out! Danger! No tree! No Easter eggs either while you’re at it! We are Jews!”

On the other hand, do I decide that, although my home is of mixed cultural and religious background, my husband must deny his own heritage and be forbidden to bring his family traditions into our home?  Should I prohibit my twin daughters from participating in anything even remotely related to my husband’s non-Jewish family customs, due to abject fear of assimilation?  Would my children catch these traditions like cooties with the power to poison their Jewish identity?  At the very least, won’t they be extremely confused?

In the end, we decided to break the “no tree” rule, and no lightning came down to strike me.

Our annual arguments came to an end when the kids were small, and after we joined the Sholem Community and participated in their annual “December Dilemma” discussion on this topic. (Sholem is a 60-year-old secular Jewish cultural, and social institution with a Sunday school that teaches Jewish history, culture, and ethics.) For the first time I heard other Jews who, like me, were married to non-Jews, and struggling with this question:  To tree or not to tree? It was here that I was reminded not only of the differences between the two winter holidays, but of their similarities.  Both festivals have their roots in the changing of the seasons and in ancient and universal desires to dispel the darkening days and to return to light, warmth, and springtime. Through the course of their evolution, these seasonal holidays have been reinvented and imbued with religious meanings. But we can all find beauty and purpose in the use of light and fires, of evergreen trees and feasting.  These rituals speak to a common need to end the darkness and to hope the the sun will come back.

Yes, I recognize the role of tradition, and I share the desire to honor the history of my ancestors. But I also understand there are all kinds of historical complexities around the holidays, and I see no reason why our intercultural family can’t share a celebration of community, light, joy, generosity and good cheer. I love my husband and even though I do not share his cultural or religious history, having a tree in my home does not diminish me any more than having a menorah dishonors him.

Frankly, our Christmas tree is not that important to me. I don’t even care about the lights hanging from our awning. I hate obligatory gift giving.  But my husband loves it, and so do our kids. I love the way it brings us all together.  And that is the critical point here: these are our kids. Not my kids. That means we bring our family together, celebrating all that we are. No one is asked to give up “…a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories,” as a recent Jewish Journal article (“The convert and the Christmas tree,” December 11) suggested, citing two rabbinical authorities.

The article, without citing any evidence, repeated the old trope about how having a Christmas tree “can be confusing to children” in a household in which one partner is a non-Jew. In my own experience, and in the experience of other multi-cultural families I know, that’s just not true. In fact, I believe that it would send a horribly confusing message to my children if I were to teach them that ultimately a family must choose to adopt the traditions and rituals of only one parent, one culture in a multicultural partnership.  What would that teach them about how to live in a world that is more globally connected than ever before and in which the rates of inter-marriage are multiplying? 

Although I strongly disagree with those who say that Jews should never have a Christmas tree in their homes, I do agree with Rabbi Susan Goldberg, quoted in the article as saying that “questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.” Ideally, those discussions, at this or any time of year, should focus on what traditions mean for us not be for the purpose of deciding whose family traditions to erase.

That said, these more open approaches to traditions that involve investigating, celebrating, and cherishing the diverse cultural and ethnic histories around us are likely to work better in more secular households than ones in which religious views or dogma predominate.  I acknowledge that.  And it’s worked for us.  Our kids have been raised with a powerful Jewish identity in a secular and deeply spiritual home. Their Jewish identity has been nurtured by the Sholem Community and is based on the history, values and shared culture of the Jewish people, rather than religious doctrine and dogma.

As for our daughters, who will turn 18 next month, they are not at all confused.  They understand that identity is complicated and not tied in a neat ribbon.  This week, as we celebrate Hanuka together, they will light our two menorahs and decorate our Christmas tree.  At Sholem, they have received a solid secular Jewish education where they have learned about the Jewish part of their identity and discovered that the presence of a tree does not undermine their heritage.  Actually, in many ways they are far less “confused” about their Jewish identity than I was or may ever be, Christmas tree, lights, gifts, cheer and all.

Marilyn McLaughlin is a Movement Therapist, Fall Prevention Specialist and Adjunct Professor of Dance at Loyola Marymount University. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Sholem Community, www.sholem.org

The convert and the Christmas tree


For me, Christmas was always something other people did. Growing up in a Jewish home, I watched the holiday’s rituals unfold in movies, on TV and in the homes of friends: hanging ornaments on a tree, unwrapping presents and singing songs of Yuletide cheer (whatever that means).
 
As a kid in the United States, it’s literally impossible to avoid Christmas, unless you live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The music blasts from every radio station and department store, and the shopping mall Santas beckon you nearer. I secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas so I could be like everyone else. The Chanukah candles were nice, but their soft glow paled in comparison to the tinsel and bulbs of the Christmas tree. And how can “I Have a Little Dreidel” even compare to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all?
 
I’m now 34 and have never had a Christmas tree in my home. My girlfriend, Amanda, who is not Jewish and who I live with, has suggested buying one, but I always tell her that it feels weird to me. Even though I don’t keep kosher or maintain Shabbat, somehow having a Christmas tree feels like a repudiation of my Jewish upbringing.
 
We’re now enrolled in “Judaism by Choice,” a weekly class for those interested in converting or at least gaining a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish. We learn about the history, traditions and practices of the Jews. We were even “married” in a fake wedding in class, to learn about the customs of Jewish marriage. It’s basically Hebrew school for grownups. 
 
In a lecture on Christianity and Judaism, our instructor, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, explained that a Jewish family should not have a Christmas tree in their home. And no Chanukah bush, either.
 
“There can’t be fusion of different religious groups,” Weinberg told me in an interview. “It can be confusing to children. They’re wondering, why are we doing Christian holidays in our home? If you’re Jewish, you’ve got to get across to your children that you’re Jewish. We have our own holidays. We respect other people and their holidays. But that does not mean that we have to incorporate [them] into our home life.”
 
After class, Amanda was clearly upset. A Christmas tree, she explained, is symbolic of her childhood. It means family, togetherness and unity. As someone who loves crafting and worships the ground that Martha Stewart walks on, she had looked forward to someday teaching her children how to hand-paint ornaments and hang lights and bake cookies. She wanted to decorate the house and make eggnog and throw Christmas parties.
 
I feel like a jerk for denying her this. What’s wrong with a Christmas tree? Amanda is not religious and sees the tree as a purely secular object. Why can’t we celebrate both holidays? 
 
I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who mentors converts at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She also was the consulting rabbi on one of my favorite shows this year, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, and is well-versed in the challenges facing young Jews.
 
Goldberg agreed that Jews shouldn’t have a tree in their homes and acknowledged that December can be the most grueling month for someone wanting to convert to Judaism. Many fear that disconnecting from the faith of their upbringing also means disconnecting from their families. 
 
“For most folks in our dominant Christian culture, this is a big question, and it generates a lot of emotion,” she said. “The Christmas tree is this very powerful symbol when it’s in the home.” 
 
I asked some of my classmates how they’re handling the idea of relinquishing the Christmas tree. Sarah Reeves, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, is in the process of converting to Judaism to marry her fiance, Ben. She had an artificial Christmas tree that he didn’t want in the home because he saw it as a Christian symbol. She didn’t see it that way.
 
“Because I didn’t grow up in an organized religion, it just seemed like American culture. I never really associated it with any kind of religion,” she said.
 
Reeves still bakes Christmas cookies with daughter Sophia, 7. They hang stockings and go to Christmas parties. But she agreed to let the tree go.
 
“I donated the tree to my daughter’s school, and I took all the ornaments, and I had to get creative about how to display them in our home, so I ended up stringing them on ribbon. And I tried to make it a thing for my daughter and I to do together,” Reeves said. “I just couldn’t get rid of all the ornaments because I’d collected them over the years.”
 
“I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have a Chanukah tree,” sighed Emily Fredrick, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I was really looking forward to that.”
 
Fredrick was raised in a religious Baptist home in Dallas and went to church three times a week. She’s excited about converting to Judaism but acknowledges that there are some things about Christmas that she’ll miss. 
 
“As a child growing up, we would get up at 4 in the morning for Santa to come,” Fredrick said. “I’m thinking, like, ‘How am I going to make it exciting for my children?’ ”
 
Danielle Sebring, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, had similar concerns. “I had always had this image of decorating a Christmas tree with my children someday, because that’s what I did growing up, and making cookies and leaving them out for Santa,” she said. 
 
Sebring converted to Judaism this year after marrying her husband, who is Jewish. Before converting, she said, “I almost had to go through this grieving process for these expectations that I had around the holidays.”
 
The first year Sebring and her husband were married, they had a Christmas tree and they also celebrated Chanukah. Last year, she had a small, tabletop tree with lights. This winter will be her first without a tree.
 
“It’s a very nostalgic thing. For me, it was a big part of my family growing up, and so it really makes me feel connected to them. And that can be hard to let go of,” Sebring said.
 
Clearly, Christmas is connected to a lot of deep-rooted feelings, and most of them have nothing to do with religion.
 
“I don’t think, for most of the people who go through my program, that the struggle in giving up Christmas is about a struggle in giving up Christianity,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who leads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.
 
“I think it’s a struggle in giving up a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories.”
 
Greenwald tells converts to examine the emotions they associate with Christmas and look for ways to celebrate them in a Jewish context.
 
“The Jewish calendar is replete with holidays, certainly more holidays than are practiced in the Christian tradition. And I think there are opportunities to do all of the kind of sweet family experiences around those holidays that one does around Christmas,” he said.
 
As kids, we’re taught that Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Second Temple and the last flask of ritual olive oil lasting eight days instead of one. As grownups, we learn that before the Maccabees waged war against the Syrian Greeks, there was a fierce and often violent internal conflict between traditional and assimilated Jews over whether to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle.
 
The same debate exists today, and Christmas is a perfect example of a mainstream practice that’s hard to avoid or to resist. 
 
“Wrestling with these questions is very much the heart of the Chanukah story. That’s why it’s wonderful that it happens this time of year,” Goldberg said. “Those questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.”
 
Amanda is still deciding whether she wants to convert to Judaism, and I’m still deciding whether Christmas is OK to celebrate as a Jew. We spent Thanksgiving at her sister’s house, where we helped buy a Christmas tree and decorated it with Amanda’s 8-year-old niece. It was a beautiful experience, but I’m not sure it’s one my children will have — at least, not in their own home. There are no easy choices or easy answers. 

Why Chanukah matters


There’s a certain narrative about Chanukah that has become near conventional wisdom among American Jews, and it goes like this:

Chanukah is a fun holiday that is big in America, thanks to its proximity to Christmas. But really, it’s a “minor” holiday that is more impactful culturally and sociologically than religiously, and it can’t really compare to the “big” ones of Yom Kippur and Passover.

And that’s all true. But it’s also too simple.

Chanukah matters for many reasons. It matters because, as one historian put it, it allows American Jews to feel included in the American holiday season while also remaining distinct, because they have their own holiday. It matters because, as one rabbi put it, Chanukah provides light in a season of darkness, giving families good reason to come together and celebrate. It also matters because, as another rabbi said, Chanukah carries an anti-assimilationist message that is as relevant today as it was 1,800 years ago.

Chanukah is a rarity within Judaism. It’s a holiday that, because of its scant halachic background, doesn’t provide much fodder for legal or practical disagreement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. But it’s also a holiday that rabbis and Jewish academics and educators seem to agree is significant — uniquely so for American Jews — but for a variety of reasons. 

Chabad emphasizes the spiritual message of always increasing light. Modern Orthodox Jews focus on the sages’ narrative of the oil miracle pointing to God’s omnipresent role in the Maccabees’ military victory. Conservative and Reform Jews find meaning in why the sages altered Chanukah’s story by reducing the role of the Maccabees and increasing that of God, and also in how Chanukah allows Jews to feel just as American as Christians do in December. And many communal leaders see Chanukah as an ideal time to reach out to less-connected Jews.

Chanukah is a holiday that takes on different meanings for each different group of Jews. But it also offers something that no other Jewish holiday offers, and it does so without the conflict that often characterizes how other parts of Jewish religious life ought to be observed: Chanukah is a home- and family-based holiday, with eight nights of candle-lighting and lots of good food and celebration — there is no argument about that among any mainstream group of Jews. And it also happens to be an easy and fun way to practice Judaism during a season dominated by the image of the fun and warmth of Christmas. 

Chanukah’s message, meanwhile, is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: To maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values assimilation is a challenge. But even with the holiday’s warning siren against assimilation, Chanukah and, to a certain extent, its message, have spread in America mainly because it has paired itself with Christmas. The irony is impossible to ignore.

Misremembering Chanukah

“Most Jews don’t know the stories of Chanukah, and if they do know the stories, they don’t know the real stories,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The sanitized version of Chanukah casts the underdog Maccabees as winners of an unlikely victory against the mighty Greeks, and after the war, when the Jews went to light the menorah in the Temple, there was only enough oil left for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Voila! That’s Chanukah — Judaism surviving against all odds with God’s hand clearly present. 

Typically left unexplained is the story of religious division among Jewish traditionalists and assimilationists, the religious zealotry of the Maccabee and Hasmonean victors and why Jewish tradition emphasizes the miracle of the oil over the military victory.

The Chanukah story most Jews don’t know is that the Maccabean rebellion in 167 B.C.E. (the Second Temple era) was as much an outward revolt against the Greek attempt to destroy religious and spiritual Judaism (there was no genocidal intent) as it was a civil war to violently defeat Hellenist Jews who wanted to abandon or compromise religious Judaism to fit into Greek culture, which primarily valued science, philosophy and the arts. Hellenized Jews were so fanatic in their anti-Judaism that some males tried to reverse their circumcisions, according to the First Book of Maccabees, or I Maccabees, which, along with II Maccabees tells the official story of the Jewish war against Hellenism, from the point of view of the Maccabees. 

The era’s urban Jews, as a generalization, wanted a Hellenized Judea. Rural, more traditional Jews wanted to maintain their distinct Jewish identity and resist the force of Greek assimilation. Pro-Hellenist Jews, fed up with the refusal of the traditionalists to assimilate, requested that Antiochus — the Greek king at the time — send military forces to suppress the traditionalists.

But the occupying Greek forces were not the traditionalists’ first target. The trigger for their revolt was an apostate Hellenist Jew who offered a sacrifice to a Greek god in Modi’in, according to the Book of Maccabees. Mattathias, a traditionalist and the father of Judah Maccabee, saw the Jew about to perform a sacrifice, killed him, and then killed a Greek officer and tore down the altar where the sacrifice would have occurred.

And thus began the Maccabean revolt, which ended in a Jewish victory that propelled the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty (essentially the political party of that era’s traditionalists) into power after the miracle of the war and the oil. The Hasmoneans’ story has been largely forgotten by modern Jews, in large part thanks to rabbinic Judaism’s decision during one of the early centuries of the Common Era to keep I Maccabees and II Maccabees out of the Torah canon, banished to the less authoritative realm of biblical Apocrypha — stories of Jewish history important enough to remain in our collective memory but kept out of the official canon for one reason or another. 

Purim, like Chanukah, also commemorates the Jews’ survival (although Chanukah celebrates religious, not physical, survival) against a mighty enemy — Haman and his cronies in Persia. The rabbis, though, elevated Purim above Chanukah, at least as far as halachah is concerned, by canonizing it. Open a Tanakh and the Book of Esther will be there; the Books of Maccabees won’t be. The rabbis of the third century felt uneasy canonizing and issuing their stamp of approval upon the Hasmoneans, an ultimately oppressive group of Jewish rulers who forced Jews into observance and killed religious deviants. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Modern Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach said the Hasmoneans’ extremism and their intolerance put them out of favor with the more moderate views of rabbinic tradition. “They were not the people of compromise,” Fink said.

Ironically, even though the Hasmoneans were the most extreme group of Jews ever to rule the land of Israel, the populace absorbed Hellenistic culture anyway, touting Jewish kings with names like John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Jews, meanwhile, have adopted  Greek-derived words like Sanhedrin and synagogue to label core elements of religious Judaism.

And while Jews under Hasmonean rule experienced the spread of the very same Greek culture that the Hasmoneans so violently opposed, they also came under Roman occupation after two Hasmonean brothers fighting for the crown — John Hyrcanus the Pharisee and Aristobulus the Sadducee — asked the Romans to settle the dispute. The Romans then took advantage of the Jewish infighting to invade, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the Roman exile, which lasts to this day and, according to Jewish tradition, will last until the coming of the Messiah and the construction of the Third Temple.

The rabbis of the Talmud who decided to omit the Maccabean version of history from official canon were not willing to elevate the tyrannical Jewish regime that lost Israel to the Romans, even if it was traditional in its religious practice. They felt, too, that the Chanukah story needed a miracle, and it needed God’s role to outweigh that of the Hasmoneans, so the rabbis told the story of the miracle of the oil, a spiritual miracle featuring God’s suspension of the law of nature. And this story came to outweigh the significance of the unlikely Maccabean victory that would lead to a dark period of Jewish power and a disgraceful fall.

The rabbis’ edited version of the story says much about how they believed Judaism needed to be understood during the era of Roman exile, especially by Diaspora Jews. 

“Although we were happy that [the Maccabees] won, that’s not the Judaism that we want to perpetuate,” Fink said. “The Judaism that we want to perpetuate is the one that speaks of light. To me, [the rabbis’] message was, ‘Don’t become an extremist.’ ”

A holiday of few (practical) disagreements

Disagreement is a pillar of Judaism, and most Jewish holidays are staging grounds for practical disagreements. Orthodox Jews disagree with Conservative and Reform Jews about how electricity should be used on Shabbat and other holidays. What’s considered chametz on Passover? What’s kosher? What’s not kosher? How many days of Shavuot should be observed? Should Shavuot be observed? 

Chanukah has no such disputes, which makes it one of the only agreeable festivals in the Jewish calendar.

“It’s one of the holidays with the least amount of halachic material,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “There isn’t that much opportunity for much difference. From that perspective, it’s wonderful, because the entire Jewish community is observing it in the same way.”

And Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, up there with Passover and Yom Kippur, allowing American Jews to shelve their differences for eight days. Orthodox Jews wary of Americanizing Chanukah accept, sometimes begrudgingly, that capitalizing on the Christmas spirit and ritualizing gift-giving has helped lead many Jews to observe the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and displaying it publicly, which Maimonides held is a particularly important mitzvah because of its commemoration of the survival and spread of religious Judaism. 

And non-Orthodox Jews skeptical of many tenets of rabbinic Judaism, and who may feel that Orthodox practices unnecessarily separate Jews from American culture, have proudly embraced Chanukah’s central halachic feature (lighting the menorah) as Jews’ way to take part in America’s holiday season while maintaining a unique Jewish identity.

“The truth of the matter is the rituals are pretty much the same,” said Feinstein. “You have a holiday that has no politics; no one’s saying that my version of the holiday is better than someone else’s.” 

The differences in practices, Feinstein said, are not between American Jews of different denominations, but between American Jews and Jews in other countries. From the gifts to the decorations to the food to the music, Feinstein said, “American Jews celebrate Chanukah very differently than, say, South African or European or Israeli Jews.”

Chanukah, Americanized

Nowhere else is Chanukah celebrated with the grandiosity that accompanies it in the United States. 

“It is not such a huge event in Israel, where Christmas is not a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” said David Myers, a UCLA history professor and Journal contributor.

How did Chanukah become a cultural phenomenon in America?

“Timing is everything,” said Jonathan Sarna, a historian and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was historically a minor holiday and only became more major because of Christmas.”

This year, Chanukah ends on Christmas Eve, right in the middle of the American holiday season, giving American Jews the sense of full participation in a time when the vast majority of Americans associate the word “holiday” with Christmas.

Myers says that American Jews’ ability to adapt their holiday into “mainstream cultural norms” is similar to what other Diaspora Jewish groups did in learning the language of their host countries in Spain, Persia, numerous Arabic societies and, especially, Germany, where Hebrew and German combined to form Yiddish. “This kind of dynamic has occurred throughout Jewish history,” Myers said. “Jews have continuously adapted names, languages and cultural values from their host societies.”

In the late 1800s, Myers said, observant Jews in America “sought to revive memory of the holiday as a traditionalist reaction” against Reform Judaism’s wish to assimilate into American culture and de-emphasize Jews as a distinct people. Then, in the mid-20th century, many more American Jews, primarily non-Orthodox ones, revitalized Chanukah with the aim of turning it into the other major winter festival alongside Christmas, which is when gift-giving became the norm.

Why did Chanukah become a holiday celebrated by most American Jews, while holidays of greater stature according to Jewish law, such as Shavuot and Simchat Torah, are primarily celebrated by Orthodox Jews? It’s not just because of Christmas, Feinstein said. Chanukah, as a holiday of lights, has a particular appeal in its spiritual and physical light during the short winter days. “Its correspondence with Christmas and its correspondence with the winter solstice are what give it its power,” Feinstein said. 

Fink pointed out that while Christmas has helped elevate Chanukah’s status in America, Orthodox Jews would celebrate the holiday no matter what time of year it fell.

“They are not the ones who are benefiting from this kind of American holiday atmosphere,” Fink said, adding, though, that Chanukah’s gaining from the presence of Christmas should not be viewed as a negative thing. “I’m not saying that we celebrate Chanukah because [Christians celebrate Christmas], but it’s a time that people are going to have an interest in experiencing their own traditions, so it’s wise to capitalize on it.”

Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, in that sense, not only helps American Jews by acting as a “counterweight” to Christmas, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple said, but benefits from the Christmas spirit, drawing upon one of America’s three biggest holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s being the others) to make Judaism fun for those whose only Jewish observance throughout the year might be fasting on Yom Kippur and sitting down at a Passover seder. Chanukah, Wolpe said, is “minor in terms of its status halachically [but] major in terms of its status sociologically.”

“Among Jews who don’t have the strongest identification or the greatest education, there’s a lot pulling them into the general population,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I think, arguably, that Chanukah has played an important role in giving non-Orthodox families a little bit of a hedge against the Christmas spirit.”

In America, Chanukah has drawn less-religious Jews into joyfully fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and has brought American Jewry as a whole closer to the (American) ideal of having both a distinct American identity and a religious identity, as Sarna believes.

“Chanukah allows Jews simultaneously to be part of and apart from, and that’s really a microcosm of what a minority religious community wants to be,” Sarna said. “It wants to stress its distinctiveness even as it wants to be part of a certain zeitgeist.”

Wolpe, contrasting what Chanukah and Yom Kippur offer American Jews in terms of feeling more, well, American, said, “Look, the White House does a Chanukah lighting, they don’t do a Yom Kippur fast, because Chanukah allows them to understand, yes we have a holiday, they have a holiday — and that matters in a society that’s always striving for balance and has lots of different factions.”

Martin Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia, lights the Chanukah menorah on Dec. 5, 2013, as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on during the day’s second Chanukah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House.  At left is Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. At right is U.S. Navy Lt. Ron Sachs. Photo by Consolidated News Photos

Myers, going a step further, believes the development of Chanukah in America is today’s example of how Diaspora Jews have managed to keep Judaism alive while blending into foreign nations. “It offers proximity to the American cultural mainstream while permitting some degree of preservation of Jewish distinctiveness,” Myers said. “Precisely the work of cultural adaptation and modification that allowed for Jewish renewal and, ultimately, survival.”

‘We don’t need to compete’

Perhaps no group has done more in America than Chabad to thrust Chanukah into the public square. American Friends of Lubavitch organizes the annual lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah in front of the White House; Chabad emissaries across American campuses place a menorah next to visible pedestrian walkways; Chabad families strap giant menorahs to the roofs of their cars and drive around like that for eight days. Whereas the commandment to publicize the miracle of Chanukah is fulfilled by most Jews by placing the menorah in a window, Chabad ratchets the practice up several notches, placing menorahs everywhere.

On the Chanukah agenda for Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, is the public menorah lighting at City Hall, this year with Mayor Eric Garcetti — Greenwald’s seventh such lighting; separate menorah lightings at a Los Angeles Clippers game and outside Staples Center; and organizing yet another lighting at Pershing Square, an urban park in the center of downtown. 

“In America, it’s particularly meaningful, because here we can practice all the observances in full view in public,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald added, though, that Chanukah, as one of Judaism’s “most important holidays,” doesn’t need Christmas to make it important. The holiday can stand on its own spiritual and religious merit, he said. “We don’t need to compete in the marketplace of holidays,” Greenwald said. “I don’t want to look at it as the Jewish Christmas.”

There’s irony to Chanukah’s piggybacking on Christmas in the United States, and Greenwald’s objection to making Chanukah the “Jewish Christmas” alludes to it — one of Chanukah’s main lessons is that Jews must resist the temptation to discard tradition in favor of a newer culture. At the same time, though, Chanukah’s attachment to Christmas is perhaps the main reason that the holiday is observed by so many non-Orthodox Jews; the same can’t be said for a holiday such as Simchat Torah, which is given a higher halachic status.

“I think that outside of Orthodox Judaism, there’s almost this wink-wink, nudge-nudge, this is our version of Christmas,” Fink said. “Orthodox Judaism really would be very uncomfortable with that.”

And as a holiday that warns against succumbing to “pressure from any outsider alien society,” Adlerstein said, Chanukah matters as much today as it did for the Maccabees: “The conflict between Jews who wished to bring their own practice more in conformance with the cultural milieu and secular surroundings, and traditionalists who wanted to hold on to core Jewish beliefs and practices hasn’t gone away one iota in 2,000 years.”

Rabbi Arye Sufrin, assistant principal at YULA Boys High School and assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, said one message he tries to teach his students is not only Chanukah’s plea to “maintain the tradition” but also why it’s so important to publicize it with pride, a luxury afforded Jews in this country. “We can do that today, but there was a lot that had to happen” to reach this point of openness and safety, Sufrin said. “Chanukah is not a minor holiday.”

Calendar: December 21-January 3


MON | DEC 23

WOODY ALLEN AND HIS NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND

Forget the movies — the man is making music. With more than 35 years of bringing New Orleans-inspired music to audiences all over the world, the band has mastered creating the sounds Allen has loved since childhood, including nods to George Lewis, Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong. Come because you liked “Manhattan,” and stick around because you’ll love New Orleans. Mon. 8 p.m. $70-$102. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. TUE | DEC 24

“FIDDLER ON THE ROOF” SING-ALONG

Tradition! It’s the fifth annual “Who needs Christmas, anyway?” celebration brought to you by your local Laemmle family. Norman Jewison’s adaptation of the Broadway classic is set in the Ukrainian shtetl of Anatevka, where Tevye the milkman has to balance the challenges of poverty, anti-Semitism and five young, ready-for-love daughters. You’ll get to be another voice in an already impressive cast that stars Topol, Norma Crane, Molly Picon and Leonard Frey. Tue. 7:30 p.m. $18 (general), $15 (seniors, 60 and older; children, 11 and under). Claremont 5, Music Hall 3, NoHo 7, Playhouse 7, Royal and Town Center 5. (310) 478-1041. ” target=”_blank”>stsonline.org.

MERRY EREV CHRISTMAS SHOW

Comedian Elon Gold serves up a very Jewish Christmas with a special lineup of some very special guests. Known for his spot-on impressions of Jeff Goldblum, Jay Leno and Howard Stern, Gold is just as funny at being other people as he is being himself. Having been a judge on ABC’s “The Next Best Thing,” he is sure to deliver an impressive assemblage of L.A.’s finest. Tue. 7:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. $17-$30. The Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 656-1336. ” target=”_blank”>laguardians.org

SCHMOOZE-A-PALOOZA

A little schmooze and a little palooze can go a long way. Meet your match (maybe — fingers crossed!) at JDate’s favorite holiday party. With 19 successful soirées behind it, this year’s bash is going back to basics. Spice things up with tapas from Rick Bayless, winner of the first “Top Chef Masters” and host of the PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” a tequila tasting (if you want to splurge), drink specials, thousands of dollars in awesome prizes and dancing to a top L.A. D.J. Tue. 9 p.m.-2 a.m. $35 (advance), $45 (door). Red O Restaurant, 8155 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (877) 453-3861. WED | DEC 25

CHRISTMAS DINNER FOR THE HUNGRY AND HOMELESS

As many of us will be very available, it is an excellent opportunity to give back. Join Temple Israel of Hollywood in partnership with Hollywood United Methodist Church to bring the holiday spirit to those less fortunate. Volunteer to cook, serve or give out gifts of toys and care packages. If you can’t be there day-of, you’re welcome to donate ahead of time so the turkeys, trimmings and toys are all possible. Wed. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. FRI | DEC 27

“MARVIN HAMLISCH: WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE”

It makes more sense to tell you what Mr. Hamlisch is not responsible for when it comes to defining music — but sense is no fun. A musical prodigy at the age of 6, the conductor and composer was the brain behind “A Chorus Line” and wrote the scores for “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People” and, more recently “Behind the Candelabra.” In this first film biography, we get an inside portrait of one of the most respected artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries. Fri. 9 p.m. PBS. Check local listings. TUE | DEC 31

“AN EVENING WITH DANNY KAYE”

Ring in the New Year with one of Hollywood and Broadway’s greatest showmen, portrayed by yet another great showman. Actor Brian Childers pays tribute to the crooning comic with songs like “Tchaikovsky,” “Thumbelina,” “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” “Oh, By Jingo,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and more! Guests will receive New Years-y treats like champagne, desserts and noisemakers. Illusionist and comedian Bart Rockett will also be featured. Tue. 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. $55-$95. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. FRI | JAN 3

“WHY I DIED, A COMEDY”

Comedian Katie Rubin takes to the stage in her one-woman show as a person trying to find her place among other people. With a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Rubin stresses the “ish” of her religion while remaining committed to her spirituality. With song, timing and insight, it’s everything the theater should be. Fri. 8 p.m. $20. Through Feb. 27. Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 960-7780. 

Santa, the Easter bunny and raising a Jewish child


Last spring, I found myself averting my eyes when my 4-year-old mentioned something about the Easter bunny in front of my dad.

We were at my parents’ home in Michigan for Passover and my son said, “When I get back to Brooklyn, the Easter bunny is going to bring me a basket!”

I didn’t want to see the look on my dad’s face or hear him mutter under his breath.

Although my son is being raised as a Jew, he celebrates Christmas and Easter with his non-Jewish father, my ex. I know it bothers my dad to hear his grandson talk about these Christian icons. It bothers me, too.

During our four-year courtship prior to becoming engaged, my then-boyfriend and I came to an agreement about the religious upbringing of our future children. After taking two classes on Jewish culture and an interfaith couple’s workshop at the JCC, we agreed that our children would be raised according to Jewish tradition but could celebrate Christian holidays — in a secular way — with their non-Jewish grandparents. But after my husband and I separated and eventually divorced, some of the prenuptial agreements we made surrounding our interfaith family were no longer heeded.

Before our separation, my husband had begrudgingly agreed not to have a Christmas tree in our home. But since our separation, he has had a tree every winter. That means Santa doesn’t just bring gifts to my son’s grandparents’ homes in Seattle, but to his father’s home in Brooklyn, too.

I understand and respect that it is my ex’s right to observe his family’s traditions. I know he wants to share the holiday experiences he loved as a kid with our son, and that includes having the decorations and believing in the harmless characters associated with the holidays. But I struggle with it nonetheless.

Our son attends a Jewish preschool and has all kinds of children in his class – some with two Jewish parents, some from interfaith homes and others who are not Jewish at all. He already knows that families have their own ways of observing the holidays, and that you can be Jewish and still celebrate non-Jewish holidays with some of your family and friends.

Last December he rambled on and on about what Santa was going to bring him for Christmas. I was tempted to remind him that he is Jewish and explain that Jews don’t believe in Santa. But I went along with it because I didn’t want to burst his Christmas bubble.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to accept that our child won’t be raised according to the terms that my ex-husband and I had agreed upon before we married. And somehow I feel threatened that inserting these Christian traditions into my son’s home life will dilute his Jewish identity, even though I know a Christmas elf can’t come and stomp out thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

When April came around and my son informed me, “If I’m a good boy, the Easter bunny will bring me a basket of treats!” I decided not just to corroborate the Easter bunny’s existence but use him as a disciplinary tactic.

When my son began misbehaving, I said, “If you don’t act nicely, the Easter bunny may not bring you a basket!” But the tack didn’t feel right either.

Recently, I have been wondering whether my son could really understand what a character is. When we were watching “Shrek,” I decided to ask him.

“Is Shrek real?”

“No, Mommy!” he answered with an eye roll. “Shrek is a character!”

“Oh! Like Santa Claus?” I asked.

“No, Mommy! Santa Claus is real!”

“How do you know he’s real?” I said.

“Because he brings me presents!”

Do I break it to him that a fat bearded man will not actually squeeze himself through a chimney (especially considering there are very few chimneys in Brooklyn apartments)? Or do I let him figure it out when he gets a bit older, like he probably would if he were raised by two Christian parents?

And come spring, do I tell him that no giant Harvey-sized rabbit is going to show up with a basket full of treats, but that his grandmother will carefully pick out the treats in Seattle, put them in a priority mailbox and ship them to Brooklyn?

For the time being, I figure I’ll leave it alone, and age will take care of it.

I believe we will provide our son with a strong enough Jewish identity that these Christmas and Easter icons will not threaten his understanding of who he is. But ask me again later this month. I may change my mind.

(Annette Powers is a marketing and communications professional. In her free time, she writes about a variety of topics from co-parenting to Yom Kippur to compulsive texting.)

A Jew steps into Christmas


I got offered a part in a Christmas movie over the summer. It’s called “Defending Santa” and stars Dean Cain, Jud Tylor and my movie wife, Jodie Sweetin, best known for playing Stephanie on “Full House.” 

I’m always happy to be on a set. Acting is one of those jobs where you can’t wait to get to work. And I knew as soon as I told my real wife what kind of movie I was doing, she would rag on me. My wife loves Christmas. She grew up in a house that converted itself into a tacky structure covered in lights and plastic Santas during the holiday season, while my house smelled of latkes — its only decoration a small menorah sitting in the kitchen window. Her mother was a Jew. Her father’s Catholic. And Christmas beat Chanukah in the war of the holidays. So, because she married me and I said no to a Christmas tree in our house, she’s held a very obvious grudge. 

The thing is, I like Christmas. I love watching the world transform for it — the lights, the displays, the carols and the movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is up there as one of my favorite movies of all time. Christmas was never celebrated in my childhood Jewish house. For the most part, it never mattered to me. I had Chanukah — which often overlapped with Christmas — and eating latkes and doughnuts and opening presents definitely helped fill the void. But we also had a television. And this television projected images of Christmas that made us secretly long for the holiday, looking in from the outside and wanting to gather around the tree and sing Christmas carols with my family. Well, not my family. My three siblings couldn’t get through lighting a candle before they were hurling insults — and sometimes fists — at each other. 

But when you’re Jewish — especially a secular Jew like me whose relationship to being a Jew is mainly cultural — then you need to occasionally draw a line in the sand. I’m not doing it to be antagonistic. I’m doing it because I’d rather my wife and kids not celebrate a Jewish holiday than celebrate a Christian one. Let them wrestle with God and tradition — but let it be our traditions. First figure out what makes sense to you as a Jew before you start appropriating other religions simply to fit in with the majority. It’s not just disrespectful to Jews; it’s disrespectful to Christians. Their holiday, which celebrates the birth of their Lord and Savior, has already been turned into a secular holiday more focused on shopping than on reverence. And the meaning doesn’t get enhanced every time a Jew props up a fir tree in his home and adorns it with lights and a tongue-in-cheek Star of David ornament. 

When I told my wife about the movie, she laughed with glee. It’s the Christmas present she’s always wanted — seeing her proud Jewish husband in a Christmas movie where I actually had to stand up and say the line, “I believe” in Santa, as he stood on trial for being an imposter. They even gave me an, “I Believe in Santa” button to put on my shirt, just in case the point wasn’t driven home strongly enough. But it became a running joke on set. Everyone knew I was a Jew. My name gives me away before I can. And I never failed to make a joke when appropriate. My character, Mark, provided a lot of the comic relief in the movie. He uses humor to deal with difficult situations. Kind of like me. Kind of like Jews. Maybe Mark’s actually a member of the tribe? 

Dean Cain and I became close. He’s a huge fan of Israel — and, almost as important, of my comedy writing. The director, the cast and the crew became friends. The movie got picked up by the Ion Network. (It airs again on Christmas Eve.) And I have no regrets about doing it. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a sweet family movie. And I’m glad I was a part of it. 

My kids lit their menorahs this year in our house. And for Christmas, they will celebrate with their Italian grandfather in his house. My daughter goes to a preschool in a church. One local synagogue — after the rabbi requested to meet with me in person because he likes my writing, and then after the staff e-mailed us repeatedly to welcome us into the family —  sent us a rejection letter after I asked about financial aid. I was hurt. I felt embarrassed. And I was angry. Angry that a Jewish school shunned us because of finances — and angry that we hadn’t applied anywhere else because we were under the impression we had already found a school for our daughter.

So, last minute, Delaney Wright, a cute, well-priced preschool in an Episcopalian church, accepted us to their school. They’re nondenominational, and the principal is a Muslim. Sure, the kids cut out paper Christmas trees during the holidays, but they also let my wife bring in latkes and teach the kids about the story of Chanukah. It’s kind of the society I always hoped for. Inclusive, without feeling like it needs to be so politically correct that everyone has to adapt. There’s room for all of us. Even for a Jew in a Christmas movie. 

Chanukah and Christmas: A legacy of bad timing


Admit it. It is bad timing, these two very unique festivals of two very different faiths colliding in time and space. Even when our Hebraic lunar calendar separates the two by a week or so, the commercial heralding of both in our consumer-focused society continually blends the two, as if Chanukah were some Jewish version of Christmas. Both having “light” as their theme doesn’t help matters either. And most people are oblivious to the fact that Chanukah preceded Christmas by more than four centuries and has nothing at all to do with the birth of Jesus or of anyone else. If there is any relationship between the two, it would be with the pre-Christian pagan rites of the winter Solstice, as opposed to the latter-day Christian adaptation of those rites to Church doctrine and mythos.

The irony of this situation is that Chanukah is a celebration of the triumph of the Jewish spirit against oppression and suppression of the very kind that was continually heaped upon us by Christianity itself more severely and for far longer than the short-lived Greco-Assyrian persecution of the Chanukah epic. 

In the early days of Roman occupation of Judea, two centuries after the Chanukah thing, a curious Roman noble visiting with the sages of Israel asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Kor’cha the following: “We have our festivals, and you have yours. Granted. So what happens is, that when we are rejoicing, you are not, and when you are rejoicing we are not. When, pray tell, can we both rejoice together, at the same time?”  Rabbi Yehoshua replied: “When it rains.” The Roman’s eyebrows raised in puzzlement: “When it rains?” The rabbi nodded nonchalantly:  “As Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyyah taught, ‘Greater is rainfall than even the revelation of Torah at Sinai, for the gifting of Torah at Sinai was a joyful event for the Israelites alone, whereas the gift of rainfall is joyful for all peoples, and for all the plants, trees, birds, and wildlife’” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 13:6 and Midrash Tehilim 117:1). 

If we are so bent on joining with others in celebration of something in common, we ought to celebrate what we indeed do have in common rather than contrive admixtures of ingredients that at their roots are antithetical to one another. Like the ancient rabbis put it: “When a pig lies down, it shows off its cloven hooves, as if to say, ‘See how kosher I am?’” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 65:1).

When people automatically wish you a “Merry Christmas” don’t be afraid to correct them if you are not Christian. The age-old assumption by far too many that most everyone is Christian, or that everyone across the board celebrates Christmas, is not only arrogant and misleading, but it is also a convenient cover-up of tragic truths that linger beneath all that “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Mankind” rhetoric. How many devout and Jew-friendly Catholics, for example, are aware that even at this very moment the Catechism of their Church preaches anti-Jewish diatribes? To mention just one: Jews bear a terrible burden because they willfully insist on being an obstacle to the well-being of the rest of humanity, preventing the arrival of the Messiah and human salvation because of their “unbelief” in Jesus (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 674). 

“It is likened onto a bear who was richly adorned with fine gold, silver, jewels and other attractive ornaments. Upon seeing the bear, some onlookers shouted: ‘Jump at the bear and seize riches for yourselves!’ But one wise person declared to them: ‘Alas! It is sad that you only notice the shining adornments. I notice the fangs and claws’” (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 86:4).

My recommendation: Since the original Chanukah celebration was intended to make up for not being able (or allowed) to observe the eight-day harvest festival of Sukkot, let’s reverse it and celebrate Chanukah during Sukkot from now on.

Any takers?

Will Santa bring Obama peace for Christmas?


It is too early to tell what will emerge from talks among the new diplomatic triumvirate composed of the United States, Russia and Iran. But one thing is for certain: Even the worst of all agreements is far superior to the current situation. 

Certainly, I understand the problems with Iran. I also know that the benefits, even if only the remote possibility of benefits, are better than the current conflict. Rapprochement, even just a little, between the United States and Iran, just enough to lift the U.S.-imposed sanctions against Iran, is a lot. It would be a positive move, a move in the right direction. It would break the stalemate that has handcuffed the world and dominated foreign policy for too long.

The world will be able to let out a collective breath of relief. The Iranians, the people, the citizens, will realize real relief in the form of an improved lifestyle and improved living conditions. If the only result is a happier Iranian population, it is worth it all. 

The aggressive behavior, both diplomatically and politically, that has emanated from Iran, and which has resulted in their indignant and ferocious race to attain nuclear weapons, has been a response to the isolation that Iran has been feeling these past few years. Once Iran begins talking to the United States and Russia together, the signal will go out that it is all right to deal with them, that it is OK to publicly interact with them in the international community. And once Iran is received by the international community, the immediate nuclear threat will diminish. Iran will no longer fight the conditions that have already been set down for them — they will allow spot inspections and they will limit their uranium enrichment.

None of this means that Iran has already become or is on the road to becoming a peaceful nation, but rather, that their nuclear program and their weapons issues are no longer on their own front burner.

Not everyone will be happy, not every country will be satisfied by the agreement that will be forged by the United States, Russia and Iran no matter what that agreement is. The main bone of contention, for example, between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue is that Israel wants sanctions to remain in place until the Iranians follow through and stop their enrichment. Israel asserts that if sanctions are lifted now, reinstituting them at a later time and Israel believes that that time will come can take years. Rescinding sanctions takes only a few seconds. 

There have been whispers and there is speculation. We are being led to believe that the United States wants a plan in place by the end of December. That’s soon. A name has even been already assigned to the plan. They are calling it a “Christmas plan.”

The essence of the plan, as far as we who are not actually at the negotiating table drafting the plan can determine, would allow Iran to preserve their civilian nuclear development facilities. It permits the Iranians to enrich uranium up to 5 percent. It halts all 20 percent enrichment. It will halt all activity at the plutonium reactor in Arak. And it will transform the Fordo plant into a scientific and medical experimental facility.

That plan seems to have been agreed upon by all parties involved — the United States, which devised it; Russia, which agrees with it; and, most crucially, the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. 

Israel wants one more condition attached to the plan. Israel wants all underground plants brought above ground. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, there is no reason for a peaceful plant to be underground. Only a secret military arms plant needs to be hidden. Netanyahu is correct.

Personally, I am more troubled by another issue. Iran is suddenly becoming a different kind of world player.

Suddenly, post agreement, the Iranians will hold much more power than they did before talks began. Then, they held us all in fear, but their actual power was limited. Of course it is still possible that the entire project may fall apart. Iran has its own agenda and objectives that have not changed one iota. Iran wants sanctions lifted at all costs. Iran wants to hold the reins over the entire Muslim world. But since meeting with the United States and Russia, Iran sees the possibility of having it all.

To turn a phrase, now that Iran has been sanctioned by both Russia and the United States, now that it has been given credibility by the great powers of the Western world, it is well on the road to achieving all its goals. If those goals are more important to Iran than the threat of sanctions and its own nuclear desires, the region will be a safer place to live. 

Whatever emerges, it will be for the good. 


Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World Through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Tunisian minister wishes Jews a Merry Christmas


A Tunisian minister in charge of emigres wished a Merry Christmas to the country’s Jews.

“I want to wish all the Jews of Tunisia a happy holiday tonight, it is a big holiday all over the world,” Houcine El Jaziri, Tunisia’s state secretary for immigration and Tunisians living abroad, said while participating in the talk show “Attasia” on the Ettounisya network, which was aired on Dec. 31. He also wished the Jews a “milaad Majid,” or Merry Christmas.

Dozens of bewildered comments appeared on Ettounisya's Facebook page, with some users speculating that El Jaziri conflated the Jewish holiday of Chanukah with the Christian holiday.

The website of El Jaziri’s Renaissance Party, an Islamic movement and the country’s ruling party, says that El Jaziri, 45, studied philosophy in Tunisia, Morocco and France, where he obtained a master’s degree.

Some 1,700 Jews live in Tunisia, according to the European Jewish Congress. Tunisia had a Jewish population of 110,000 in 1948, but half left for Israel in the 1950s and most of the rest went to France.

Letters to the Editor: Prager on murder, Spiritual care, Christmas Mitzvah, Seeking former students


Prager on Murder

It is quite something to read Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion dean Joshua Holo’s caricature Dennis Prager as reckless, heedless, gratuitously hostile and a provocateur “painting in broad strokes of facile caricature” (Letters, Dec. 21), when that is precisely what he, not Prager, does.

Dennis Prager’s piece “Why Is Murder Wrong?” (Dec. 14) makes two extremely significant points. The first: God is inseparable from morality. If God does not exist, there is no such thing as an objective, or ultimate, source of morality, period. Prager’s assertion is philosophically sound. Without God, all we have left morally is personal opinion, even when it comes to murder.

Prager’s second point: The indispensable association of morality with God — the greatest single contribution of the Torah and the Jews — is rarely mentioned by non-Orthodox rabbis, let alone taught in non-Orthodox seminaries.

I am a Conservative rabbi who has attended annual rabbinic conferences for more than 22 years, along with having served on the board of several rabbinic organizations, and, of course, attending countless synagogue services here and abroad. My many years of experience in the rabbinate have taught me that Prager’s critique is unquestionably right: God as the source of ultimate morality is seldom, if ever, mentioned.

Impugning Dennis Prager doesn’t change this fact.

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb
via e-mail

 

It is sadly ironic that Dennis Prager’s column on knowing versus believing murder is wrong should appear on the same weekend as the horrific mass murder at an elementary school in Connecticut.

I would assert that more than 99 percent of Americans know/believe those murders in Connecticut were wrong, and that they don’t really much care about whether anyone can make a “provable” argument that those murders were wrong.

Rather than waste time trying to use an unprovable argument about God to convince the less than 1 percent that know/believe murder is right that they are provably wrong, perhaps it would be a better use of time to debate why 50 percent of the country thinks assault weapons should be legal, while 50 percent of the country thinks there is no compelling reason why anybody should be allowed to own an assault weapon.

Michael Asher
Valley Village

 

Importance of Spiritual Care

Your article “Soothing the Spirit” (Dec. 14) introduced an important aspect of healing not known to many. I commend the Jewish Journal for the in-depth coverage of spiritual care in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as well as the value and importance of hospital chaplaincy services for people of all denominations.

Providence Tarzana Medical Center offers the same spiritual-care services to all of its patients, including those from the Jewish community. It also takes an interfaith approach to spiritual care. The team of professionally trained chaplains and spiritual advisors includes two rabbis, priests, sisters and others. The hospital took a lead as the first Catholic medical center to place a kosher mezuzah on the doorway of each of the patients’ rooms.

Every Friday, the spiritual-care staff delivers candles and kosher challah to its Jewish patients. During Rosh Hashanah, the blowing of the shofar is heard in Jewish patients’ rooms.

As a chaplain/rabbi serving at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, I am honored and proud to be a member of the spiritual-care team to serve our diverse community.

Rabbi Avi Navah
Providence Tarzana Medical Center
Spiritual Care Department

 

Missed Christmas Mitzvah

I applaud all the Christmas Day mitzvot that are done by many synagogues and Jewish organizations. I just want to add one more that seems to be under your radar (“Volunteering on Christmas,” Dec. 21). For two decades, Beth Shir Shalom has taken over for Meals on Wheels of Santa Monica (MOW) on Christmas. Meals on Wheels being closed on Christmas was brought to my attention by Doris and Norty Smirlock, long-time members and MOW volunteers, who told me that Beth Shir Shalom needed to respond. So, every year on Christmas Day, we take over all the routes of Meal on Wheels and deliver homemade Christmas meals to all of their clients — 110 meals this year. The Beth Shir Shalom community is proud to be able to help give the dedicated workers and volunteers of Meals on Wheels a merry Christmas while making sure their clients have one, too.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels
Beth Shir Shalom

 

Seeking Former Conversion Students

Over the past 25 years, Adaire Klein has taught hundreds of conversion students in the Pico-Robertson area. As Klein and her husband, Manny, prepare to move to Israel, B’nai David-Judea Congregation is searching for former students to participate in a written tribute. If you are a former student, please contact B’nai David-Judea Executive Director Amram Hassan at (310) 276-9269 or e-mail adaireklein@bnaidavid.com.

Maryam Maleki
via e-mail

In Christmas message, Netanyahu pledges to protect Christian sites


In his yearly Christmas greeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not tolerate attacks on places of Christian worship.

“Israel is proud of its record of religious tolerance and pluralism, and Israel will continue to protect freedom of religion for all. And we will continue to safeguard places of Christian worship throughout our country. We will not tolerate any acts of violence or discrimination against any place of worship. This is not our way, and this is something we cannot accept,” Netanyahu said in his message released on Monday, Christmas Eve.

There were at least five attacks on Christian sites in 2012; the apparent price tag attacks were condemned in Israel and throughout the world. 

“Price tag” refers to the strategy that Jewish extremists have adopted to exact a price in attacks on Palestinians and Arabs in retribution for settlement freezes and demolitions, or for Palestinian attacks on Jews, but appeared to extend this year to Christian sites as well.

“Today, Christian communities throughout the Middle East are shrinking, and many of them are endangered. This is, of course, not true in Israel. Here there is a strong and growing Christian community that participates fully in the life of our country,” Netanyahu said in his message.

“So as you celebrate Christmas and your holy holidays, we hope that you will recall the places where Judaism and Christianity emerged, and then come see our ancient land with your own eyes: Visit Nazareth and Bethlehem, wade into the Jordan River, stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And next year, come visit our eternal capital, Jerusalem,” he concluded.

Santa Claus in Jerusalem?


Santa Claus hands his bell to five year old Ryuya Ando, who energetically shakes it. Ando’s parents, United Nations employees from Japan, get in line for a Christmas tree.

“People don’t usually celebrate Christmas here in Jerusalem,” Hideyuki Ando tells The Media Line. “I’m a little homesick because Christmas and New Years is very important to us.”

It is their second Christmas in Jerusalem. Last year, they didn’t have a tree. But this year, they will have an aqualaria tree about three feet tall, given to them by the city of Jerusalem.

“We’re going to put Christmas tree decorations,” the irrepressible Ryuya told The Media Line, wearing a bright blue winter jacket. His mother, Yoko, said she didn’t know about the tree giveaway but was happy that she stumbled into it.

“Last year we went to a choral concert,” she told The Media Line. “This year we’ll probably go to church but it will be so nice to have a small tree.”

The aqualaria was specially chosen because it can be replanted and can grow very tall. Jamal Amin, a Muslim who is in charge of the project on behalf of the Jewish mayor Nir Barkat, says the city has a special deal with a nursery just outside the city to provide the trees. Each one costs $25, he says, not counting the workers to bring the trees and distribute them. The city gives out a total of 100 trees and there is often more demand that supply.

Amin says the project is meant for Christian residents of Jerusalem only.

“I look in their identity cards to check that Christian,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t want people taking the trees and reselling them.”

Many of those standing on line at the Jaffa Gate were Russian speakers.

“I’m not Christian but in Russia we celebrated Christmas and I continue to do so here,” Sabina Chebonatzski told The Media Line who said she’s been in Israel for 20 years. “Every year I take a tree. I’m really doing it for my daughter who is four years old.”

The focus of Christmas celebrations is not Jerusalem, but nearby Bethlehem. Nazareth in the Galilee also has its share of Christmas cheer. Only about 15,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, out of more than 760,000 residents.

Municipal worker Jamal Amin says the city wants to help its Christian residents enjoy the holiday.

“Just as we decorate for Muslim and Jewish holidays, we give away the trees for Christmas,” he told The Media Line. “We hope people will keep the trees and replant them.”

Hideyuki Ando from Japan seemed thrilled to get his tree.

“Giving them away like this is a message of  peace,” he said.

Pope praises French rabbi’s essay against gay marriage


In his Christmas address to Vatican officials, Pope Benedict reportedly praised an essay by France’s chief rabbi on the negative effects of gay marriage.

According to Reuters, the Pope called the essay by Rabbi Gilles Bernheim “profoundly moving” during the Pope’s speech in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on Friday.

In an essay published in October,“Gay Marriage, Parenthood and Adoption: What We Often Forget To Say,” Bernheim argues that plans to legalize gay marriage are being made for “the exclusive profit of a tiny minority” and are often supported because of political correctness.

Homosexual rights groups “will use gay marriage as a Trojan Horse” in a wider campaign to “deny sexual identity and erase sexual differences” and “undermine the heterosexual fundamentals of our society,” Bernheim also wrote.

Last month, France’s Socialist government unveiled a draft law that would allow gay marriage. That same month Spain’s highest court upheld a gay marriage law.

Jews volunteering on Christmas


Whether it’s dressing up as Santa Claus and posing for photographs with low-income kids or serving turkey and ham to the homeless, many Jews volunteer to break out of their element at this time of year in order to bring Christmas joy to families in need.

Among them is Rabbi Mark Diamond, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles chapter, who spends every Christmas serving hot meals.

“Jewish people volunteering on Christmas has been a family tradition for the Diamonds since I was a kid,” he said.

He won’t be the only one spending Dec. 25 volunteering. Synagogues across Los Angeles are taking part in Christmas dinners that feed the less fortunate. 

Members of Temple Israel of Hollywood, IKAR in West Los Angeles, Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills are all planning to serve Christmas meals to the needy. Members of the young professionals group ATID at Sinai Temple in Westwood will take part in a similar effort.

Organizing one of the larger events — a free Christmas dinner for the hungry and homeless at Hollywood United Methodist Church — Temple Israel of Hollywood feeds more than 1,000 people each year, said William Shpall, the synagogue’s executive director.

Leaders of the annual dinner, coming up on its 27th consecutive year, are prepping 160 turkeys and other traditional holiday dishes, including stuffing, sweet potatoes and pies. Attendees also will receive gift bags of toiletry items and other supplies; there will be presents of toys for the kids, and Santa will be on hand to pose in photographs with the little ones. Additionally, a live band will play holiday music. 

The goal is to create an experience that feels more like a restaurant than a soup kitchen, with volunteers serving as hosts and waiters, Shpall explained. 

Synagogue congregant and event chair Ken Ostrove spends the days leading up to the dinner hustling around the city to coordinate donations from vendors, and the operation is so grand that it requires a full day with hundreds of volunteers to set up on Dec. 24. When Christmas comes, hundreds more turn out to volunteer, Shpall said. 

Other Angelenos fan all out all over the city. 

Ever year, Diamond, along with his wife and two children, have made a family tradition of volunteering at a dinner-in-the-park in Pasadena that draws the homeless and hungry. Organized by Union Station Homeless Services, a San Gabriel Valley-based social services agency that assists the homeless and low-income, the event draws a large number of Jewish volunteers. 

The progressive congregation IKAR plans to hold a “Christmas Tikkun,” during which volunteers will serve breakfast and dinner to clients of  the nonprofit agency People Assisting the Homeless, and Temple Ahavat Shalom will provide meals for residents of transitional-living shelters in North Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, ATID’s young professionals are working with the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition to provide meals for the homeless, who will gather on Dec. 25 at CBS Television Studios.

Volunteering on Christmas enhances a day that is typically reserved for less meaningful fare for many Jews, such as Chinese food and a movie, Diamond said.

“I don’t want to disparage that tradition … I think it’s nice to combine those kinds of fun activities with a serious effort to help our community at large,” he said.

Hunting for the perfect (JNF) Christmas tree—in Israel


Winding up and down the rows of Arizona brush trees, Jason Heeney sees slim pickings for Christmas.

“This tree would be hard to put the star on,” Heeney says. “It’s totally flat, like a smushed nose.”

The Michigan native and his friend, native Parisian Emie Genty, have driven an hour from their homes in Tel Aviv for what has become an annual tradition: the Christmas tree hunt at a Jewish National Fund forest. For about $20 apiece, they and anyone else can buy a subsidized tree this week, courtesy of JNF. The buyers include Christian Arabs, Russians, tourists and curious Israeli Jews.

The trees resemble the conifers traditionally used as Christmas trees in America, though they are a bit sparser, paler and shorter at an average of 6 feet high.

JNF’s director of VIP ceremonies and protocol, Andy Michelson, estimates that individuals, embassies and Israeli churches will buy nearly 1,000 trees this year — a 20 percent increase over last year because of a new Internet advertising campaign. The program has existed for almost 20 years, and the forest here has about 3,000 trees. JNF maintains a similar forest in northern Israel.

Approximately 150,000 Christians – four-fifths of them Arabs – live in Israel.

Though the tree distribution program costs thousands of dollars, Michelson said American Jewish supporters of JNF should not be upset that their money is going for something that benefits Christians in Israel.

“Our projects are for all people living in Israel, so when we build a park, we build it for everyone, regardless of whether they’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim,” he said, adding that many of JNF’s donors are non-Jews from Europe.

“They see Israel doing this, and it creates a good feeling and peace between people,” said Maor Malka, a JNF tour guide and firefighter who has staffed the distribution for two years. “We also increase awareness of JNF.”

JNF is best known for planting trees, not chopping them down. Michelson said the four-inch stumps left from the Christmas trees regenerate quickly, in as little as two years.

That was disappointing for Heeney, who was looking for a bigger tree — maybe eight feet high. Examining tree after tree — “No, no, no, no, no” — he lamented that “the branches are really flimsy, not like a Christmas tree” in the United States. It’s harder to hang decorations on these, he says.

Heeney, who is married to a native Israeli, grew up on a farm and as a child his family would visit the nearby forest and chop down a tree as Dec. 25 approached. Since moving to Tel Aviv 2 1/2 years ago, he has maintained American Christmas traditions. He hosts a family dinner with his in-laws on Christmas Eve and a party for friends the next day with gifts and carols.

“It’s strange celebrating Christmas in Israel,” he says. “In the U.S. it’s a national cultural event. There’s a change in the way people interact with each other, the generosity of spirit, plus the lights. It’s pretty. I miss the snow.”

Not all of the customers in Givat Yeshayahu — in central Israel, just south of Jerusalem’s suburbs — had Christmas on their minds. Miriam, originally from Moscow, was helping a friend buy a tree for New Year’s, a Russian tradition. She had bought plastic trees in years past, but found the JNF offer on the Internet this year.

“It’s not connected to religion; we like to decorate the tree,” she said. “We don’t do it on a holiday and we don’t sing Merry Christmas.”

Miriam found a tree she liked, as did Heeney and Genty, who squeezed three of them into their sedan following a 45-minute search. But not all the customers were happy with the selection. One man walked back to his car after looking for only a few minutes.

“I have something like this in my yard,” he said.

Refaeli ripped for donning Santa suit


Bar Refaeli is getting heat again — this time for a picture showing the Israeli model in a Santa suit.

Refaeli posted the photo last week on her Instagram account with the caption “Good Morning Santa,” according to Shalom Life. The hat is drawn over her eyes; Shalom Life said “it’s safe to assume that she has a hangover, is drunk, or is exhausted from a photo shoot.”

Twitter followers berated Refaeli for wearing a Santa suit since she is Jewish, even telling her that she is “betraying Israel,” according to Shalom Life.

Refaeli was ripped by Israeli followers during last month's Operation Pillar of Defense for tweeting that she is “praying for the safety of citizens on both sides.” Many Israelis called her “unpatriotic” and accused Eefaeli of not caring enough about Israel.

Bar Santa

Ken Elkinson: Holiday sounds of chill


When musician Ken Elkinson began receiving kudos for his Christmas album, he knew it was time to return to his roots. “I started feeling guilty that I was selling my people out,” Elkinson, 40, said, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. While he was in esteemed company among Jews who’d done Christmas albums or written Christmas songs — boldface names like Bob Dylan, Mel Tormé, Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks, to name but a few — Elkinson was ready to tackle Chanukah.

This year, Elkinson has become a double threat, releasing a pair of albums, “Chanukah Ambient” and “Christmas Ambient,” for the holidays. Ambient, a style of music popularized by artists like Brian Eno, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, features heavy use of synthesizers to create a very atmospheric, often mellow tone. It may be most recognizable to people who’ve seen 1980s movies like “Legend,” “Blade Runner,” “The Keep” and “Chariots of Fire,” all of which heavily feature ambient pieces in their soundtracks.

For Elkinson, the choice to do ambient music was “more personal than musical.” A longtime pianist whose earlier albums were almost exclusively piano music, Elkinson’s children were a big part of his switch to ambient music — the form allows the composer to lay down one layer of sound, take a break to help out with the kids, and then go back into his studio to work. Elkinson said he also loves the depth of the music. “I like stuff where there’s a lot of complex things going on in the background,” he said. 

Elkinson achieved some fame for his ambient compositions after his boxed set “Music for Commuting” was written up in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on CNN. “I’m still kind of baffled by it,” Elkinson said of the album’s wide appeal, which was heightened due to its release just before Carmageddon, the weekend-long closure of Los Angeles’ hyper-busy 405 freeway in 2011. It was a lot of attention for an album that Elkinson says had its genesis in his own need to calm down while driving. “I can’t stand watching people eat meals and shave and put on makeup and drive [at the same time],” the New Jersey native said. 

Elkinson’s “Chanukah Ambient” album is certainly different from most Chanukah albums on the market, and he’s happy about it. “Some people are probably going to hate it,” he said, adding, “I have really thick skin, I’m totally fine with it. I just got tired of hearing the same songs over and over in the same way.”

Crafting the album became something of a learning process for Elkinson and deepened his understanding of the winter holiday. “I learned through this process that ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ is not a traditional Chanukah song; it’s actually something that was written in the ’80s,” said Elkinson of the song written by Bosnian Flory Jagoda, which people often think is a classic melody. “I feel more proud of the Chanukah music.”

Growing up, he said, he remembers Chanukah being a holiday that brought his family together, in a time before his parents divorced. “We didn’t get fancy presents. I always wanted an Atari and a dog and HBO and sugar cereals; those are the four things I always wanted for Chanukah, and I never got any of that stuff.” Like many former kids, he now remembers the holiday more for its gift of joy than for anything material. “It was a really happy time in my life.”

Today, Elkinson is excited about celebrating the holiday with his own kids. “I like passing the traditions on that I had as a child,” he said. And of course, there’s also the music. “They sing the songs the whole year. It’s funny watching them.”

Elkinson hopes his own album helps “calm people” during a time of holiday stress and brings them a “different perspective” on the familiar celebration. “It’s not like the Chanukah music you know,” Elkinson said. 

“Why just do another boring dreidel song?”

Holiday music puts the Cha Cha Cha in Chanukah


December always brings a torrent of Christmas-themed recordings by musical artists of all stripes. If you’re at all serious about longevity in a recording career, you record an album of holiday music — the sooner, the better.

No matter what the state of the recording industry, the American public seems to have a bottomless appetite for Christmas songs, regardless of the genre: classical, pop, jazz, country, rap — even death metal.

But while Christmas CDs proliferate, Chanukah-themed albums are seldom forthcoming, and they are hard to locate when they appear. This year offers a bumper crop of three — count ’em, three! — new Chanukah CD collections.

The most traditional comes from the London Jewish Male Choir. Not quite 100 years old as an institution, it sings a wide array of sacred music on “S’u Sh’orim” (Arc Music). The group is one of the world’s foremost Jewish choral ensembles and performs mostly a cappella. Israeli folk, liturgical pieces, Chasidic laments and Ladino songs are all fair game for the choir, whose ranks are open to non-Jews.

The sonorities are thick here, and the soul runs deep. David Hilton’s authoritative bass leads the freylich “Boch Rabeinu,” and Yossele Rosenblatt’s “V’hu Rachum” is a heart-clutching call to prayer by tenor Ben Camissar. “V’al Kulom” has Jason Blair’s tenor soaring over the ensemble, which rolls gently but powerfully. The Ladino numbers show that Jewish soul comes in different flavors, too. This is a great addition to a Chanukah music collection or a very good place to start one.

San Mateo standup comic Lauren Mayer offers something completely different with a sardonic menu of original songs on her self-produced “Latkes, Schmatkes!” It’s a novelty album, albeit one with an ax to grind. Mayer immediately goes for the jugular in “Nine Words”: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

Her “The Jew-in-a-Gentile-World Blues” sums up what she’s after. Likewise, a hip-hop send-up, a country tune, and songs “The Chanuka Cha Cha” and “I Hate Holiday Music” all drive home the draft she feels in December.

But Mayer’s an equal opportunity complainer. On the title number she kvetches about splattered oil and concludes: “Why can’t we eat potato chips instead?” As a singer, she’d never be mistaken for Barbra Streisand, but she does manage to hit the notes. 

The complex relationship of Jews and gentiles to their respective holiday music and that of the other faith is thoroughly explored in the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation’s two-CD collection, “ ’Twas The Night Before Hanukkah.” The complicated topic should be no surprise coming from this outfit, which brought us the “Black Sabbath” compilation, documenting black performers essaying Jewish music. 

Taken as a whole, the collection is a long and multifaceted meditation on tradition versus assimilation. While non-Jews have had virtually no effect on the musical literature of the Festival of Lights, Jews have proven indispensable to Christmas music.

Ray Brenner and Barry Blitzer’s “The Problem” is a funny though incisive musical playlet about the dilemma of how to deal with the overwhelming influence of Christmas for Jews, and it encapsulates much of what the Idelsohn people wrestle with here. The fictional Reform rabbi of the “Hollywood Synagogue,” which comes complete with a health club and shvitz — “Tony Curtis reserved a locker for the High Holy Days!” — is, as Lenny Bruce would say, “so reformed he’s ashamed he’s Jewish.” Ironically, Brenner and Blitzer’s piece is modeled after the brilliant recordings of Stan Freberg, the gentile comic genius from Glendale.

The first disc has some of the more far-reaching musical Chanukah tributes. For tradition, Ukrainian-born Yossele Rosenblatt, with several octaves at his disposal, demonstrates why he was the world’s highest-paid cantor in the early 20th century through his rendition of “Yevonim.” Cantor David Putterman’s ensemble delivers a rousing and obligatory “Ma’oz Tzur” (Rock of Ages), while Tin Pan Alleyman Gerald Marks, who wrote Santa Claus ditties, weighs in with his solemn and historic “Hanukah.” 

Children’s music maven Gladys Gewirtz leads a sing-a-long on “A Chanukah Quiz,” and Temple B’Nai Abraham of Essex County Children’s Choir sings “Svivon Sov Sov Sov” like the Vienna Boys Choir. These are all quite earnest expressions.

Then the Klezmatics and the Klezmer Conservatory Band give us the flavor of old Second Avenue in New York, or at least what they think it sounded like. Debbie Friedman, the Jewish Joan Baez, leads a crowd through her rousing “Latke Song” as her doppelgänger would have done on “We Shall Overcome.”

The curve balls commence when Dust Bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie sings his own sprightly “Hanukkah Dance” (his second wife was Jewish), black folk matriarch Ella Jenkins offers “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” and Don McLean cuts a folk-rock “Dreidel.” Eternal folkie Theodore Bikel sings a Christmas song in English and Hebrew — naturally. 

A number of Jews sang Christmas fare just as sincerely. Pop idol Eddie Fisher sounds earnestly dreamy with “Christmas Eve in My Hometown.” And everybody’s favorite convert, Sammy Davis Jr., exchanges with kids who sound like the Von Trapp children for “It’s Christmas All Over the World.” 

Mel Tormé epitomizes jazz cool on his own “Christmas Song,” while Dinah Shore’s squeaky-clean “Twelve Days of Christmas” could have been sung by June Cleaver. Concert singer and cantor Richard Tucker’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” holds its mud next to Pavarotti’s.

Then there’s the Velvet Underground’s smug Lou Reed wishing everyone, “Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah … or whatever it is that you do,” followed by a song by the Ramones (lead singer Joey Ramone was born Jeffrey Hyman). Latin bandleader and Santeria convert Larry Harlow (nicknamed “El Judio Maravilloso” — The Marvelous Jew) also renders a salsa Christmas number.

It’s only fitting that Bob Dylan, who’s played hide-and-seek with his Jewishness for decades, croaks “Little Drummer Boy.” Jeremiah Lockwood of the Sway Machinery mates “Dreidel” with the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian chant “Iko Iko.” 

If it sounds quite scattered, you’re right: the collection is eclectic to a fare-thee-well. But it also reflects the multiplicity of the American experiment; this music couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It’s as American as Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Day.  

Shining a new light on the Jewish response to Christmas


From Kung Pao kosher comedy to a swinging Mardi Gras version of the “Dreidel” song, two new Chanukah season releases explore the intriguing, delightful and sometimes perplexing ways in which American Jews have responded to Christmas.

In a book and an audio CD compilation, the holiday season known as the “December dilemma” is seen and heard in a new light. An added bonus: the covers of both are enticing and entertaining.

In the book “A Kosher Christmas” (Rutgers University Press, $22.95) subtitled “'Tis the Season to be Jewish,” Joshua Eli Plaut offers a richly detailed, page-turning read that draws on historical documents and ethnographic research sprinkled with often humorous images and photos.

In his introduction Plaut, a rabbi and scholar, admits to a lifelong fascination with Christmas. The son of a rabbi, he recalls as a young child growing up on Long Island in the 1960s that his mother dutifully took him to sit on Santa's lap every December.

“She was never worried about any influence on me as a child because my family was secure in its Jewish identity,” he writes.

Plaut paints a historical portrait of the shifts in American Jewish attitudes toward Christmas — the only American holiday founded on religion, he notes.

Jews have employed “a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation,” he writes, adding that Jews actually have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas by composing many of the country's most beloved holiday songs.

Plaut treats readers to a chapter on the popular Jewish custom of eating Chinese food on Christmas, a tradition that surprisingly dates back more than a century to Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York. One  photo shows a sign in a Chinese restaurant window that thanks the Jewish people for their patronage during Christmas.

In the 1990s, comedian Lisa Geduldig hosted the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy evening of Jewish stand-up comedy in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Two decades later the event is still going strong and being replicated in cities across America.

On a more serious note, Plaut reveals a long history of Jewish volunteerism on Christmas, serving the needy and working shifts for non-Jewish co-workers, allowing them to spend the day with family and friends.

Plaut also covers the challenges faced by intermarried families at Chanukah and Christmas. He addresses as well the subject of public displays of religious symbols, with Jews on both sides of the issue.

Jonathan Sarna, the American Jewish historian who wrote the foreword, cautions that the book should not be read merely as a story of assimilation. In a phone conversation with JTA, the prominent Brandeis University professor argues that if that were the case, the book would be about how Jews observe Christmas.

Rather, Plaut chronicles how Jews demonstrate their Jewish identity through alternative ways of acting on Christmas that show them to be Jewish and American. Most significant, Sarna asserts, “A Kosher Christmas” is important because it portrays how two religions are transformed by the knowledge of the other.

The CD, “'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” ($15.99) is a lively and inspiring music collection gathered by the Idelsohn Society, a nonprofit volunteer organization that aims to celebrate a Jewish musical heritage that may be lost to history.

The two-CD set includes 17 tracks for Chanukah and Christmas — some familiar and others that are lesser known. Performers on the Chanukah disc include Woody Guthrie, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Flory Jagoda, Mickey Katz, the Klezmatics and Debbie Friedman. Among the voices that croon and swing on the Christmas disc are The Ramones, Theo Bikel, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis Jr. and Benny Goodman.

A 31-page booklet of liner notes is a fascinating read of short essays, notes on the songs and colorful reproductions of old Chanukah recordings.

The project started as an effort to present a historical survey of Chanukah music, according to David Katznelson, a veteran record producer who is one of the four principals of the Idelsohn Society. Other members of the core group include Roger Bennett, Courtney Holt and Josh Kun.

As their search deepened, they found noteworthy Chanukah recordings, Katznelson recalls, some by well-known performers, others by little-known singers and educators. But the group was most struck by the abundance of Christmas music by Jewish composers and performers.

“The biggest Jewish names in music have at least one Christmas recording in their catalog,” they write in the liner notes.

The group shifted the lens of their project to tell the full story “of how American Jews used music to negotiate their place in American national culture,” according to the liner notes.

“This was an amazing way to look at Jewish identity in the 20th century, through a combination of the history of Chanukah recordings side by side with Jews performing Christmas songs,” Katznelson affirms.

Some of the earliest Chanukah recordings appear in the 1920s and 1930s. By then, what had been a minor Jewish holiday through the later years of the 19th century had been transformed into a major celebration that was promoted by Jewish religious leaders and embraced by American Jewry.

The emergence of Chanukah recordings parallels that transformation, Katznelson suggests. In the postwar 1950s, in addition to traditional songs, livelier recordings targeted children.

On the Chanukah recording, Katznelson points to “Yevonim” (The Greeks) by Rosenblatt as the showstopper. Rosenblatt, a Ukraine native who immigrated to New York in 1912 at the age of 30, became known in the U.S. as the greatest cantor of his time.

A Yiddish song about the Chanukah oil that burned for eight days, “Yevonim” opens with a chorus of women followed by Rosenblatt's huge, haunting rich tenor full of color and warmth.

Many will be surprised by Guthrie's upbeat version of “Hanukkah Dance,” part of his 1940s collection of Jewish songs made for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records.

“He can take anything and make it American,” Katznelson says of the late folk legend, whose centennial birthday this year is being marked by performances of his music across the country.

Sure to be a party favorite is the version of “Dreidel” performed live by Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson. The song was recorded live at a pop-up Chanukah record store concert hosted last year in San Francisco by the Idelsohn Society.

At the end of the song, the trio takes off into the New Orleans classic “Iko Iko,” sung to the tune of “Dreidel.” The tune no doubt will get listeners off the couch, singing and dancing.

On the Christmas CD, Katznelson is most drawn to Bikel's little-known 1967 recording of “Sweetest Dreams Be Thine.” Bikel, the beloved Jewish folk singer and actor, performs the Christmas song moving between Hebrew and English.

“It's the quintessential track of the whole compilation,” Katznelson says. “It's just Chanukah and Christmas, side by side, a perfect mishmosh.”

Katznelson says the society hopes the music conveys a deeper sense of Jewish history while raising questions that provoke conversation about the meaning of the holiday music.

Some may hear familiar songs in a new perspective, he says.

“This is music that is usually in the background,” Katznelson says. “We're bringing it to the foreground.” 

Santa Monica nativity ban hits menorahs, too


The Santa Monica City Council has banned all future nativity, anti-nativity and Chanukah displays at the oceanfront Palisades Park. The 5-0 vote on June 12 ends a nearly 60-year winter tradition.

The religious displays have been the subject of controversy in recent years, with friction rising between religious groups and atheists. Historically, these displays have mostly been Christian, with Chanukah displays appearing in more recent years. Atheist community members made a formal complaint in December 2010 objecting to religious symbols being displayed on public property.

The result was that in June 2011, the seasonal display places were put up for a lottery. Of the 21 plots given out, 18 were won by atheists, two by Christian groups and one by Rabbi Isaac Levitansky of Santa Monica’s Chabad. The atheist displays that went up later that year expressed anti-religious sentiments, causing further complaints from a Christian group, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce started the nativity tradition in 1953 to attract more visitors to the area. This year visitors will have to do without.

Levitansky, who organized the only Jewish display in Palisades Park, says he’s disappointed with the decision.

“I feel bad that the city council and the city attorney could not find a medium to have the displays in public,” he said.

But Levitansky says the ban won’t deter him from promoting his religion.

“We will be putting around 60 public menorahs around Simcha Monica,” he said, “and if one goes down, two will go up.”

Rabbi Jeff Marx of the Reform Santa Monica synagogue Sha’arei Am says religious displays should stay on religious property.

“Religious displays make sense to be on religious property,” he said. “I would put it in our parking lot, as I wouldn’t expect the city to host our symbols.”

Marx also says menorahs have deep religious meaning, and are not meant to be cultural.

“There’s nothing traditional about a having 17-foot menorah in public. It’s unnecessary; these symbols belong in our homes,” he said.

Even as the city council was creating the ban, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition that includes 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, submitted a petition with 1,721 names, requesting that the ban be rescinded.

Karen Ginsberg, director of Santa Monica’s Community Recreation Division, which had allocated spaces for the displays, says the ban on unattended private displays will apply to all of Santa Monica’s parks, and will allow the city to continue to be religiously impartial.

“Under the first amendment, we cannot favor one religion over another, or one religious display over another,” she said. “This ban will help normalize the rules for all of our parks.”