For the western world, tomorrow is Christmas Day, for many, the most celebrated and important day of the year. It means many things for many people, spirituality, the love and togetherness of family, presents, mistletoe, tradition.
In Israel, it’s just Tuesday.
As an American Jew, the time after Thanksgiving until Christmas day was literally fraught with activity commemorating Christmas. I grew up in a time when there was no Christmakkah or Hanumas, there was no sort-of-but-not-really-equal-treatment-of-Hanukkah-and-Christmas.
There was Christmas.
And the people who don’t celebrate Christmas.
I was literally the kid Adam Sandler wrote about in the original version of the Hanukkah song, the only kid in town without a Christmas tree. It was annoying and sad to be a little kid in a small city, with a small Jewish community, being surrounded on all sides with houses strung with lights, reindeers prancing on rooftops, sparkly trees covered in red bows and gold balls shining in bay windows. We had nothing but a welcome mat at our front door.
School was worse. We Jewish kids had to sing Christmas carols with the other kids in the big Christmas pageant. They would have let us get out of it, but then it was more of a big deal not to participate, because then you had to face a thousand questions as to why you didn’t want to participate. One year I remember asking the music teacher about not participating. No problem sweetie, during rehearsals you can write a paper to get credit for music class.
Great! I’ll just sing, fa-la-la-la-la.
Of course as I got older I came to understand more about what being Jewish meant, I gained an appreciation of our own traditions and after a while, not having a stocking or a tree didn’t matter as much.
Plus, as I got older, I developed an appreciation of Chinese food and wholeheartedly began to look forward to Jewish Xmas, which meant Chinese Food at Jimmy Tsang’s in Shadyside, followed by a double feature. I loved seeing this fairly upscale establishment, which was quiet, dark and candlelit turn into the Carnegie Deli every December 24th.
Still, there was always a small part of all the Christmas fanfare which was irritating in the way that it was a club that you didn’t belong to, one where just about everyone else was waved in by the bouncer and you were left to stand out on the street, trying to find a way to get in.
For most of my youth, I always wished we could temporarily move somewhere where things were just normal in December.
Which is why it was weird to me, that first December in Israel in 1996, when everything was so normal.
There were no wreaths, no lights, no carols, no kids lining up at the mall to sit on some old guy’s lap, so he could earn enough cash to buy booze to last him through the new year. No endless ads for sales, shopping, gift ideas. No Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas. No halls decked with boughs of holly (still don’t know exactly what a bough is, a bunch?).
In a very real way it was comforting to finally live in Israel, to live in a country where I was no longer a minority, a country where my traditions were the ones that were celebrated and made a big deal over. I loved that during Hanukkah, when every office in Herzliya Pituach, where I worked, had a Hanukkiah and around 5.00 each afternoon, we’d gather in the lobby and sing Hanukkah songs and eat sufganiyot.
At the same time though it was strange not to have those Christmas markers all around. Where Christmas day, if it fell on any day except Shi-Shi/Shabbat, was a regular working day. You worked, you went to lunch, you drank your hafuch gadol over at Arcaffe before going home to watch Erev Tov with Guy
Penis Pines (is that still on?). .
To say that I missed it is too strong a word, but it was noticeably absent during all the years that I lived in Israel.
I remember one Christmas eve. I had just had dinner with a friend over at one of my favorite Tel Aviv haunts, Cafe Suzanna in Neve Tzedek. We had walked back along the beach, close to the water. It was a beautiful December evening, jacket weather, but still a lovely walk along the beach. The furthest feeling from Christmas ever. My friend came in and we started to flip channels and on ITV Jordan, came upon It’s a Wonderful Life about 10 minutes in. I whoopped with excitement!
While I always treasured that Jewish traditions were THE traditions in Israel, and every single holiday spent there filled me with a pride and joy like no other, one thing I learned was how traditions not your own can unexpectedly grow on you.
So, to everyone in Israel, I wish you a
merry um, happy Tuesday.