8 things for Jews to do at Christmastime

SAT | DEC 24


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.


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


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


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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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?

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.

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.

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.

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?”

What young Jews do on Christmas Eve

Sitting in front of the television eating Chinese food and watching reruns of “It’s A Wonderful Life” isn’t exactly what young Jews are doing this Christmas Eve.

A new trend that started years ago—big blowout parties with lots of time to mingle and network—has become tradition. Matzo Ball and Schmooz-a-Palooza are two of the biggest of these types of holiday events.

Matzo Ball is a project of the Society of Young Jewish Professionals (SYJP), the nation’s largest and most successful membership organization for Jewish Professionals.

Presented by SYJP, JDate and SLEEK Medspa, the 25th annual Matzo Ball promises a night of high-energy networking and matchmaking for singles ages 21-49.

According to Andy Rudnick, founder of Matzo Ball, the event offers men and women the opportunity to meet in an environment conducive to developing networking opportunities, long lasting friendships and romantic relationships. On Dec. 24, singles in New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston will take part in the nationwide event.

Founded in 1987 by Rudnick, SYJP is his brainchild, and the idea developed from one man’s desire to bring Jewish people together and find a nice Jewish girl along the way. “I met the woman who became my wife at a Matzo Ball,” he said. To date, Rudnick said SYJP has “sparked more than 1,000 marriages and thousands of friendships.” 

With a background in marketing and communications, Rudnick runs a chain of plastic surgery centers called SLEEK MedSpa, one of Matzo Ball’s sponsors.

“When I was in college in 1986 I bartended in a hot night club that was closed on Christmas Eve, so I went to this singles party at a hotel,” Rudnick recalled. “Many young Jewish kids thought it was great but they did not like the environment. People had to wait in line to buy drink tickets and wait again to get drinks. The lights were high. The environment was not conducive to lowering your inhibitions and having a good time and meeting people. It felt like the prom.”

The following year Rudnick worked in a Boston real estate company and noticed that a nearby nightclub closed. He convinced the nightclub to do the event. His mother, who thought it cute and conceptual, inspired the name “Matzo Ball.”

Launched with limited marketing, Matzo Ball picked up steam.

“Boston radio stations got a kick out of it and put me on the radio and promoted it,” Rudnick said. “The first night we had over 2,000 people show up in Boston. They were not prepared for it. We knew from that one event that Christmas Eve was the night where we could bring all these Jewish kids together and turn over to them the number one nightclub in town. The event was born. As we grew and developed it from city to city we kept the same theme.”

Although JDate (the leading Jewish online singles community) helps sponsor Matzo Ball, the online dating service has its own event on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. JDate is the presenting sponsor of Stu & Lew’s Schmooz-a-Palooza.

Held for the Jewish community for the past 18 years, Schmooz-a-Palooza attracts more than 1,000 attendees. According to JDate’s director of public relations, Arielle Schechtman, the event is known as one of the hippest parties in Los Angeles for those looking to make new friends, meet someone special and spend time with fellow Jews on a night not typically associated with the Jewish community.

“Schmooz-a-Palooza started 18 years ago, so it’s not so much a trend as it is a tradition,” Schechtman explained. “One of the terrific things about Schmooz-a-Palooza is that it is not just for singles. Whether you are single or in a relationship, Schmooz-a-Palooza is the place to be on a night where there are not a lot of other options for Jews. JDate is involved in Schmooz-a-Palooza because it is one of the biggest Jewish events of the year and a fun way to build and connect with the Jewish community. This is your chance to party like a celebrity, indulge in VIP-style revelry and toast ‘l’chaim’ with your friends inside one of the hottest venues on the West Coast.”

Schechtman said Schmooz-a-Palooza’s venue, The Roosevelt Hotel, has onsite restaurants for attendees, and since the event starts at 8 p.m., they have the opportunity to have an early dinner with friends and family before the party begins.

“In 2009, we partnered with the 92nd Street Y on a Chinese food and movie event on Christmas Day,” she said. “We also feature Brandon Walker’s Chinese Food and a music video on Jdate TV.”

This year’s Schmooz-a-Palooza features a “lucky” theme as the number 18 represents “Chai” (life) and is significant in Judaism. Attendees will be able to participate in casino games (with fake money), dance the night away to tunes by DJ Ian Gotler, and live the “chai” life, hanging out in the exclusive Teddy’s Nightclub.

However, Jdate is not only about fun and games. Building the community, Schechtman added, is critical to JDate’s mission. This year, the company is proud to be partnering with The Concern Foundation (www.concernfoundation.org), an independent, volunteer driven non-profit organization dedicated to raising and granting funds to support cancer research for all types of cancer worldwide.

“In the past, we’ve also donated a portion of Schmooz-a-Palooza’s proceeds to Bet Tzedek, the premier public-interest law firm which provides free legal services to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds,” she said.

So how did Chinese food get mixed up in Jewish tradition? According to Marc Tracy of Tablet, The Hebrew year is 5771 and the Chinese year is 4707.

“That must mean, the joke goes, that against all odds, the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,064 years,” Tracy wrote. “In fact, Jewish love for Chinese food is neither hallucinated nor arbitrary. It is very real and very determined, and it originates roughly a century ago in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

The predominant groups in the Lower East Side were Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Chinese. 

According to Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews. “The Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. In addition, they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onions. Sound familiar?” Goodman wrote. 

Chinese restaurants also offered poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants the opportunity to feel cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

Part of the appeal of Matzo Ball and Schmooz-a-Palooza is feeling sophisticated, but also catching up with old friends.

“People do their own thing,” Rudnick said. “It has become a mainstay for summer camp reunions. They always meet at the Matzo Ball.”

Jews, Christmas and Chinese food

I got a cute e-mail the other day, with a photo of a hand-lettered sign: “The Chinese Rest. Assoc. of the United States would like to extend our thanks to The Jewish People/ we do not completely understand your dietary customs . . ./ But we are proud and grateful that your GOD insist you eat our food on Christmas.”  Followed on the bottom, left to right, by a yin/yang symbol, the words Happy Holidays!, and a Star of David.

Have you seen this one too, by any chance?  It turns out to be a made-up cartoon by the writer David Mamet.  One gets so many Jewishly relevant e-mails these days – appeals for money, dire warnings, soothing sermons, angry agendas, evidence of amazing miracles, denunciations of enemies real and imagined, sage analysis, disingenuous disinformation, newsletters, blogs, and jokes, tasteful and otherwise.  Many, perhaps most, inspire prompt deletion, but this one touches the soul, pierces to the heart of the matter, and also tickles the taste buds, at a critical moment in Jewish history.

I know, of course, that in theory We Are One.  The idea of Jewish peoplehood has been my guiding principle since I was taught as a child that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality.  And yet, there’s nothing quite like Christmas to highlight the profound differences between the Jewish People purportedly thanked by the “Chinese Rest. Assoc.” – to wit, those Jews who dwell in what I have referred to, since I made aliyah, as the “Old Country” – and the Jewish people who dwell in Zion, the sovereign State of Israel.

When I was a young journalist in Manhattan, I would attend Christmas parties and feel like a stranger.  ‘Twas the season to be jolly, but I felt blue.  Christmas was America’s holiday, but not mine.  Thanksgiving was nice, and non-sectarian, but Christmas was the real deal, and I didn’t have a seat at the table.

It was not till I moved to the West Coast – where for a decade I worked in the Hollywood dream factory, before relocating to the other Jewish dream factory on the western edge of Asia – that I discovered the antidote to the Christmas doldrums.  In L.A., I would spend Christmas going to movies (sometimes two or three) with other Jews, followed by Chinese food.  Maybe you, dear reader, do the same, joyously partaking of the fare of Asian folks who, like you, are somehow not quite as all-American as, say, the governor of Texas. 

As the “Rest. Assoc.” observed, our culinary customs as a People are diverse and sometimes bewildering.  Some Jews will eat only in strictly kosher or vegetarian Chinese restaurants.  Some Jews keep kosher only at home and not “out”, other Jews believe that anything is kosher if you put soy sauce on it, and many Jews will eat anything, anytime, anywhere.  That’s pluralism for you.

Israel is different.  Chinese food is less plentiful (and not as good), not least because we don’t have many Chinese people in Israel.  We don’t have Christmas here either, not as a nationwide holiday, because Israel is a Jewish country, in even more ways than America is a Christian country – which it undeniably is, certainly on a cultural level.  There is no Church of America akin to the Church of England, whereas Israel has a Chief Rabbinate, and, in effect, a state religion, namely Orthodox Judaism – even though most of its Jews aren’t Orthodox, and more than 20% of its citizens aren’t Jewish. 

In the Old Country, if a Jewish person is intermarried, the so-called “December dilemma” is whether to have a tree or a menorah in one’s home, or both.  Here in Israel, you don’t see Christmas trees (except in Nazareth, East Jerusalem, the YMCA and the occasional contrarian boutique in secular Tel Aviv), and hardly any intermarriage. One reason for this is that there’s no civil marriage in Israel, and legally binding weddings for Jews may only be performed by Orthodox rabbis.  However, tons of Christmas decorations are imported to Israel from China and are used, even by very Orthodox Jews who would never dream of eating Chinese food, to decorate sukkahs on Sukkot.  Go figure.

In the Old Country, for some Jews, another December dilemma is which Chinese restaurant to choose on Christmas Eve – Szechuan or Hunan?  Cantonese, or that new Mongolian fusion place?  In Israel, on the other hand, if you’re Jewish you may not even notice, on December 25, that it’s Christmas, or conceivably, in certain parochial enclaves, be aware that Christmas exists at all.  The State of Israel was created, among other reasons, so that Jews wouldn’t have to deal with Christmas or any of the other holidays that in Europe made them feel like outsiders, often unwanted ones.  In Israel, in the opinion of quite a few Jews – including too many legislators in the Knesset, in recent days in particular – the Jews as the majority population have the right to use the tools of democracy to make other people feel like outsiders. 

In Israel, the holiday marking the winter solstice is Hanukkah, not Christmas.  Here, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, not like the States, where it needs to be a counterweight to mighty, normative Christmas.  Israeli kids learn the ancient stories of military victory and the eight-day oil lamp miracle, but we don’t have the marketing blitz or gift-giving frenzy you have in the Old Country.  In Israel, the IDF fights hostile gentiles, or prepares to fight them, all year round, day and night; while the diplomatic corps fights Israel’s foes on the battlefield of propaganda.  As for miracles, we take them for granted, though many Israelis feel that we probably shouldn’t, especially when planning for war.

I moved to Israel twenty-three Decembers ago, and for me, the anniversary is an annual occasion to ponder the contrasts between my two homelands.  The biggest difference, even beyond Christmas, is that for an Israeli Jew, his or her Jewishness is a full-time, full-strength concern.  And this is also true for Israeli Jews who would make a point of eating shrimp not on Christmas but on Yom Kippur, with or without soy sauce.  In the State of Israel, everybody lives with the consequences of Jewish history, the ups and downs, the yin and yang – everybody, not just the Jews.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.

Shabbat opening on Christmas Eve

As quietly as rising challah, Jews prepare for Christmas.

Slipping a favorite DVD into the player, then popping open a take-out carton or two of Kung Pao something, we make ready for a quiet December’s eve.

But before you get shluffy from all that MSG, let me recommend a film to consider for a Christmas Eve from my personal collection of imaginary films. It’s called “When Malka Meets Santa.”

I know, I know: It sounds like a direct-to-cable holiday movie even more suspect than “Santa Conquers the Martians.” Nonetheless, it’s a film that could be playing near you soon, opening Dec. 24, when Christmas Eve lands on Shabbat.

The two stars of this soon-to-be released film—A-listers Shabbat HaMalka, the Sabbath Queen, and Santa Claus—rarely perform together. But when they do, they offer the Jewish audience a peak into a story of religious conflict and tension beyond the usual December dilemma fare.A critic might wonder: Do these two really need to share screen time? Don’t they appeal to different audiences?

Just look at their conflicting styles.

Santa, whose late-night performances are known to millions, likes to clandestinely drop into homes through the chimney. He hails from the North Pole.

On the other hand HaMalka, the shechina, the feminine presence that Jews welcome into their households and synagogues every Friday night, doesn’t need a chimney to enter a scene. Like Elijah, she’s more of a front-door type. And HaMalka hails from a more mystical background.

The accidental co-stars do have something in common; both have theme music written by Jews. But HaMalka’s, “L’Cha Dodi,” found on her “Kabbalat Shabbat” soundtrack and everybody’s mix list, doesn’t rely on red-nose reindeers in white Christmas dreams for flavor.

She prefers a more regal approach: “Come my beloved, with chorus of praise” begins the song that introduces her presence to her worldwide audience.

As to audience, each has a different approach to treating their fans.

Once a year, Santa makes the rounds offering his loyal base a reward. His “naughty or nice” list is a major meme.

HaMalka makes the rounds once a week, every week. She visits without spotlights or outdoor displays, or making judgments. You can’t sit on her lap. And she travels light, preferring a less materialistic approach. HaMalka brings only, as her song goes, an idealistic “new light.”

Santa, of course, is known for his big reveal, the audience give-away—the fancy wrapping and tantalizingly large package under the tree. It’s a broad performance that fills one with wonder: Is the packaging more intriguing than the contents?

HaMalka, according to her fans, is the total package. Not to sound like her publicist, but she’s a peaceful Shabbat guest host whose easy feeling performances bring her fans through the week.

To one of HaMalka’s biggest fans, Abraham Heschel, the idea of a Sabbath Queen, or bride, signified “majesty tempered with mercy and delicate innocence that is waiting for affection.”

Santa engenders affection, too. His fans write songs to him hoping that he’ll “hurry down” their chimneys and bring them gifts like “two front teeth.”

After imagining them on screen together, I have to admit I didn’t see much chemistry. Santa is more of a physical comedy guy, while HaMalka goes for a more spiritual presence.

He’s always up on rooftops, sometimes sliding off them, while the trades compare HaMalka to a fountain of blessings and say she’s simply radiant.

So where does this mismatched couple meet?

In Malibu, of course, where all the celebrities hook up.

As the scene plays out, it’s sunset at the end of a long work week and Santa, before beginning his long night of deliveries, stops for a break on a deserted stretch of beach. In the distance he sees a vision in white walking slowly toward him as his sleigh bells suddenly start to go “Bim-bam.”

Now folks, if you think for one moment that as the sun sets, HaMalka and Santa meet on the sand, and the Sabbath Queen greets the Ho Ho Guy with “Shabbat Shalom,” and she climbs into his sleigh and they go for a ride, and then she talks him into taking Shabbat off …

And as they fly over LA, after hearing a loud chorus of L’cha Dodi coming from a synagogue, they land in the temple’s parking lot, where because every car’s alarm goes off the congregants all rush outside and are greeted by the HaMalka and “HaSanta,” who donates everything in his bag to the temple’s teen group’s toy drive …

If you think that’s how “When Malka Meets Santa” ends, wow, do you need a break from all the rum-pa-pa-bumming in your ho-ho-ho home.

Actually, after sharing a moment on the beach, the two agree to keep their relationship professional, meeting only occasionally for Chinese takeout.

Fry the latkes, try the gingerbread

In a second-grade classroom I visited recently, the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas. When they finished, Sarah announced, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. We get eight presents every night for eight nights.”

Even for those who were not yet up on their multiplication tables, her total clearly trumped the previous top scorer. It was a valiant attempt to compete with Christmas, and I think it worked on the other children. But she couldn’t fool me. I’ve been there myself, plus I’m a therapist.

Therapists aim to place themselves in their client’s shoes. What is life like for them? What is their subjective experience?

So let’s be a young Jewish child living in North America in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.

Your best friend, who is not Jewish, lives down the street.

Her parents, who normally won’t allow her to bring anything bigger than a twig or a rock into the house, drag a dark, fragrant, 7-foot fir tree through the front door.

For hours they work to decorate the tree with twinkling and glittering objects.

These normally tidy people fling handfuls of shiny tinsel at the needles, careless of how many fall to the floor, and at the end of this happy ritual one of the grownups balances on a stepladder to place a star atop the tree.

This unusual activity is in preparation for a visit from a man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Everything about him is out of the realm of ordinary experience. He wears a red suit decorated with white fur, lands on their roof and enters their house through their chimney. In exchange for a simple offering of cookies and a glass of milk, he delivers to them exactly the presents their hearts desire (as long as his magical list shows that they have been “nice”).

He lovingly places tiny red-and-white-striped candy canes and small gifts in a sock with their name on it pinned to the fireplace, and places the larger items under the tree.

Where do all these gifts come from? They were made and wrapped by happy, highly industrious elves.

What is your experience beyond your friend’s house? A soundtrack of lovely, jaunty songs in anticipation of the man’s visit plays all month everywhere you go. When you go to the store with your mom to buy a present for your teacher, the saleswoman leans over and asks “The Question.” Even if your family buys all their holiday presents online or at the Chanukah boutique at the temple, if you don’t live in Tel Aviv or Monsey, someone will ask, “What do you want Santa to bring you? What did you ask Santa for?”

You aren’t sure what to say to be polite and still protect your pride. Santa doesn’t come to your house not because of the naughty-nice business, but because you don’t celebrate Christmas. You, as a 3-year-old non-Jewish acquaintance of mine says, celebrate “Harmonica.”

For a whole month your life is like the saying, “Don’t think about an elephant.” You can’t help it because the elephants are everywhere.

Now let’s go to your house. The home of no graven images, maybe a few blue-and-white decorations. On the first few nights of Chanukah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil — a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger.

As for Chanukah rituals, there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody, because you don’t hear them all day, every day playing at the mall. Some nights your family might even forget to light the candles.

You host or attend a party or two where you eat latkes, a treat so delicious that you say, like you do about charoset at Passover and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, “Why don’t we have this every week?” You play a gambling game by spinning a little chunk of wood, but no one is quite sure of the rules. Instead of money you use chocolate coins wrapped in foil, each alike, except the ones that are squashed, all a bit waxy when you take a bite, none shaped like trees or stars or snowmen. If you go to a Jewish day school you get to have jelly doughnuts.

All of this is sweet and delightful and you do get a lot of presents, but they are spread out over eight nights, so the getting doesn’t have the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium. There are only two songs to sing for your holiday, one very straightforward, detailing action by action exactly what you’re doing anyway — “Lalalalalalalala, come light the menorah, let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the hora” — and one about an old rock.

It is tempting to spin this situation for your child: Honey, you are so lucky, you get presents for eight nights!…. We celebrate Chanukah and so many other wonderful holidays all the year through!…. We can buy some fruit and vegetable Christmas ornaments on sale after Thanksgiving and use them to decorate our sukkah next fall!

But these concepts ask your child to stretch her mind to encompass the whole cinematic epic of how wonderful Jewish traditions are and, at the moment, your child isn’t looking at a movie. She is looking at a bright, colorful snapshot, and the snapshot is filled with such potent allure that your words float off into the category of grown-up speak, a category that contains nonsense such as, “You don’t really want that ice-cream cone so close to dinner, you just think you do.”

It’s hard to empathize with people who seem to have everything. Yes, our children have amazingly good lives; yes, they have a stunningly profound religious heritage; yes, their parents are hopelessly devoted. But they don’t have Christmas, and we can do them a kindness by taking a moment in the next few weeks to look at the temporarily dazzling world of Christmas from their perspective.

U.S. Jewish Population Rising; California and Israel Join in Tourism Pact

U.S. Jewish Population Rising?

The new American Jewish Yearbook reports that there are 6.4 million Jews in the United States. That’s significantly more than the 5.2 million figure provided by the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study.

The yearly survey, published by the American Jewish Committee, is based on a tally of individual Jewish communities across the country. According to the survey, 2.2 percent of the American population is Jewish. New York has the largest Jewish population of any state with 1,618,000, followed by California with 1,194,000, Florida with 653,000 and New Jersey with 480,000, the AJCommittee said in a release.

California and Israel Join in Tourism Pact

The state of California and the state of Israel have jointly established a commission to encourage their citizens to visit each other, proving again that the Golden State is big enough to conduct its own foreign policy. At a recent ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, signed an agreement launching the California-Israel Tourism Commission. Both credited Los Angeles-based media mogul Haim Saban for the initiative to establish the commission.

During the ceremony, Schwarzenegger recalled that he has visited Israel three times, first as a body builder, then to open his Planet Hollywood restaurant in Tel Aviv and last year for the groundbreaking of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

No breakdown was available on the number of Californians visiting Israel, or Israelis visiting California, however, the latest figures from Israeli tourism officials showed that between January-September of this year, 1.5 million tourists came to Israel, of whom 400,000 were Americans. In 2005, Israel had 2 million visitors, among them 533,000 Americans.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Iran Hosts Holocaust Deniers Conference

The Iranian government held a conference of Holocaust deniers and skeptics this week, a discussion of whether 6 million Jews actually were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

A report in The New York Times quoted the opening speech by Rasoul Mousavi, head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies, which organized the event, saying that the conference would allow discussion “away from Western taboos and the restriction imposed on them in Europe.”

Speakers at the event include David Duke, the American white-supremacist politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader, and Georges Thiel, a French writer who has been prosecuted in France over his denials of the Holocaust, the Times reported.

— Staff Report

Seattle Rabbi Regrets Xmas Tree Removal

A Chabad rabbi in Seattle expressed regret that his request to add a menorah to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport’s display of Christmas trees resulted in the trees’ removal.

“I am devastated, shocked and appalled at the decision that the Port of Seattle came to,” Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Pacific Northwest said in Monday’s Seattle Times.

Last week, Bogomilsky’s attorney Harvey Grad threatened the port with a lawsuit after not receiving a response to a request, first made in October, to install an 8-foot menorah, which Bogomilsky offered to supply.

Port Commissioner Pat Davis told the Times that the commission had not heard about the request until Dec. 7, the day before Grad was to head to court.

An airport spokesperson said it was decided to take down the trees because the airport, preparing for its busiest season, did not have time to accommodate all the religions that would have wanted a display.

The removal resulted in a firestorm of criticism, much of it directed at Bogomilsky, who said he never wanted to see the trees removed.

Thousands March for Hezbollah

Hundreds of thousands of protesters led by Hezbollah marched in downtown Beirut Sunday to demand that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora either cede some government power to the terrorist group and its allies or resign, The Associated Press reported.

Hezbollah has been pressing for increased power since its war with Israel over the summer. Lebanese troops Sunday sealed off Siniora’s compound, as well as the roads nearby. Siniora and most of his ministers have stayed in the complex since Dec. 1, when Hezbollah launched massive protests aimed at toppling Lebanon’s Western-leaning government.

Senate Approves Red ‘Crystal’

The U.S. Senate certified the Red “Crystal,” paving the way for Magen David Adom’s acceptance into the International Red Cross’ bodies. The Red Cross approved the symbol which resembles a playing card diamond earlier this year, ending a decades-long shutout of non-Muslim and non-Christian groups such as Israel’s first responder, which rejected using the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols as inappropriate. The Red Cross had also rejected the Star of David symbol used by MDA.

The Senate’s certification last Friday, the last day of Congress, protects the symbol’s copyright and follows similar legislation passed last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Israeli Hostages Said Wounded

Two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah since July were seriously wounded during their capture, security sources said. Israeli security sources last week quoted a declassified military report that said bloodstains and other evidence gathered at the site of the July 12 border raid in which Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were seized showed the hostages were seriously wounded.

To survive, the sources said, the two army reservists would have required immediate medical attention, something that may not have been available in the custody of the Lebanese terrorist group.

Hezbollah has refused to provide information on the captives’ condition, saying it would only release them as part of a swap for Arabs held in Israeli jails. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out a swap on Hezbollah’s terms unless the terrorist group provides information on the soldiers’ health. The captives’ families criticized the release of forensic details from the raid.

“I think this may be an attempt by the Prime Minister’s Office to lower pressure to get the kidnapped soldiers freed,” Regev’s brother, Benny, told Israel Radio.

No Rat King, no fairies — just one ‘MeshugaNutcracker’

Not long ago, Scott and Shannon Guggenheim’s 4-year-old daughter, Lily, looked up at them and asked when Santa would be bringing her Christmas presents.

“To say that we, as creators of a Chanukah musical, were shocked is an understatement,” recalls Shannon Guggenheim. “[Lily] is already feeling the pull so many Jewish kids feel. She probably went drifting off to sleep dreaming of sugar plum fairies.”

That Chanukah musical, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” is the Guggenheims’ tuneful contribution for children like Lily, who need an antidote to the ubiquitous Christmas blitz that occurs every year.

The Bay Area-based couple co-wrote, produced, choreographed and directed the holiday staple. Drawing on music from Tchaikovsky’s famous “Nutcracker” ballet, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” has been a hit with Jewish families since its 2003 debut in the Bay Area.

Now, says Shannon, the show is expanding its reach, playing cities like Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz., for the first time this Chanukah. That’s in addition to runs in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

This year, six of eight cast members are new, the music has been re-orchestrated to give it a more Broadway feel, and a newly constructed proscenium arch will be in place for opening night.

“It’s an homage to Chagall,” Shannon says of the goat-and-fiddler decorated arch. “We still have the dreidel as the centerpiece. And now we have a dream cast of amazing musicians. In the past we had actors who sing. This year we have singer-actor-dancers.”

“The MeshugaNutcracker!” tells the tale of eight citizens of Chelm, the mythical shtetl of fools, who gather every year to perform at their Chanukah festival. Through the course of the two-act musical, each tells a story of Chanukah heroes from the time of the Maccabees through today.

Shannon wrote the lyrics and Scott directs, while both wrote the musical’s book based on stories adapted by Eric A. Kimmel (author of “The Jar of Fools”) and Peninnah Schram and Steven M. Rosman, (authors of “Eight Stories for Eight Nights”). Stephen Guggenheim, Scott’s brother, provides musical direction.

The musical is just one mainstay of the theatrical couple. Their company, Guggenheim Entertainment, provides entertainment, marketing and support services for corporate and private clients (think “holiday show for the mall”), and their National Jewish Theater Festival develops Jewish-themed stage productions for every audience.

But “MeshugaNutcracker!” holds a special place in their hearts, largely because their own daughter fits the target-audience profile.

“It’s no joke,” adds Shannon. “We say it in the show: ‘Santa has the last laugh/His holiday lasts a month and half.’ I’m not saying what we’re doing is brain surgery, but it occurred to us that it’s a Jewish parent’s cultural responsibility to take their kids to this show. It’s not Tiny Tim or the Mouse King.”

Shannon, a Jew-by-choice, stresses that she and her husband are not engaging in Christmas bashing.

“Santa is a good guy,” she says. “But Jews have something else right here in their backyard. They can say ‘I own that and I am proud of that.'”

Though with each passing year the Guggenheims have taken their show on a longer and longer road, they are reluctant to license the musical to other theater companies. Call it creative control, call it a labor of love, but the two plan on keeping “MeshugaNutcracker!” to themselves for those eight crazy nights and beyond.

However, eternal as the lights of Chanukah may be, the holiday comes around but once on the calendar, which can be a drawback to a theater company.

“Sometimes,” Shannon says with a laugh, “we kick ourselves for having a show that’s only six weeks a year.”

Performances of “The MeshugaNutcracker!” take place at the University of Judaism on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. $35-$50. 15600 Mulholland Drive, just off the 405 Freeway. For more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit www.kcdancers.org.

Shticking It to the Classics

My 5-year-old thinks “My Yiddishe Mama,” the soulful ballad immortalized by Sophie Tucker in 1928, is a rock anthem. The version he learned didn’t come from a dusty old record, but from a CD released in 2004 by the group, Yiddishe Cup, called “Meshugeneh Mambo.”

This is not your grandmother’s Jewish music. Like other recent Jewish parody CDs, “Meshugeneh Mambo” carries on the tradition of Jewish humor popularized by such forbearers as Mickey Katz and Allan Sherman. Although the lounge acts of the Catskills have all but vanished, a few intrepid souls are bringing a modern brand of Borscht Belt humor to a whole new generation.

Yiddishe Cup’s album combines soulful klezmer ballads, doo-wop and, of course, Latin flair. The title track sets the tone, promising “No frailech [joyful] hora can compare/ to shaking your Yiddishe dierriere/ to the lovely Mesugheneh Mambo.”

The group’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” throws in homage to James Bond’s “Goldfinger” and the theme song to “The Patty Duke Show.” Listen closely and you will hear spoofs of “Star Trek,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Outer Limits” scattered about in the traditional melodies and remakes of comedy routines created in the 1950s.

Newer artists like Yiddishe Cup have learned from the old comedic masters that classic Jewish humor relies on cleverness rather than anger. The best comics “tell a story that is visual and makes you think,” said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah International on Fairfax Avenue. “Using the word ‘shmuck’ doesn’t make it Jewish.”

Instead, skilled artists allow listeners to recognize themselves and the universal truths behind the tales and tunes.

One artist who stresses ruach (spirit) over raunch is Michael Lange. The director, whose credits include “Life Goes On” and “The X-Files,” has released several titles under his Silly Music label. In November, Lange will release “A Kosher Christmas,” a collection of popular yuletide melodies coupled with decidedly Jewish-themed lyrics. It’s a strange experience indeed to hear the traditional orchestrations — think bells, trumpets and choral harmonies — as singers croon about litigation, food, guilt and family (categories that Lange refers to as “the four cornerstones of the Jewish experience.”)

In “Such a Loyal Son Am I,” a take-off on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a mother and son alternate kvetching about one another: (Him:) Not so easy with this mother/Still a loyal son am I. (Her:) Not a doctor like his brother/Such a shanda [shame] I should cry. “Greensleeves” is re-imagined as “Greenstein,” an ode to the singer’s childhood crush, Tiffany Greenstein.

And, of course, food plays a significant role, as in “Harvey Weisenberg” (to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”): “[which] Soup would he pick, wondered he:/Lentil, borscht or chicken/As he ate he thought with glee:/This is finger lickin’….

Lange previously created two Broadway musical parodies. “Goys and Dolls,” released in 2002, uses the original melodies of “Guys and Dolls” to tell the story of a young man who begins dating a non-Jewish woman, while “Say Oy Vey” re-imagines “Cabaret” as the story of two seniors who find romance at synagogue bridge night.

Musicals are also the targets of spoofs created by the group Shlock Rock, whose founder, Lenny Solomon, hails from a long line of cantors. Their 2003 release, “Almost on Broadway,” transforms “Maria” from “West Side Story” to “Tekia”: “Tekia! I’ve just heard the sound called Tekia!”

Shlock Rock boasts 23 albums to its credit, ranging from original compositions to children’s music to parody. The group’s nine other parody CD’s display an impressive range of musical styles, Judaic knowledge and humor. In one, for example, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” becomes “49 Days to Count the Omer,” while in another, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin morphs into “Learning to Do the Hora.” And you’ve got to wonder what kind of mind would think of transforming the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” into “Rabbi Akiva”: “Rabbi Akiva had straw for a bed/Love thy neighbor like thyself is what he said.”

While they’re amusing to listen to, be forewarned: The lyrics stick with you. So when the time comes for my son to join his kindergarten classmates for the annual holiday assembly in December, he’ll be easy to pick out. He’ll be the one singing “Goys Rule the World.”


A Holiday Redemption


When my wife left me last year, I was not prepared for how lonely Christmas could be, nor did I realize how Jewish it would become.

Last Dec. 24, I was alone in the Sherman Oaks townhouse we once shared. I did not buy a Christmas tree; there was no joy in my home that such a tree could magnify. All the Christmas ornaments were hers, so there were no blinking lights, holly or front door wreath; she was very good at creating Christmas cheer.

My large Irish-Catholic clan (sisters, Anne and Mary; brothers, Matthew, Mark and John) means large Christmas gatherings. But schedules last Christmas meant we would not all be together until Dec. 26 at my parent’s home. So last year, I caught the Christmas Eve vigil Mass alone at St. Charles in North Hollywood. It can be a painful place; I was married there three years earlier, but then again, it’s also where three of my nephews, plus my twin brother and I, were baptized, and where my sister, Mary, was married. My fresh, sad marriage memories were muted by joyous thoughts of other Christmases.

After Mass, I drove to my oldest, closest friend’s Fairfax District home for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a small affair, just me, him, his longtime girlfriend and her widowed mother. There was something comforting about his door’s mezuzah that Christmas Eve.

I woke up Christmas Day morning with no tree, toys or eggnog, and I understood how Jewish children could feel left out on Christmas mornings as non-Jewish neighbor kids ride new bikes and try out other presents. Like Jewish kids, I had no gifts that morning.

But I had Sinai Temple. The Conservative Westwood synagogue’s Mitzvah Day attracted 105 young Jewish volunteers to clean a beach, play with abandoned dogs, visit elderly Christians in a nursing home and feed Los Angeles’ poor. They gathered in the underground parking lot of that Pico Boulevard Ralphs near Century City, where Leslie Klieger, Sinai’s ATID young adult group director, greeted me, as did Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei.

I briefly interviewed him in the back seat of volunteer Lida Tabibian’s parked SUV. The tape recorder was not working, which was embarrassing in front of the rabbi, who asked if everything was OK. I mentioned my divorce and he listened — a much-appreciated act of Jewish empathy for a broken Catholic on this Christian holiday.

Last Christmas morning, rain soaked downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and the poor were wet and hungry. Inside a rescue mission were Klieger, Tabibian and other young Jews doing good for people far worse off than a tape recorder-challenged journalist whose wife had left him. With the mitzvah done, Klieger, Tabibian and I went back into Tabibian’s large SUV so I could interview them for my mitzvah story.

Tabibian mentioned the Mitzvah Day’s large turnout and said, “Isn’t it wonderful what we’re doing here?”

What could I say? My wife had left me. My savior was born yet I didn’t feel saved.

But Tabibian’s rich Persian smile, her dark eyes alight at the joy of doing mitzvah, and that phrase, “Isn’t it wonderful?” briefly stopped my grief. Suddenly, with her question, Christmas Day started to glow a little.

Beauty and wonder at Christmas are not always under a tree or in a song or at Mass. Sometimes, beauty and wonder can be heard when a good-hearted woman asks you, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

For dinner that Christmas Day, I went to Izzy’s Deli in Santa Monica and met a friend, both of us alone, but now, not lonely.

This Christmas Eve, I may check out a Pico-Robertson Shabbat sermon. On Christmas Day, I might look in on Temple Israel of Hollywood’s dinner for the poor at a nearby church, or maybe attend the Skirball Cultural Center’s Theodore Bikel Yiddish concert in the evening.

I grew up in Studio City (yes, south of Ventura Boulevard). Except for two gauntlet years at Encino’s Crespi Carmelite High School, I was a public school Catholic, surrounded by Jewish friends and Jewish student role models. The first girl I ever kissed was Jewish. The best man at my Catholic wedding was Jewish — the same man my wife asked to tell me our marriage was over.

From my first crush to my first kiss to being praised by Steven Spielberg to my divorce to this newspaper, Jews have been there for me. And last Christmas Day, when I looked at the young Jewish volunteers in that underground Ralphs parking lot, in a small way I was home again; among my Studio City own, spending part of Christmas with cool Jews. I was broken, yes, but not alone.


To Tree or Not to Tree


For the first time in my adult life I’m dating a Jewish girl.

Her father’s Catholic — an Italian — but according to my

rabbi, “She’s all good.”

(Maybe he didn’t use those exact words, but something to that effect.)

Carrie and I bicker but never have any real fights; that is not until Christmastime. She was raised with Christmas in her house. Chanukah was a pool they may have dipped their toes into out of some traditional obligation, but it was Christmas that they jumped into cannonball style.

Their house is covered in multicolored lights and adorned with cheap plastic Santa wall hangings. A gargantuan Douglas fir, rivaling the one in the center of The Grove, is squeezed in between the ceiling and floor. And gifts wrapped in red and green piled three-deep high surround the tree as if out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Her childhood memories are filled with Christmas as the happiest day of the year.

Then, she started dating me. And, like a Jewish Scrooge, I decided over dinner to let her know there would be no more Christmas. Well, at least not for us. I said that if we ever moved in together she would need to get used to the fact that there would be no Christmas tree in our house. She looked like she would drop her pork chop.

“I was raised with Christmas!” she said. “And I want a tree in my house.”

“I know,” I answered. “But, I wasn’t. And if we’re raising our kids Jewish why would we have a Christmas tree?”

“Because I like Christmas.”

“But, you’re Jewish!”

“My dad’s not.”

“But, you are. You were raised Jewish for the most part, you don’t believe in Jesus, why would we have a tree?”

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” she explained, quickly losing her patience. “It’s an American holiday.”

“Look, Carrie. You’re Jewish and I’m Jewish. What the hell are two Jews going to do with a Christmas tree?”

Two weekends ago we had to stop by her parents’ house she could pick up something she left there. Her mother proudly showed me the decorations on their tree and excitedly clicked on all the little lights strewn about the house.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she exclaimed. She opened the front door. “Look at this wreath I made. I made it by hand.”

I smiled, uncomfortably. Ironically, it was Carrie’s Catholic father who saw my discomfort and said, “Some Jewish house, huh?”

Carrie’s mother once told me that when she married her husband she was very excited to have her first Christmas tree. She had been raised in a WASPY Long Island neighborhood and had hated feeling like an outcast. So, she looked forward to finally having a Christmas tree just like everyone else.

I suppose I understand her feelings — Christmas always looked like so much fun when I was a kid. We were inundated with music, TV specials and movies that showed families gathering together around the Christmas tree, tearing open gifts and singing uplifting songs. The plain menorah and a crappy song about a dreidel was no competition.

I tried to explain to Carrie that for most of us assimilated Jews there is something important about growing up without a tree.

We basically fit in with our non-Jewish friends and colleagues, and are careful not to stand out too much as Jews.

But, one time a year it becomes evident that we are different. Our houses are not decorated, we don’t have a Christmas tree and when people wish us a “Merry Christmas” we debate whether or not we should say, “Well, I don’t celebrate Christmas but thank you, anyway.”

“Once we allow ourselves to start appropriating another religion’s traditions in order to fit in with our neighbors, we have compromised who we are,” I told Carrie. “By taking away the wonderful things that separates us from non-Jews, it only damages us.”

Carrie’s mother joined in on my side, telling her daughter that it would be a little silly for us to ever have a Christmas tree in our house.

“I married someone who wasn’t Jewish, so it would be wrong for me to ignore my husband’s traditions,” her mother said. “But you are both Jewish and going to raise Jewish kids. You’re not going to celebrate Christmas. Instead, you can celebrate that other holiday — you know, the one with the candles and the spinning top.”

Carrie looked at me with resolve. “Fine, we won’t have a tree. But, I’m going to my parents’ house on Christmas.”

“Fine with me,” I answered. “If you need me, I’ll be at the movies.”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.


Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Q: When does a Christmas tree become a Tu B’Shevat tree?


A: When a Westwood church and a Santa Monica synagogue decide that having one tree do double duty is good both for the environment and the spiritual awareness of their congregants.


After the hard-working tree has done its dual job, it will be planted in a public park for everyone to enjoy.

Fifty Jewish families from Beth Shir Sholom and 50 Christian families from the Westwood Hills Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ are each contributing $36 to jointly purchase one tree, for a total of 50 trees.

The trees, in planters, were delivered to the church on Dec. 12, during a joint celebration with temple members.

After the Christmas season, on Jan. 9, the trees will be delivered to Beth Shir Sholom families, who will care for them for the next three weeks.

Although Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, falls on Jan. 25 this year, the actual tree planting will be delayed until Sunday, Jan. 30.

On the morning of Jan. 30, the Christian and Jewish families will meet at the temple and nosh on the fruits symbolic of the holiday, after blessings by the rabbi.

Immediately afterward, the trees will be transported to the Ed Edelman Park in Topanga Canyon and planted there with the help of the TreePeople, Malibu Creek State Park and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

“This project marks the convergence of two traditions, without detracting from the integrity of either one,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom, the “Progressive Reform” congregation long active in interfaith relations. “In both traditions, trees symbolize new life and hope.”

“We tend to link Christmas and Chanukah because they happen around the same time,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld of the church. Linford-Steinfeld, who is married to a Jewish man, warmly endorsed the project. “I think it’s a neat idea to connect two of our holidays in a different way, especially since Tu B’Shevat comes exactly one month after Christmas this year.”

The project was the brainchild of Nurit Ze’evi, who thought of the idea when she remembered her childhood in Israel and the Tu B’Shevat holiday.

This year, the project will be on a trial run, but Ze’evi already has more ambitious plans for the future.

In a poem she wrote for the occasion, Ze’evi envisions that in the years to come, hundreds and then thousands of Christians and Jews will join hands in planting Christmas/Tu B’Shevat trees in Los Angeles, the United States and across the world.


Roth’s ‘Kranky’ Little X-Mas

Tom Lehrer once noted that there were no American pop Chanukah tunes because Jewish composers were busy writing the nation’s sentimental Christmas and Easter favorites.

The observation came to mind when we talked to Joe Roth, about his movie “Christmas With the Kranks,” which opened Nov. 24.

Mr. and Mrs. Krank (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) live on Hemlock Street, famed for its great annual Yuletide decorations. So when the empty-nester Kranks decide to skip the tradition and head for some balmy Caribbean island instead, the neighbors rise in indignation.

Roth, head of Revolution Studio and former chairman of the Walt Disney and 20th Century Fox studios, selected and directed the movie, based on the John Grisham novel, “Skipping Christmas.”

He is also one of Hollywood’s more prominent Jews, who was recently honored by the American Jewish Committee.

The first time he was in the news was as a 10-year-old boy whose parents sued his Long Island public school for requiring Joe and his brother to recite the daily prayer prescribed by the state Board of Regents.

“It was a traumatic experience,” Roth said. “We were ostracized and someone burned a cross on our lawn.”

However, the Christmas film, he maintained, has really nothing to do with religion.

“I see Christmas as a cultural and family holiday,” he said, while the movie itself carries two main messages. It’s first about the sense of family and community that supercedes any particular holiday. Secondly, it’s a satire on the over-commercialization of Christmas.”

Roth said the large Jewish presence in Hollywood makes little difference in what movies are made or how they’re presented.

“The major studios are owned by faceless conglomerates, which believe only in the bottom line,” he said.

“Remember, we make products for mass audiences, for the 97 percent of Americans and 99 percent plus of the world’s movie-goers who are not Jewish,” he added.

Then what accounts for the large number of movies dealing with the Holocaust and the Nazi era, his interviewer persisted. Would they be produced if most of Hollywood’s decision makers were, say, Albanians?

“I think they would,” Roth responded, “because they are simply compelling stories.”

Yet, Roth draws one line.

“I would never make a movie with the least hint of anti-Semitism,” he said. “The fact that I grew up in a Jewish home informs my entire outlook.”

Doing Chinese Food and Mitzvahs

Christmas Day found some Southern California Jews
volunteering at social service agencies, some working and still others marking
the holiday with a Jewish tradition — eating Chinese food and going to movies.

Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the
Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said that Jews volunteering to work the
holiday for Christian co-workers, especially at emergency service agencies,
“was a fairly common mitzvah that Jewish people did when I was growing up in Chicago.”

“Lots of my parents’ friends routinely spent Christmas doing
a job for a Christian so that that person could celebrate his holiday,” Diamond
said, noting that today “we find fewer examples of this.”

The rabbi and his family, though, planned to continue the
holiday tradition by serving meals to the poor at Pasadena’s Union Station,
which he said attracts many Jewish volunteers.

“There are fewer jobs on Christmas that people can do,” he
explained, “such as volunteer at a hospital [due to] insurance regulations,
privacy of patients.”

Twenty years ago at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank,
so many Jewish nurses and doctors worked the Christmas shifts that “we used to
call it ‘The Jew Crew,'” said Carol Rozner R.N., the hospital’s emergency
department manager, who attends Valley Beth Shalom. “Now, it’s not that way. I
could probably count on my hands the number of Jewish nurses I know.”

However, Rozner’s Christmas Day plans were to take her three
teenagers to the hospital to meet a needy family that the St. Joseph staff
adopted for the holidays. “I’m going to let them see how other people live,”
she said.

Not so for her husband, Charles, a broadcast engineer at
KTTV Channel 11, who planned to show up for work as usual. Greg Laemmle, vice
president of the family-run Laemmle Theaters, also anticipated going to the
office on the holiday, “because it’s quiet, and I can get a lot of work done.”

The Sinai Temple young leadership group, ATID, renamed
Christmas “Mitzvah Day.” The group made plans for about 100 volunteers to fan
out Christmas morning to Santa Monica, West Los Angeles and downtown. The group
scheduled a variety of activities, including beach cleanup, feeding homeless
children and visiting Christians in nursing homes.

For Leslie Klieger, ATID director and an East Coast
transplant, being Jewish on Christmas Day in Los Angeles is a little easier,
because Los Angeles’ normally balmy weather does not lend itself to the winter
wonderland fantasies often tied to Dec. 25.

“Christmas in Los Angeles is much easier to deal with in
general, because it doesn’t feel as Christmasy here,” she said. “You’re not as
inundated here with the decorations and the stores and the music. You don’t
feel that intense ‘Everybody’s Christian’ feeling.”

And as if to underscore that point, ATID members planned to
gather after they concluded their activities and partake of some Chinese food
and take in a movie.

Why Chinese food on Christmas?

Diamond explained, “There’s some strange, mystical
connection we have to Chinese food.”

How the Gonif

Every Jew in the temple

Loved Chanukah a lot,

But the town’s biggest Gonif

Most certainly did not.

The Thief hated Chanukah, the whole Chanukah story.

He hated the Maccabees and all of their glory.

It could be his mezuzah wasn’t screwed on just right,

Or maybe he wrapped his tefillin too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all,

Was maybe his kippah was two sizes too small.

Whatever the reason

The whole Chanukah season,

He stood all eight nights

Hating the menorah’s bright lights.

While staring down at the town

With his Gonif-like frown,

He knew the Jews in the shul

Were opening presents so cool.

“They’re playing with dreidels,” he snarled with a sneer.

“They’re making jelly donuts, like they do every year.”

He growled while his Gonif fingers were nervously drumming:

“I must find a way to stop Chanukah from coming.”

For tomorrow he knew all Jewish girls and boys

Would wait until sunset to play with new toys.

And with Chanukah’s start, the town’d fill with joyful noise,

That’s the one thing he hated noise, noise, noise, noise.

They would feast on latkes, for dessert chocolate gelt.

They would eat so much brisket they would all bust their belt.

And then they would do something he liked least of all,

Every Jew in the temple, the tall and the small,

Would turn off their cellphones to keep them from ringing,

They would light their menorahs and the Jews would start singing.

They would sing of their dreidels, their dreidels of clay,

And when their dreidels were ready, oh dreidel they’d play,

And the more the Gonif thought of the Chanukah singing,

The more the Gonif thought, I must stop this whole thing-ing.

Then he got an idea! An awful idea!

The Gonif, oy vey, got an awful idea.

"I’ll go house-to-house, quiet as a mouse,

I’ll act like a guest, but I’ll be just a louse.

While the Jews are singing ‘Oh Chanukah’ and dancing the hora,

I’ll blow out the candles burning on each menorah."

He entered the first house; he blew and he wheezed,

The candles went right out; “This will be such a breeze.”

He scooped up the gelt, the dreidels and kippahs.

The Gonif just knew this would surely end Chanukah.

"Pooh-pooh to the Jews!" he was Gonifly humming.

"They’re finding out now that no Chanukah is coming.

Their mouths will hang open a minute or two.

Then the Jews in the temple will all cry boo-hoo."

When he stared at the temple, the Gonif popped his eyes,

Because what he saw before him was a shocking surprise!

Every Jew in the temple, the tall and the small,

Was singing even though no candles were burning at all.

He hadn’t stopped Chanukah from coming! It came!

Somehow or other, it came just the same.

And what happened then? Well, in the temple they say,

Even a Gonif can become a mensch when he sees the light of day.

And the minute his tefillin didn’t feel quite so tight

He brought with him matches to give back the light

The Jews in the Temple celebrated Chanukah that year

As always, the Festival of Lights was happily still here.

Matthew Wunderlich, a seventh-grader at Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, wrote this poem last year when he was at Walter Reed Middle School. He will be bar mitzvahed in May at Temple Isaiah.


Like a pareve partygoer in a world of milk and meat, I’m traipsing between two distinct December traditions. While I don’t belong in Christmas festivities, I don’t enjoy the season’s organized Jewish events. And so, I’m more confused than Anne Heche on a trip to Fresno.

The Christmas season is good to me — those swank holiday parties, the Mrs. Beasley gift baskets, not to mention Pottery Barn wine socks filled with free alcohol. Santa knows this Jewish girl has been a little naughty, but mostly nice. At times I am so immersed in Christmas merriment that I forget I don’t actually celebrate the holiday.

Christmas is so secularized that it seems most Americans now embrace the December holiday fever. And I’ll admit that I, too, find myself carried along by a gust of good tidings and Tiny Tim cheer. At parties, I Ethel Merman “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I swig some eggnog and rock more than a few Jingle Bells. And let me tell you, this Jewish babe can kiss under the mistletoe with the best of them.

But in my heart I know that Christmas is not my holiday. I should have as much contact with mistletoe makeouts, stocking stuffers and yuletide festivities as I do with my ex-boyfriend. And yet, I can’t make the clean break.

But can you really blame me? Have you explored the alternative? The motley crew of Christmas counterprogramming — StuandLoserpaloozaJewzer shindigs — that our fellow Jews offer up in lieu of yuletide fun?

I checked one out once. Once.

I went, hoping a club full o’ Jews was more my scene. And at first, it seemed the Jewbilee had skyrocketing pickup potential. No way would I leave this function without a Kate Spade full of digits.

Yet despite the robust five-guys-to-every-girl ratio, this meeting of the MOTs (Members of the Tribe) was as socially rewarding as a Blockbuster night. The single men who answered this open-casting call hit me with pickup lines like “My mohel was impressed,” or my favorite: “I’m Jewish. But if you don’t believe me, why don’t you confirm it for yourself.”

It was like a bad Jewish e-joke that someone kept forwarding to my inbox. But I couldn’t delete my way out of this one. As I right-hooked my way through the bar line, the DJ started spinning 2 Live Jews and the entire Adam Sandler Chanukah song trilogy. Don’t get me wrong. Sandler is one bachelor whose Judaism I wouldn’t mind confirming personally. But the matzah ball mosh pit was just more than I could handle. I was out of there faster than a Barry Bonds homer.

The party names alone should have sent up red flags. The Schmoozapalooza? The Hamish Hop? The Mensch Mart? We’d call the Anti-Defamation League if a non-Jew dreamt up these names. Why does our effort to throw our own holiday parties have to be so self-mocking? Can we keep up with the Joneses without keeping the kitsch? It feels like we’re overcompensating for Christmas insecurities with shtick humor and potentially detrimental self-gibing.

Maybe I’m just oversensitive. Maybe I’m just bitter because I left the Simcha soiree as single as I arrived. No, there is definitely more to my discomfort than my always-a-bridesmaid status.

It’s the tone of these events that distresses me. These Jewish galas simply try too hard and result in a caricature of our culture. Why does this night need to be different from all other nights? On all other nights, Jews drink at bars like normal people, but on Christmas night, we act like fools.

And so, yet again this year, my December quandary burns brighter than a yuletide log. What’s a Jewish girl to do? I am torn between parties where I have fun and parties where I belong. Perhaps I feel more comfortable at Christmas parties because the revelers aren’t trying to prove that they can have a good time; they simply have a good time. They aren’t looking to publicize their holiday; they’re looking to celebrate it.

So this Christmas, I won’t be returning to the Mitzvah Mixer. No booty shaking to “Jew Rule” for me. Instead, I’ll be living it up like a special episode of “7th Heaven.” I’ll be kicking it with a little drummer boy and lap dancing for Santa. But when the jolly man asks, I’ll tell him that I all really want for Christmas is a Schmoozapalooza with a bit less schmaltz.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, is waiting for her mensch under the mistletoe.

Santa in the City

Enjoyable, unique experience, totally different type of job, mostly outdoors, great fun, good pay. Santas needed. Holiday spirit a must.

I called the number listed at the bottom of the ad, and a few weeks later, I got a call. The boss (I’ll call him Mr. Green) had only one question: "Are you fat?"

"No," I replied.

Despite my lack of girth, I got the job that I had coveted for years. After an unorthodox path, I was finally Santa.

As a Jewish kid growing up in a cramped New York City apartment, I never experienced a true Christmas. You know, like the ones they show in those Budweiser commercials. In fact, Christmas was usually a melancholy time for me. In grade school, the role of Rudolph was unjustly taken away after I was accused of disruptive behavior unbecoming of a reindeer.

My family tried, but never quite could pull off the Christmas thing. Instead of a tree, we had a cactus, albeit one draped in lights. (From lighting the menorah, my folks were quite adept with lights.) They even put wrapped presents underneath that cactus. But whatever they did, however hard they tried, that damn thing was still a cactus. When other kids came over, they would bring sand instead of presents and usually ended up throwing it on one another.

The final Christmas crisis came one Christmas Eve. I was attempting to trim the cactus when I caught a thorn and had to be rushed to the emergency room. That marked the end of Christmas in the humble Hart home.

But two Adam Sandler songs later, I still wanted to be St. Nick. I applied at Macy’s, but they were only hiring elves. The Internet only featured material on child-molesting Santas. My last resort was the classifieds.

Before I could start, Mr. Green said I needed to buy a Santa suit, so I headed to a costume store in Corona, Queens, to get one. My $80 ensemble was composed of a red suit, a white wig and beard and boots. Well, they were not truly boots, they were actually vinyl pullovers.

When I arrived at the tree lot, which took up an entire block in Soho, Mr. Green was unimpressed. Mr. Green said that clearly I was a bulimic Santa. Mr. Green emphasized his disgust by threatening to sic Roscoe, his off-duty cop employee, on me. "Do you want to deal with Roscoe?" he yelled maniacally.

To make matters worse, Mr. Green’s aides, the aforementioned off-duty cop and a fanatical tree-cutter, repeatedly shouted, "You’re the worst Santa I’ve ever seen!" Before Mr. Green or one of his goons could order me to climb down a chimney or a sewer, a cable television crew requested an interview. Mr. Green primped himself for the camera. But the television people wanted the man in red, Mr. Chanukah Cactus. Mr. Green ordered me to fetch a pillow from an unkempt bed in the back of the trailer. With the soiled pillow stuffed under my red, fluffy shirt, I headed for the camera.

"What would you like to see in the New Year?" asked the reporter, holding the microphone in front of my scraggly artificial beard. "I’d like to see Bert Reynolds get a new hair weave." Mr. Green told me he wants to bury Santa.

Back on the street, well-dressed strangers pass by Mr. Green’s virtual forest in Soho, and I approach them, attempting to act jolly. "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!" I belt out.

"From your gut!" interrupts Mr. Green. "From your gut!" Not that he has any Santa experience. Regardless, I take his advice. Babies turn away. Some even cry. The Tree-Cutter gives me dirty looks as he trims with his conspicuous sharp knife. The Cop looks like he wants to cuff me on the spot. Worse, my pillow keeps falling out of my shirt.

"Have you written out your wish list?" I ask a kid in my best soft Santa voice.

"I don’t believe in Santa," she replies, walking away.

Several men walk by and ask if I’m pregnant. "Yeah," I respond. "And you’re the father." Christmas in New York City.

When night falls, I head to the corner and spot a shiny red Corvette slowly coming toward me. It comes to a halt. The window rolls down. Perhaps I have generated a tree sale. "How do you get to Broome Street?" With my morale hurting, my feet frozen, I decide to pack it in. Dejected, I slump through Soho as shoppers gawk at me. I bump into a former roommate and, thankfully, he does not recognize me.

I consider quitting when a friend offers to cast me in his movie. Well, it wasn’t exactly "Miracle On 34th Street" — more like "Maiming in the East Village." I’m glad to land the role of a stalking Santa.

As I attempt to harass the protagonist (a television star), people walk by in disbelief. "You are not a good Santa!" one man yells in a Hispanic accent. A homeless man embraces me. When the cameras roll, I grab my groin and yell, "Eat me!" to the protagonist. The natives smile. East Villagers appreciate this kind of Santa.

The next day, back at the tree stand, however, is not so terrific. It’s sunny, but the streets are empty. And I’ve lost one of my vinyl pullovers. As I try to greet the few customers, I attempt to hide one foot behind a tree. When I head to the trailer to stay warm, Mr. Green continues to taunt me about Roscoe. I go to the back and remove my Santa suit.

"Let me ask you one question," says the Cop.

"Shoot," I respond. Considering the circumstances, I guess that was a poor choice of words. "Go ahead."

"Are you Jewish?"

Next year, I’ll be a Chanukah bush.

ADL: December Dilemma

‘Tis the season when children in public schools face the December Dilemma. As part of a classroom lesson, Jewish youngsters may be given Christmas trees to color. During holiday music programs, they may find themselves acting in a nativity scene or singing “Silent Night.” Santa Claus may show up on campus, passing out candy canes and asking them what they want for Christmas.

Nor is the dilemma confined to Jews. Muslims and others must contend with the fact that from Halloween onward, many classrooms are focused almost entirely on the upcoming Christmas season. Even when teachers try to be ecumenical, they sometimes stumble. Instead of Christmas trees, they may pass out dreidel shapes to Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religion forbids them to celebrate any holidays at all.

At this tricky time of year, when everyone’s sensitivities are on high alert, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) looks out for flagrant abuses in public school classrooms. The ADL circulates a clearly-worded set of guidelines entitled “Religion in the Public Schools,” which spell out legal decisions pertaining to the separation of church and state. Organizational representatives are also ready to meet with teachers and principals to discuss specifics. ADL makes clear that the practice of religion during the school day violates the Constitution. It is, however, permissible to teach about holiday observances in a way that is neutral, historical, educational, and age-appropriate. Although some supposedly non-religious symbols of Christmas — like Christmas trees and Santa Claus — are legally acceptable as classroom décor, the ADL encourages a balanced approach that helps all children feel included.

ADL’s Western States Associate Counsel Tamar Galatzan fields phone calls from anxious parents of many backgrounds. Galatzan is well aware that the issues raised are thorny ones. Many Jewish parents, for instance, are satisfied if they can go into their child’s classroom and explain the rituals of Chanukah. Clearly, talk about latkes and gelt poses no problem. But what about displaying a menorah and describing the miracle of the oil? Last year, after a Jewish parent’s Chanukah presentation, a Christian mother demanded equal time to explain to the children the religious significance of Christmas.

On the job, Galatzan deals with several types of educators. Young teachers, fearful of giving offense, sometimes try to avoid holiday references altogether. Veterans may resist any changes to time-honored lesson plans, saying, “I’ve been teaching this lesson for 30 years and no one’s had a complaint.”

Galatzan emphasizes that most school personnel mean well. She recalls visiting a school in San Bernardino County where a prominent display illustrated how Christmas is celebrated around the world. One label read, “In Israel, it is called Chanukah.” When Galatzan pointed out that Chanukah is hardly the Israeli name for Christmas, the school principal was genuinely surprised. It’s important, feels Galatzan, to recognize that such errors are sometimes made “out of ignorance, not mean-spiritedness.”

Galatzan urges parents to be vigilant, and to contact the ADL when they have serious grievances. She also hints that it’s wise not to be too thin-skinned about such things as a Christmas tree in a classroom. She suggests that parents choose their battles carefully, perhaps saving their ammunition for more blatant forms of religious coercion.

The Anti-Defamation League can be reached at 310-446-8000.

How Green is My Envy?

When my daughter, Samantha, was 6, I got a call from our synagogue’s Hebrew-school principal.

“Do you have a Christmas tree?” DiDi asked.

“Is that a serious question?”

“Samantha says you do. She told the class today that you have a Christmas tree and that it’s right near the fireplace,” she insisted. “Is it true?”

At first, I was appalled by the inquiry. Then I laughed at myself, having foolishly thought I could insulate my child from Christmas. There’s not a kid in America, of any religion, who doesn’t spend some time pining for a Christmas tree. In fact, it’s a national rite of passage: Christmas Tree Envy. Even youngsters in day schools go to the mall. They’d have to live in a tunnel not to know that red and green are important colors of the season.

So now that she reached this stage, what was I to do about it? For many Jewish parents, “the tree” is the religious equivalent of the conversation about sex — dark and dangerous territory. We avoid any such discussion until the kids raise it first.

“We have Chanukah,” we say, as if having a holiday of our own evens the score. Of course, it does not.

Most of what’s written on the so-called December Dilemma suggests that the problem is only a matter of education and pride. We’re told that Jewish children can avoid Christmas Tree Envy by learning about their own holidays, taking joy in their own history and celebrating Chanukah as a minor ritual that teaches the values of toleration.

Good beginning, but hardly enough. The biggest problem with Christmas is that it is undeniably beautiful, holy and spiritual. Its music is deeply moving. A home with a Christmas tree is filled with good smells, wonderful colors and, yes, fun. To deny that we, as adults, recognize the beauty of another tradition and that we, in our own way, are moved by “Silent Night,” at least on the level of harmonics, is preposterous and, worse, paints us as Scrooge. Bah, humbug.

But there is another approach, one based on our own tradition, as well as common sense. For it is important that all children, Jews not excluded, develop the capacity to respect a friend’s success, attainments and possessions. Our Yiddish grandparents have a word for this talent — farginen — and it is an important skill to master all year long.

To fargint someone means to allow another person to enjoy what he or she has, free from resentment, belittlement, threat or fear.

Farginen, writes Rabbi Nilton Bonder in “The Kabbalah of Envy” (an invaluable book for every Jewish library), “means to open space, to share pleasure; it is the exact opposite of the verb to envy.”

Bonder’s book demonstrates just how overpowering a disease envy can be. In fact, the sages assert that three things reveal a person’s character: his “cup” (meaning his appetites); his “pocket” (how he earns a living); and his “rage” (the envy by which he lives in the world).

As adults, we know how difficult it is to fargint someone’s good fortune. A friend’s book lands on the best-seller list, while yours is just getting off the ground. A screenwriter’s script is optioned, while yours gathers dust. Competition can kill us. The discipline to fargint assuages the competitive urge, allowing us to recognize another’s accomplishments and feel content with our own.

If we don’t practice farginen when we’re young, it won’t get easier later on. Samantha was about 4 when she first regarded a beautiful wreath on a door.

“Yep,” I muttered, but, afraid she would want one for our home, I tensed into silence. And she said nothing more. Later, she admired Christmas carols. “Nice,” I said, my voice tight. And she fell silent again.

But what had I taught her but to censor herself? This was no good, in ways that had nothing to do with December. By age 6, many children, like Samantha, experience not only Christmas Tree Envy but envy of all kinds, including sibling rivalry and schoolyard brawls. If she can’t fargint Christmas, how will she deal with college entrance exams or a friend whose home is “better” than ours?

So when Samantha came home from Hebrew school, I asked her if she liked Christmas trees. She looked at me suspiciously. “They are beautiful,” I said. She thought I was nuts.

“Would you like to see one?” Yes, of course. So off we went to the mall, and began to fargint.

Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her guest will be Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com.