Confessions of a Christmas carol addict

I’ve decided it’s finally time to come out of the closet — the Christmas Carol Closet: “Hello, my name is Andrea, and I am Jewish woman who keeps a kosher home, went to Jewish summer camp, lived in Israel and is utterly, completely, hopelessly addicted to Christmas carols.”

And as anyone driving in the car next to mine these past few weeks can attest, I know the lyrics to nearly every Christmas carol and sing along to them with yuletide abandon (though I tend to mumble over the “Christ the savior” parts)! Am I the only one, or is this something that happens after too many Christmases in Los Angeles, stuck in traffic with the car radio tuned to KOST-FM 103.5, a station that plays nonstop Christmas music from Thanksgiving to Christmas?

No, my love of Christmas carols began many years ago. In fact, I’ve traced its genesis to a young girl’s crush on the eternally handsome and vocally gifted Andy Williams and his yearly TV holiday specials. He had it all — the perfect hair, the velvety voice, the sweaters (the pretty French wife who subsequently shot that skier). And no one sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” like he did. My parents also had an album of Christmas classics featuring Williams, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, etc., and every December I listened to that record over and over.

And now I can’t stop listening. It’s not that I have Christmas envy — I don’t celebrate Christmas, and I love, honor and embrace Jewish holiday traditions — but there’s just something about those Christmas carols that gets to me. And my addiction has gotten worse — I’ve moved from listening in the car, to listening at home. Yes, Virginia, I’ve been secretly buying Christmas CDs.

A few years ago, when James Taylor came out with a holiday CD sold only at Hallmark stores, I spent hours on the phone trying in vain to find the sold-out disc, which I eventually had to buy on eBay. But it was worth it — what’s better than JT’s soothing voice singing “Winter Wonderland”? Maybe only Sweet Baby James singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on his follow-up Christmas album. Or what about Amy Grant’s heartbreaking “Oh, Holy Night,” The Bare Naked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan’s folk/rock spin on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Whitney Houston belting out “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Or Stevie Nick’s amazingly beautiful “Silent Night” (from one of the excellent “Very Special Christmas” CDs that benefit the Special Olympics)?

Now, with iTunes, I don’t even have to buy a CD. I can just purchase my favorite songs — classics by crooners like Frank Sinatra’s jazzy “Jingle Bells,” Johnny Mathis’ “The Christmas Song” or Nat King Cole’s “The First Noel.” And nobody swings “Silver Bells” better than Tony Bennett. The re-mixed Dean Martin/Martina McBride duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become a favorite, and Stevie Wonders’ “Someday at Christmas” just plain rocks.

Many of the season’s most beloved songs were composed by Jews — “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin), “The Christmas Song” (Mel Torme), “We Need a Little Christmas” (Jerry Herman), “Rudolph” and “Holly, Jolly Christmas” (Johnny Marks), “Let it Snow” (Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne) and many others. And I have to admit that the cumulative song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” always reminded me of “Chad Gadya” — but with partridges in pear trees, leaping lords and milking maids instead of goats bought for two zuzim and dogs beaten by sticks.

And yes, I know there are Chanukah songs … seven to be exact. Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Light One Candle” is good and Craig Taubman does a rousing “Mi Yimalel.” But it’s really only “Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)” that has that sweeping, soul-stirring melody (which it turns out is an adaptation of a German folksong). Taubman does a beautiful version of it as does Marc Cohn — perhaps their own version of a Chanukah carol. But truthfully, I don’t really want Jewish songs to sound like Christmas carols any more than I want kugel to taste like fruitcake.

The other day, as I, a nice Jewish girl, left Nate ‘n Al, a nice Jewish deli, after a meal there with my friend who I’ve known since summers at Camp Tel Yehudah, it was not the Christmas decorations that made me smile, or the shoppers rushing to and fro, but a particularly fabulous and fairly recent Beverly Hills holiday tradition — palm trees, trunks wrapped with lights, now sport speakers that blare holiday music. And as I walked along, I sang along. And for once, the absurdity and incongruity of life in Los Angeles seemed downright tailor-made for me. If the palm trees can sing Christmas carols, then so can I! “Fa la la la la la la la la.”

‘Prayer isn’t boring — you are’

Jews often complain that prayer is boring. Young people resist going to synagogue — and older people drift away from prayer altogether — because they find it to be a chore.

In response to these oft-repeated criticisms, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once offered from the pulpit an admittedly cutting but nonetheless brilliant retort: “Prayer isn’t boring … you are.”

Of course, this aphorism by Rabbi Schulweis, who has served the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Encino since 1970, was not meant to insult people, nor to turn them away from Jewish prayer. Quite the opposite. He posed a challenge for every Jew to find himself or herself inside the siddur, which is filled with beautiful poetry, meaningful philosophy and provocative theology. At its best, Jewish prayer is an ongoing three-way conversation among the siddur, the person using it and God.

In Schulweis’ words, “Instead of looking outside and criticizing the relevance of a prayer — or perhaps even the process of prayer — look inside yourself to see where you may be lacking.”

Interestingly, many of the Jews who complain that the siddur bores them can listen to a rock song like “American Pie” or “Hey Jude,” or sing the national anthem at the stadium dozens or even hundreds of times without ever complaining once that they’re bored. Great musical compositions perpetually renew their meaningfulness as a person’s life and even his or her day develops. The siddur works the same way. Many of us who pray on a regular basis cannot say, “Baruch she’amar v’haya haolam” (“Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being”) or “L’cha dodi likrat kalah (“Go, my beloved, to greet the Sabbath bride”) without being a little moved each time.

I know some people in 12-step programs, and they tell me the meetings often start with the same readings week after week. But the readings are rarely boring to alcoholics and other addicts, because everyone in the room is working on his or her own recovery. The guidelines and steps that are recited remind people of their own addictions and compulsions, or at least those of their loved ones.

In a way, Jewish prayer is like another pillar of observant Jewish life: Shabbat. Just as tefilah involves letting one’s creativity conquer one’s boredom, Shabbat is about finding creative enjoyment on a day when cell-phones, iPods and DVD players are treated as hardly more useful than paperweights.

Some people think the real problem with prayer is Hebrew, which alienates English-speaking Jews. I disagree completely. Many, if not most, Israelis find prayer to be boring, and Hebrew is their first language. In addition, services at Reform temples in the United States and elsewhere involve a lot of English, and many Reform teens and adults still find prayer boring. Yet, Hebrew prayers can be moving to English speakers even if they only know the barest details of the meaning. Often, but not always, the key is the tune. Even so, don’t let anyone tell you that you must pray in Hebrew. The siddur isn’t even all in Hebrew. Important prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish are in Aramaic, and in Eastern Europe, Jewish women used to recite Yiddish prayers called tkhines. So vernacular prayers have a long history.

The answer to Rabbi Schulweis’ challenge is education. The more Jews learn about the pronunciation, order and meaning of services the more likely they are to find significance in them. But Rabbi Schulweis’ point still stands — a Jew who is boring is likely to find prayer boring. Luckily, most Jews, deep down, are not boring — they just need to find a path to access the siddur.

David Benkof is a doctoral student at New York University in American Jewish history. He can be reached at

This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Find Your Melody

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah and is named for the “Song of the Sea” sung by Moses and the Israelites after they experienced the redemption at the splitting of the Red Sea.

What was it, the rabbis asked, that evoked shirah, song, at this point and not earlier when they actually left Egypt? What propels the song to burst forth from their lips? When are we motivated to truly sing the song in our hearts?

I remember a powerful insight from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav that a dear colleague shared years ago. Every person, Rabbi Nachman believed, has his or her own niggun, a wordless melody that is like a key that opens up our Neshamah, our soul. The task of our lives, he continues, is to find that melody that opens us up. Just as each lock has a different key, each person has to find his or her own special melody.

The ancient Israelites found their niggun, their melody, at that moment when they were saved from the Egyptians. The text teaches, “On that day, the Lord delivered Israel from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power, which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord” (Exodus 14:30-15:1).

There is a Chasidic teaching that believes: “Ha’ke’riayah M’orair Ha’zman.” The designated Torah reading on Shabbat wakes up a dormant yearning within us.

When we chant “Shirat Hayam” from the Torah, we can actually use the energy of the day to find our personal niggun and to open our hearts. Our song, however, is often hidden from us, buried by the routines in our busy lives, unknown and never used. Also, our true song is not only about “joy” but is about sadness and loss, yearning and hope, faith and despair. We often do not want to experience all these feelings, and cannot sing.

Avivah Zorenberg, in her Torah commentary, understood that the power of Shabbat Shirah is recognizing that a song is not simply an explosion of jubilant gratitude. The Song, she states, “is a complex set of emotions and points to life and death … justice and mercy.” The moment the Israelites sang was an opening that “transcends a simple split between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” The song emerged from that moment of tension: remembering their overwhelming physical suffering on the one hand, and experiencing the joy of God’s salvation on the other.

The Israelites’ song sprang from a deep place of knowing that no one is exempt from human torment and no one is always safe. It is for those precious moments when we are saved and jubilant, and understand how sacred these moments are, that we are able to sing.

The Sfat Emet, the renowned 19th century Chasidic rabbi, taught that the “Song of the Sea” was implanted in the Jewish soul forever. It was only after the miracle of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea that the Israelites were able to call it forth. They had to first witness the salvation, understand God’s awesome power and experience emunah, abiding faith, and not until then could they sing.

Rabbi Gedaliah Shorr, in his commentary, teaches that songs are like wings of birds because just like a wing lifts a bird off the ground, so, too, a song lifts us off the ground. When we sing, he explains, we are lifted out of our worldly concerns to reveal the hidden parts of God in all things.

Medieval commentator Rashi explained that when Moses saw the miracle of the splitting sea, he had to wait a few minutes until his heart told him he should sing. It was only when he was aroused and inspired, that the song emerged.

When we sing our inspired song, we are revealing heaven on earth. When we sing our true song, we gain perspective and know we can praise God in times of pain and sorrow, as well as in times of joy.

May we all be inspired to open our hearts to life’s possibilities, to the Divine within, and sing our songs.

Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at