Born in the US to parents and grandparents who were themselves born in the
States, the Christmas and New Year’s spirit and public celebration always seemed
natural and inviting. There was a mood of good will and cheer that one shared
seemingly without any trace of religious identification or compromise. Everyone
was greeted with warm wishes for a “Merry Christmas.”
Almost everyone. I
remember being in a group of fellow lawyers and clients when a colleague of mine
approached us to say hello.
He greeted each person with “Merry Christmas”
until he reached me, when he said, “Happy holidays,” before resuming the
traditional greeting to the remaining members of our cluster. This colleague
meant to be considerate and kind, but the incident startled me.
in my social dealings I was very conscious of who was a Jew and who was not, in
my professional world I did not classify others by religious or ethnic
Intuitively, I presumed this to be the norm, and nothing I
can recall before had caused me to doubt this assumption. It surprised me to
realize how strong and conscious was this colleague’s classification of me as a
But I did not really give the matter much thought, and continued to
enjoy the holiday season.
Christmas and, for that matter, New Year’s as
well, does have religious symbolism and significance, but, at least in New York
City, these holidays were as close to a non-sectarian civic holiday as one could
wish, and all seemed to share in the festive mood and warm spirit.
lived in a typical Manhattan apartment building of 17 floors. There were 128
families in our building, of which I would estimate 120 or more to be Jewish.
Counting children, the ratio would reach 98 percent.
the first week of December, the entire lobby was rearranged to make room for a
large Christmas tree. The impetus for this was the staff’s desire to announce
the season of annual tips – observance of which was an ironclad rule for
survival in urban New York. Placed on the table next to the elevator in each of
the two wings was a small electric menorah.
Years earlier, I had somehow
been designated to make sure that the correct number of bulbs was lit on each
night of Hanukka. The disparity between the respective Christmas and Hanukka
arrangements seemed perfectly natural to me, but I recall being jarred when my
oldest daughter of five asked me why the Christmas tree was so large and the
menorah so small.
I explained that we lived in a country where most
people were Christians and that their holidays had become part of the general
cultural milieu. This explanation satisfied father and daughter
This week I spoke to a close friend from a small New York City
suburb on Long Island with an overwhelming Jewish majority, most of whom would
define themselves as Orthodox.
There is an eruv for Sabbath observance,
an Orthodox Jewish mayor, and the city council and board of education are
dominated by Orthodox Jews. My friend told me how great the season is and how
much he and his large family enjoy it.
And this was how we all felt –
until I moved here.
About five years after we made aliya, I was in New
York during this season and had occasion to visit someone in my old
When I entered the lobby and saw the Christmas layout, I felt a
strong emotion of outrage.
What is going on here? Ninety-eight percent of
the people here are Jews and yet the building lobby is completely revamped to
accommodate a Christmas tree and nativity scene? Of course, the only thing that
had changed was me. I was different than I had been before aliya, when I was
immersed in the US culture.
I had already undergone enough acculturation
under Jewish sovereignty to be Jewishly assertive and not subliminally
Part of that change was the unloading of protective filters.
For, looking back, I believe that while seemingly comfortable as a fourth
generation American, I was repressing feelings of alienation, of not belonging.
My daughter’s question was too much on target to be shrugged off, and the
feeling of being considered different by professional colleagues was too basic
to be ignored. I did not judge my former neighbors when I visited them then any
more than I judge my close friend today. And I recognize that many non-Israeli
readers will strongly disagree with my perspective. Back then I probably would
have as well. But there it is.
We in Israel are different. Living under
Jewish sovereignty with a strong Jewish majority and Jewish consciousness shapes
a different outlook on the world. This Jewish assertiveness must not lead us to
arrogance, but it does lead to a sharper identity, to what I believe to be a
healthier self-image and most assuredly, to a deeper and broader Jewish
My friend on Long Island is a good Jew and avid Zionist who
reads the Israeli press before I awake and comments knowledgeably on our
international and local developments.
He cares deeply. But we are
different. I live in a Jewish culture and he lives in a Christian one. At no
time is this more evident than during the Christmas season.The author,
an attorney in Israel and the US, is the founding president of the Institute for
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