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Fellow travelers for the season

Chanukah and Christmas symbols often stand side by side in December, as seen in this seasonal display in Maplewood, N.J., on Dec. 17, 2006. ( Andy Neusner)

Chanukah and Christmas symbols often stand side by side in December, as seen in this seasonal display in Maplewood, N.J., on Dec. 17, 2006. ( Andy Neusner)

 

NEW YORK (JTA) — So there I was at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport — don’t ask —­ with about an hour and a half to kill before my flight back to New York. I am by no means a well-seasoned traveler, and though I had been away only two days, I couldn’t wait to get home. I ended up spending most of my time buying Dallas Cowboys paraphernalia for my kids and hunting for some food, since I had failed to order kosher food for the trip home.

Finally, I decided it was time to find my gate. I walked down a seemingly endless corridor, schlepping my bags, looking for my gate. I got about two-thirds of the way down the aisle when, suddenly, I knew I had arrived at the right place: There, as if a mirage in the midst of the Dallas desert, a large hasidic family was camped out waiting for the flight to New York.

I felt this sudden urge to rush over and embrace them like long-lost relatives, to share with one another the travails of being so far from our respective shtetls in the New York metropolitan area (I was also tempted to ask them for some food, since they were naturally well-stocked for the journey).

But, alas, short of going over to them and introducing myself, I had no way to signal to them that we were — literally — fellow travelers, members of the same tribe, “lantsmen.” And what if I had gone over to them? Would they have felt a true kinship toward me? I have opted to live a life in which my Jewish observance is not obvious to the naked eye. I wear no outward sign of my Jewishness, let alone of my religious commitment.

This is my choice, of course, and most of the time I am quite comfortable with it. In fact, I admit, it has served me well in the workplace and other settings. But there are times, and that moment in Dallas was one of them, when I almost envy the hasidim their bekeshes (the long coats many of the men wear) and their sheitels (the wigs worn by the married women).

There they were, out in the Wild West, loudly, confidently, and yet unself-­consciously proclaiming their Jewishness. Sure, I blended in with the crowd, I didn’t stick out, no one stared at me. But I was the one who felt alone and isolated, out of my element.

They, on the other hand, could create a sense of community almost instantly. Any Jew happening by would immediately feel a connection. Had another hasid or recognizably Jewish person come along, they would have been breaking bread together within minutes.

I think about this chance encounter as we head into the “holiday season” — a term, which, while meant to be inclusive, is really just a euphemism for the Christmas season. In an era of unprecedented comfort and security for Diaspora Jews, December is probably the only time of year when we really notice our separateness.

For those of us who blend almost seamlessly into the American fabric most of the time, December reminds us of the limits to this approach. Sure, we can buy our Chanukah presents as aggressively as they buy their Christmas gifts, we can incorporate the gift-giving almost too centrally into our holiday, we can even get into the “Christmas spirit” — if that is defined in its most charitable sense.

But most Jews — though certainly not all — stop short of actually celebrating Christmas. This, as opposed to say, Thanksgiving, where many Jews partake as heartily as their Christian neighbors. Christmas is where we don’t fade into the woodwork, we don’t go unnoticed, we do stick out.

And maybe that’s a healthy thing, a good thing for the Jewish people. Like the hasidim I spied at the Dallas airport, you can spot a Jew at Christmas­time a mile away. They’re the ones at the movies or the Chinese restaurants, or, in more recent years, they’re the ones snaking around the block to get into The Jewish Museum on Christmas Day or joining in days of learning at various synagogues and institutions in and around the city.

And at a time when we Jews are caught up in all our differences and the gaps that lie between each of our little groups, Christmas is as good a time as any to remind ourselves of what binds us together. It is a time to remember that the things that unite us are far greater and more fundamental than those that divide us.

So, enjoy having the kids home from school, enjoy having a lighter schedule at work, have a wonderful Chanukah, and go take in a good exhibit at the museum. Make the most of the season.

Reprinted by permission from “Life In the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Family,” by Rifka Rosenwein, a collection of essays published originally in The New York Jewish Week. Rosenwein, a former managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, died in 2003. She was 42.

 

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