Holiday spirit: There and here

"Living under Jewish sovereignty with a strong Jewish majority and Jewish consciousness shapes a different outlook on the world."

Christmas tree (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Christmas tree
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
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.
For while 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 affiliation.
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 Jew.
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.
We 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.
Nevertheless, during 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 alike.
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 building.
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 subjugated.
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 experience.
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 Zionist Strategies.