Tag Archives: Being Jewish at Christmas

Christmas Eve

by Richard Epstein (Washington, DC)

I wore socks on my hands as I played
kick-the-can in the middle of the cobblestone court.
The neighborhood kids asked me to sneak
some of my mom’s potato kugel and mandle bread.
They promised to trade pierogies and kielbasa
the next time we play.

No one asked about the flickering candles
in the front window of our house.
No one asked why we didn’t have
a Christmas tree. That night, I sat
on the parlor floor in front of the tall
Philco radio, while mom darned socks
and dad fell asleep with the newspaper
held high in his hands.

I listened to Buffalo Bob to see if Santa
received my letter. I asked for a Red Flier
and Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring.
Grandma stopped rocking and looked up
from her knitting when she heard Buffalo Bob
announce my name on the radio.
“Vas es daas?”  she asked.

We listened to the Lone Ranger, Jack Benny,
the Shadow and the Creaking Door.
After every one was asleep I tip-toed
down the creaky stairs and left a glass
of milk and cookies on top of the radio.

I shut my eyes tight and made a wish
for Santa to bring me a something other
than a wooden dreidel, a cap and bag of socks
from my Aunt, Chanukah gelt
and a shiny lump of coal.

Richard Epstein lives in the Washington DC area and is active in the Warrior Poets sponsored by Walter Reed Medical Center, the Veterans Writing Project and he hosts an open mic venue for veterans and friends of veterans on the National Mall in Washington, DC every Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity, poetry

Jerusalem: December 24

by Cherryl Smith (El Cerrito, CA)

I’m wheeling my new rolling cart out of the supermarket on HaPalmach on Christmas Eve, strolling past Bank Hapoalim, which looks pretty crowded, and congratulating myself on the purchase of the brown and white checkered shopping cart that makes the seven block trek back to our apartment on Rechov Alkalai an easy errand, no awkward maneuvering of heavy grocery-filled plastic bags or hands red from the drawstrings. There’s a new bookstore on the corner and tonight I decide to go in. It’s a small, inviting place with a good English selection and an electric kettle for tea or instant coffee. I browse for a few minutes and though I’m feeling carefree and happy, I resist buying more books, say l’hitraot to the young clerk and go back outside where the air is cold, and the streets, the open stores, the traffic — all are the same as on any other weekday evening.

How to describe this, the joy of Christmas in the Holy Land?

Tourists have arrived from around the globe and the hotels in Jerusalem, as well as in Bethlehem, are full. The municipality is distributing free evergreen trees at Jaffa Gate to anyone who wants one.  For the past few nights, a lime green floodlight has been projected onto the Old City walls. There is even a large inflated Santa Claus outside a shop on a side street in the Christian Quarter. Around 10 pm, we hear bells ringing from the Old City and we do not, immediately, remember that it’s Christmas Eve.

This is my first visit to Israel in winter, the first time that I have experienced Christmas as just another day, all the weeks and months leading up to it invisible within the Jewish calendar of Haggim and Shabbatot that create the rhythm of life here. It’s the first winter that I have not wished to flee my surroundings, to mute the sensory barrage of piped in Christmas music, the glare of Christmas lights, the shopping countdown and the spending frenzy–the first time that Chanukah has not been swept into the holidays of “the season.”

There is Christmas in Israel and it is a religious observance, the reason for the December influx of tourism to the sites made famous by Christianity. Here, in the one Jewish country of the world, Christmas is not a national holiday. The day passes unnoticed in the Jewish and Arab-Muslim neighborhoods and for the first time in my life the weeks of December did not include finding a response to the question: “Are you ready for Christmas?”

The IBA English news even interviewed Christian tourists in a kind of human interest story you sometimes see given to Jewish holidays in the US.  The tourists, “some of whom refer to themselves as pilgrims,” notes Yochanan Elron, the anchor, have filled the hotels and are enjoying Israel for the holiday. IBA news’ Leah Stern speaks to visitors outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One African-American woman traveling with a tour group is especially enthusiastic. What does she want to tell the folks back home? “Everybody” ought to come here, see the sites, spend time in Israel. It’s safer here than in the cities in the USA.  You’ve “just got to experience Christmas in Israel,” she says.  It is “the best Christmas” of her life.

The same for me, exactly.

Cherryl Smith is author of After Being Somewhere Else (poems) and Writing Your Way Through College, a student’s guide. She teaches writing at Sacramento State University where she is a Professor in Composition and Rhetoric.  During the fall and winter of 2007 she taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

This piece is reprinted with permission of the author.

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