Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the Rabbi David Lyon
A Kosher Christmas
In America, Jewish families have long had a role in Christmas, so mentioning it isn’t odd; it’s part of our cultural experiences, too. In Joshua Plaut’s book, A Kosher Christmas (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2012), he points out the Jews in America have participated in the season in a variety of ways.
Many years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for assimilated Jewish families to have a Christmas tree. Some of you had one in your homes, and some of you still do. It happened because the tree became a cultural symbol. But, as Jewish families grew more knowledgeable through better Jewish education and Hebrew language skills, their children attended Jewish summer camp and they related to Israel more meaningfully, the tree became a stumbling block to complete Jewish immersion.
Likewise, many of us grew up on Christmas holiday music, television specials, and school programs geared towards the larger population of Christian children. Some can sing Christmas songs as well or better than Chanukah songs. A long time ago, my sister, a teenager at the time, went with her high school theater club to an elementary school to bring Christmas cheer to the children. She was selected to play Santa Claus. When one of the young children climbed into her lap, she asked the child, “What would you like for Christmas?” The child looked sad and explained, “I’m Jewish!” My sister, unprepared but honest, replied, “Don’t worry, so am I!”
On Christmas day, Jews make an annual pilgrimage to eat Chinese food (because they’re open!). Some say that Jews and Chinese food have been connected forever, but it’s not true. The Jewish year is 5779 and the Chinese year is 4716, which means that Jews waited 1063 years before they could enjoy Chinese food. It’s an old joke; but, look around the Chinese restaurant and you’ll see many Jewish friends and families from all over the city.
But, the finest way for Jews to participate on Christmas day is to do a mitzvah. When Lisa and I were newlyweds, we used to volunteer at the local hospital to hold babies in the NICU. Once, I was invited to hold a baby with Down syndrome, who the nurse told me was very fussy. Not yet a father myself, at the time, I sat in the chair and waited for the nurse to put the baby in my arms while she moved the wires and tubes that dangled from the baby’s tiny arms and hands. I relaxed my hands, my arms, my body, and my breath. Eventually, the baby relaxed, too. Quietly, she slept. Every beep and bump in the NICU threatened to wake her, but she slept soundly. The nurse returned and was stunned to see the baby finally at rest.
Every year, Lisa and I aim to do a mitzvah in the city. This year is no exception. Congregation Beth Israel members will volunteer at The Ronald McDonald House, the Veterans Administration Hospital, and other places, too. Providing support to those who are alone or away from home is a mitzvah. Filling in for workers who want to be home for Christmas with their families is a mitzvah. So, let me urge you, before or after the movie and Chinese dinner, to do a mitzvah so those who celebrate Christmas, can be at home or attend church on their holy day. Volunteer spots through Beth Israel might be full by now, but anything you can do to lend a hand or give to others is a mitzvah.
As the holiday season comes and goes for all of us, let’s carry into the secular new year 2019, a shared hope for generosity of spirit, goodwill to humanity, and enduring peace.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST, and he is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com.