While visions of sugarplums dance in the rest of your heads, what will I be telling my Jewish brothers and sisters about the forthcoming Christmas season?
My first true confession of the Holiday season: I love Christmas. Now, please do not quote me out of context. I am a Rabbi, a Jew, a proud Jew, and a Jew I shall remain. That does not, however, overshadow my pure delight in the Christmas ambiance. I love the decorations, the carols, the TV specials, the ads, the yearly resurrection of Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, the Singing Christmas Tree and the Little Drummer Boy.
I love the retelling of stories of hope, and silent, holy nights and iridescent visions of peace on earth. Despite hyper-commercialism, I love what Christmas does to the human spirit and psyche.
I love getting in the Volvo and looking at houses lavish with ornaments. I delight in being invited to a neighbor's home to admire the tree and enjoy a cup of holiday cheer. I can't resist a great choir, intoxicating incense, bell-ringers, chime-dingers and heading over to St. Mary's for midnight Mass and savoring the pageantry and solemnity.
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The Christmas ambiance is delightful, but it has never driven me to want to be Christian. It has never made me want to own a Christmas tree, or to hang a stocking, or to embrace the Christian Messiah. I love Christmas and partake in its beauty as someone else's experience, not for a moment feeling compromised in my convictions to my Jewish heritage and its own profound beauty.
Christmas only amplifies a dilemma that American Jews feel every day of the year: How do we grapple with our differentness? Do we eagerly embrace our surroundings whole-hog (so to speak) and cast aside our cherished beliefs and practices? Do we curse our surroundings as an alien influence that cannot help but intrude on our beloved Jewish ideals? Is there a point of equilibrium, a peaceful resolution to the dynamic tension? How do we convey to our children that Jewish differentness is not an anathema, but a source of pride and dignity?
Part of the answer, to be sure, lies in the nature of the surrounding non-Jewish environment. Is it hostile, or accepting? Does it hold in contempt those who digress from the norm as aberrant freaks? Can it tread the thin line between lovingly upholding its cherished beliefs without forcibly cramming them down the throats of those of us who respectfully demur - particularly in our institutions of public education? Does it cherish diversity and uphold the integrity of those who honorably differ in their lifestyles and beliefs?
In greater measure, however, the answer rests squarely within the Jewish conscience. If we are strong enough in our own Jewish convictions, we will neither curse nor covet the pervasive influences that form the backdrop of our lives. If our own Jewish religious and cultural experiences are rich and vivid, the ambiance of the Christmas season will not be an allurement, but a pleasant complement to our already-fulfilling path in life.
If we teach our children to be proud, not apologetic or self-conscious, they might learn to delight in their differentness, and never feel that their lives are missing something that only a bedecked tree and a stocking on the mantel can provide.
Our essential beliefs, underscored at this holiday season, may forever remain different. But as far as the tinsel, the seasonal magic, the sights and smells, the pervasive sense of all's-wellness are concerned, the Christmas season is for me the single most anticipated and delightful time of the year. And so long as our palette of Jewish experiences is rich, no Jew needs to feel ashamed in admitting that he or she feels particularly good at this particularly goodly time of the year.