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Jews Answer Age-old Query: What to Do at Christmastime?

December 17, 2002
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Sharon Glassman was just another nice Jewish girl who wanted to experience Christmas.

Tipped off by a friend, she trekked to New York City’s main post office seeking Operation Santa Claus, the annual campaign drawing letters from needy kids and families hoping for a Christmas present.

She took three letters, bought the requested toy castle, down jacket and football, then wrapped the gifts and sent them off with a note ostensibly from St. Nick.

Glassman, raised as a “twice-a-year” Conservative Jew, had embarked on her mission as a “tzedakah Santa,” propelled by the Torah’s commandment to do acts of loving kindness.

Six years later she’s touring nationally with a new book, “Love Santa, A Different Kind of Christmas Story,” about her annual campaign to convince others to follow suit.

“I would not have been comfortable trying to mimic a tradition that wasn’t mine,” Glassman says.

Faced with the annual dilemma of what to do during the Christmas season, American Jews increasingly are creating new annual celebrations that meld Jewish culture with the birth of Jesus.

From serving dinners at homeless shelters to prowling “Matzah Ball” singles events to noshing Chinese food at a Jewish comedy revue, Jews are “proclaiming their identity by creating new cultural traditions” for Christmas, according to Rabbi Joshua Plaut.

Plaut, executive director of the Center for Jewish History in New York, is analyzing these reactions for a doctoral dissertation he hopes to publish as a “non-judgmental” book about how Jews handle Christmas.

“American Jews are part of the majority culture every day of the year, but on Christmas eve they suddenly become excluded,” Plaut says. “They’re not invited to the big Christmas party.”

The Jewish response is born of two major impulses: the desire to fit in and the need to take a Jewish stand, Plaut says.

Those reactions evolved dramatically in the past century.

In the 1920s, songwriter Irving Berlin — born Israel Baline, son of a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, from Russia — penned the hit “White Christmas.” It was representative of a generation of immigrant Jews in the arts and business who packaged “a secular version of holiday cheer” for the marketplace, Plaut says.

Asked how a Jew could write a Christmas song, Berlin is said to have remarked, “I wrote it as an American,” Plaut says.

Likewise, Theodore Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, wrote “The Whos of Whoville,” a generic story about giving that “strips Christianity from Christmas,” Plaut says.

Christmas also has produced what Plaut calls “the Christmas Yid” — the Jew who performs mitzvot in part to help Christians who are off celebrating.

That model — updated by ex-“Saturday Night Live” star Adam Sandler as “Chanukah Harry” — first emerged in the 1880s, when members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation gave toys to needy Christian children.

By the 1920s, Jews were volunteering for vital army and civil service jobs, helping in hospitals and even serving hams in soup kitchens.

In New England, members of some 70 congregations from all denominations sing carols, do arts-and-crafts projects and help in hospitals, shelters and nursing homes as part of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts’ Project Ezra.

Such efforts, like Glassman’s, reflect “the Christmas mitzvah of doing good deeds for one’s neighbors,” Plaut says. “It’s people justifying their behavior on Christmas Day with Jewish reasons.”

New Jewish rituals are evolving as well. The sight of Jews taking refuge in Chinese restaurants has become so commonplace as to become a cliche.

One Jew who put a comic spin on that line is comedian Lisa Geduldig of San Francisco.

A decade ago, Geduldig was booked at a Chinese eatery in October. She joked about doing a similar show on Christmas as an antidote to “getting Merry Christmas’ed to death.”

So Geduldig threw together a comedy show at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, calling it “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.”

The show grew, moved to bigger Chinese restaurants and won such headliners as “Seinfeld” writer Carol Leifer and the king of one-liners, Henny Youngman.

One year a comic asked the audience, “When the millionth person says ‘Merry Christmas’ to you, don’t you feel like replying, ‘F– You?’ ” Geduldig says.

That material grows from a “subversive tendency” of feeling overwhelmed by and angry about Christmas, Plaut says — a condition he dubs “Claus-trophobia.”

The Kung Pao comedy grew so big that Geduldig took her show on the road to Los Angeles, and plans a New York version next December.

This year the San Francisco show features four days of Jewish comics. Organizers sold 3,000 tickets for a dinner- comedy show featuring Jewish comics, prawns and fortune cookies with Yiddish proverbs.

In keeping with the tzedakah tradition, Kung Pao also has raised $40,000 for various charities, Geduldig says.

But there are plenty of other Christmas options for wandering Jews.

The Forward last week filled a half page with “Noisy Night” events on Christmas Eve in New York. The action ranges from a Zamir Choral sing-along to Jewsapalooza at the hip Knitting Factory club.

Jewsapalooza features new-wave klezmer and a songwriter series that has spawned hits such as “Chanukah with Monica,” “What I Like About Jew,” and “It’s No Fun to Be a Jew at Christmas.”

Elsewhere, Israeli dances and singles events like the Matzah Ball have spawned some 19 shmoozefests, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Miami and San Francisco. New York’s drew 3,000 partygoers in 2002 alone.

Jewish museums nationwide remain open on Christmas and often attract their largest crowds of the year.

For example, the Center for Jewish History’s Yeshiva University Museum is featuring a “Winter Spectacular” with an art opening, a concert by the Jewish boy band “The Hamsa Boys” and craft workshops.

While the Center usually gets 300-500 people for an opening, Plaut expects 600-900 on Christmas day.

Many observant Jews simply stay in. They have built a tradition of “Nittelnacht” — the night of no learning — which centers around games such as cards or chess, Plaut says.

Unlike some American Jews, many Orthodox Jews simply “don’t feel threatened” by Christmas “because they are secure in their own identity,” Plaut says.

Yet today, he adds, most American Jews “feel secure enough” as a minority that “they use the Christmas holiday to express their own Jewishness.”

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