I know I’m running the risk of being accused of being an assimilationist, but I’m one of those Jews who loves this time of year, not only because Hanukkah is right around the corner, but because now, in the face of so much darkness, hatred and violence, I’ve never needed the sights and sounds of Christmas in America more.
As a Jew, I’m grateful for Christmas celebrations in America, because they mean that many of the foundations of this country are still in place, particularly today, when we’re seeing full-blown calls for intifada in the West. At a time when hate-filled protestors are covering statues of American founding fathers in keffiyehs and tearing down American flags, can you blame me for being grateful that good, old-fashioned holiday traditions are still on display in this country?
I’m never offended when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas”; it’s still a sure-tell sign that I’m no longer in Iran. And this year, amidst the flood of anti-Western fanaticism we’ve seen on American streets and campuses, I will gratefully take “Merry Christmas” over “Globalize the intifada.” This kind of thinking may be binary, but there’s currently a war against Jews, and I feel the need to set some boundaries.
On a superficial level, the lights, songs and whimsical decorations offer me a respite from the heartless darkness of Hamas-inflicted suffering upon my people. But on a deeper level, such things remind me that in terms of anti-Western practices, America has not turned into Europe or the Middle East.
By writing about the whimsical escape offered by holiday sights and sounds, I don’t mean to trivialize the horrific pain of those who have suffered unspeakable loss in Israel. On the contrary, I’m turning to vapid holiday music because I’m in survival mode, and the music is innocuous. I will never put up a Christmas tree in my home, but a song that asks for more snow offers a welcome respite from the fact that each second, I’m aware of how much is currently on the line for Jews and Israel.
Ironically, listening to Jewish music, especially in Hebrew, doesn’t help me right now; it’s too meaningful, too connected with my brothers and sisters in Israel. I love this music, but today, it only leaves me in tears, and I sometimes need an alternative.
I read Tehillim, perform mitzvot and pray hard. But here’s the rub: Those endeavors can’t be mindless. Listening to a song about chestnuts is mindless. That’s why I seek a little holiday music, because it tempers the pain of reality with just enough mindlessness to get me through another day.
In Los Angeles, a local FM radio station, KOST 103.5., plays Christmas music during the entire month of December. In the last few years, the station’s non-stop holiday music has even begun in November. Angelenos are just starting to take down their Halloween lawn decorations when “Feliz Navidad” begins playing on KOST.
As a matter of principle (and because I’m slightly nervous over how many Orthodox rabbis I know personally will read this), I generally refuse to tune in to KOST 103.5 until mid-December each year. But this year, I began listening to KOST Christmas music in mid-November, because for every disturbing message of violent hate against Jews, Israel and America after October 7, I need at least one comforting holiday song to remind me that the world has not turned completely upside down.
I have only one rule about holiday music: If the song features any references to a shepherd, “holy night,” “Our Lord,” or to anyone being “adorned” or called a “king,” I respectfully switch the station. As a Jew, there are only two kings in my life: Hashem, and the dry cleaner who works magic by removing the yellow stains caused by my patented turmeric-infused, Persian Matzah Ball Soup.
Yes, it’s hard for me to listen to Christmas songs that contain direct religious references. But if the song involves Burt Ives, The Ronettes, sleigh bells, snow or Alvin, Simon and Theodore (The Chipmunks), I’m all in. And of course, if Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” starts playing, I act like an excited 12-year-old girl, which is exactly how old I was when that song was released in the mid-1990s.
I also love Christmas lights, which, in some parts of L.A., can be hard to find, given increases in secularism, decreases in the bandwidth needed to set up lights (especially since COVID) and the fact that there are many Jewish neighborhoods in this town. Ironically, some of the best Christmas lights may be found in Beverly Hills, home to a huge Jewish population and many Jewish elected officials.
I hope that cities all over this amazing country never stop putting up Christmas lights. I didn’t escape Iran to be deprived of the magic of string lights wrapped around local palm trees.
While there are nods to Hanukkah throughout town, I love Beverly Hills not only because it was my city of refuge after I fled Iran, but also because its leaders, including the Jewish ones, wisely understand that the more secular aspects of Christmas — especially the magic of bright lights — evoke a near-universal sense of wonder that is part and parcel of America itself. I hope that cities all over this amazing country never stop putting up Christmas lights. I didn’t escape Iran to be deprived of the magic of string lights wrapped around local palm trees.
Of course, Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, and there’s nothing like the sight of a hannukiah by a window, emitting a glow that is more than cozy and elegant: It is eternal.
Rabbinic laws require Jews to place their hanukkiot by street-facing windows in order to publicize the miracles surrounding Hanukkah. But this year, for possibly the first time ever, some American Jews may perceive lighting their hanukkiot by a window as more of a liability than a precious ritual (and for the record, a menorah represents Judaism, but it not actually used on Hanukkah; it doesn’t have enough branches or even a higher shamash, like a hanukkiah).
If Jews have been contemplating removing their mezuzot as a result of terrifying increases in antisemitism in this country, would some of them feel comfortable lighting a hannukiah by a window that faces the street, showing every passerby that a Jewish person lives in that home?
In truth, I am especially grateful for the safe (and very public) displays of Christmas lights because currently, many Jews worldwide can’t enjoy the same privilege when it comes to Hanukkah. Ask any Jew in America if they would feel safe adorning their front lawn with giant inflatable dreidels, Stars of David and blue and white lights, and you may receive a common response: “Maybe next year.” And to those Jews who are not only keeping their massive Hanukkah symbols up this year, but adding even more, you’re amazing.
Perhaps today, we should be erecting more giant hanukkiahs outside synagogues, not fewer, and displaying them even more prominently in our homes. Next year, I pray we won’t be in survival mode. I recently heard Karen Carpenter’s haunting voice sing “Home for the Holidays” and broke down in tears thinking about Hamas’s hostages in Gaza.
Today, all I want for Hanukkah is for every single one of those hostages to return home.
Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X/Twitter and Instagram @TabbyRefael