Where are you Christmas, the other 364 days a year

I wholly admit that I get very emotional at this time of year. I am a classic example of a Jewish man who has made aliyah, with joy and hope in his heart, and with no desire whatsoever to even visit the “old country.” I’ve allowed my international passport to lag, and I use only my Israeli passport on the rare occasion that I travel outside of Israel.

When I made aliyah, I really did think that I left North American culture behind me. But I was wrong. A couple of weeks after making aliyah, I was working at Hadassah hospital, and a patient referred to me as an American doctor. Almost as if I had been programmed by the KGB to switch into killer mode, I spun around and barked at the patient that I was Canadian, not American. I surprised myself by my reaction. While in Canada, this was never an issue. But once I was in an environment where people easily confused me for a former resident of the US, I suddenly felt a pang in my heart that brought up memories of Montréal bagels, butter and lox on Sundays.

I grew up in a Conservadox house. There was no hint of Christmas in my home. We didn’t sit around the radio listening to endless versions of “do you hear what I hear”. We didn’t wear red hats and we definitely didn’t go to midnight mass just to hear the beautiful music being played. I even heard some very negative comments about Christmas from many other Jews, who I called friends. And I’m not talking about Jews who survived the murderous anti-Semitism in Europe. North American born Jews were quite ardent in not showing  any overt signs of enjoying the Christmas spirit.

One also needs to realize that Montréal, where I grew up, is smack dab in the political and cultural center of the province of Québec. This province has a very strong tie to the old French settlers. This province is heavily Catholic, and I found myself interacting with Christians of all types during my undergraduate, medical school, and residency years. Growing up in Canada, I very much learned to respect other people’s views and religious beliefs. I thank Canada for opening my eyes to the world around me.

But as it turns out, I was secretly being indoctrinated into the beauty of Christmas. This has nothing to do with my personal beliefs. I am not a Jew for Jesus and I am extremely satisfied with my Jewish faith as the foundation for my philosophy, morality and worldview. Nevertheless, a holiday that is so focused on brotherly love, has value. And that unquestionably rubbed off on me over the many years I spent in Montréal.

Every Christmas that I am here in Jerusalem, I start playing Christmas music on my computer a few days before the holiday and I continue doing so for a few days after. There is so much beauty in the music that has been written [mostly by Jews] for this holiday. In a strange way, I even feel bad for my children. For them, Christmas really is just a foreign holiday celebrated [in total freedom] by Israel’s Christians. But my children don’t shed a tear when they listen to some of the most emotionally moving Christmas music. They don’t get that warm feeling inside that is only served by hot cocoa and marshmallows. I watch the movie “Miracle on 34th Street” every year. I cry at all the right parts. But my kids think it is nothing more than a cute movie. Part of me is proud of the fact that I have not passed on foreign beliefs to my children. But another part of me feels bad for them that they will never experience the joy that I do when I listen to beautiful renditions of Christmas music.

As technology moves on, and replaces more and more of our jobs, hobbies, day-to-day activities, and effectively eliminates the need to leave one’s house to achieve all necessary goals, what will be left of the human spirit?

Some say that we will become preoccupied with adventure, including moving to new planets and striking out in the name of Mother Earth. Just as there are people who spend their lives climbing the tallest mountains and exploring the deepest jungles, there will be a significant number of people who will join the Mars relocation program. Once the population of Mars hits a critical level, babies will start to be born. And those babies will grow up and potentially live their entire lives without ever stepping foot on earth. These people will be proud Martians and will speak to the unique culture they have developed far away from the influences of Earth.

As technology continues to advance, it will be easier and easier to build larger and larger structures to the point of having entire cities on Mars. And I suspect that within the next couple of hundred years, we will have the technology to create an atmosphere on Mars and to turn it into the second planet in this star system that can support human life. Will anything be left of human culture as our Martian brethren live out generations of life on their faraway planet? Will they celebrate religious holidays of any type? Will they listen to holiday music? Will they be nostalgic for Manhattan and its Christmas windows?

I personally think that technology will take a great deal of time to learn to appreciate the beauty of music, singing, concerts, paintings and all of the other arts. From a physiological point of view, music is just an expression of part of our brains, and has no inherent value. Even today there are many human parents who become very upset when their child says that he or she wishes to devote their life to music. The parents become infuriated, feeling that the child who has the potential to be a lawyer or accountant or engineer, is “throwing away his life”. “How much can you make as a musician,” “how will you support a family,” “grow up — your chance of making it are practically zero.” Music and art are just fine, as long as someone else is creating them. Will there be a point at which off-world human descendants lose any contact and emotional link to earth-based human art and music?

I have a daughter, my oldest, who has a voice that is a gift from God. I truly love to listen to her sing, or even hum. She has a kind of voice that doesn’t need all types of acoustic corrections to sound beautiful. I am strongly encouraging her to explore her gift. It’ll cost money, and there is absolutely no guarantee that the money will ever be recouped, but who cares? I get to be part of the beauty she generates, and damn the money. Right now I’m listening to an astonishingly gifted group called the Piano Guys. If you don’t know them, search for them on Google.

At some point, machines might ask why it is we spend so much time listening to such music. Telling our computer friends that it pleases us, lowers it to the level of a good hot shower. Whatever the future is of the human race in terms of its blending with the machine world, we need to keep our imagination, skills, divine gifts and heart as untouched as possible. Just like in the movie “Short Circuit” where an intelligent military device becomes self-aware, the ultimate test of its humanity is its ability to understand a joke.

More simply put, the way to stay human in a world that is growing more and more technologically oriented, is to preserve our spirit. And I would argue, that a special part of that spirit sings “Jingle Bells.”

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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