Why a rabbi feels at home at Christmas

Guest Column Published in the Des Moines Register December 22, 2015

A cashier at a store rings up a customer’s order, hands the customer his or her purchase, and wishes the person a “Merry Christmas.” The cashier has done these same actions for a hundred previous customers. But this customer pauses a moment, shuffles his or her feet, and looks a little uncomfortable. He or she does not return the greeting and just walks out the store. Or perhaps the customer stammers out some words like, “I do not celebrate Christmas. I am Jewish.”

I used to be that customer. I try not to act this way any more because I am afraid that I may seem rude, particularly since the other person is only trying to be nice (and probably just get through his or her shift). But why am I and many other Jewish people uncomfortable in this type of situation? What is the big deal?

For me it has nothing to do with my feelings about Christmas. I think that Christmas is a fantastic holiday, even though I do not observe it. The spirit of the holiday is both beautiful and inspiring. The traditions and music are gorgeous. I have no desire to declare a “War on Christmas.” I have no idea what that would even look like.

So why the uncomfortable reaction? It comes from the fact, that during this time of year, the world changes. Every store, office, coffee shop, and restaurant I enter, including the ones I frequent on a daily basis, transforms in major ways. The decor and decorations change. The music coming over the speakers changes. Even some of the food or products are switched for different ones. The places that I often think of as “home away from home” become a little foreign to me. I can understand how these changes may enhance the holiday experience for people who celebrate Christmas. However, they also serve as a constant reminder that, if you do not celebrate Christmas, you are a member of a minority. You are different, even in places where you usually feel most at home After a couple of weeks, even without being a grinch, you can get a little worn down by so many reminders.

I know that some people would say that I am interpreting things wrong. They would make the argument that Christmas is no longer really a religious holiday. Rather, it has become a secular holiday that we can all celebrate. I should just jump in. This argument does not really work for me, though. I have a hard time disconnecting Christmas from its religious roots. I think that taking that view would demonstrate disrespect towards Christianity and the devoted pastors whose work in the community inspires me. If they do not see Christmas as secular, how dare I see it that way?

I have come to learn how to deal with these feelings of being different. My solution is not to place greater emphasis on celebrating Hannukah. Hannukah is not a major holiday in the Jewish tradition. American Jews make it seem more important so their kids will not feel left out of this season’s festivities. It lacks the spiritual depth of major holidays like Yom Kippur and Passover. Hannukah surely does not have the multiple layers of meaning found in Christmas traditions. I would argue that Judaism can hold its own with any other religion in terms of depth and spiritual meaning. But you would never know that by comparing Christmas and Hannukah.

Instead, I have learned to look inside. I do not expect other people to change how they approach this season. I do not ask anyone to take down their decorations. Rather, I embrace being different. I also focus on the pride I have about the contributions of the Jewish community to Des Moines. I remind myself that the Jewish community is as much a part of this city as anyone else. The synagogue I am fortunate to serve was established more than a century ago. We are not strangers to Des Moines. We have helped build it into the great place it is today. And we are not going anywhere.

So now I am less taken aback when someone tell me to have a Merry Christmas, a holiday which I never will observe. I simply wish them a Merry Christmas back without missing a beat. I remind myself that, though my surroundings may have changed for awhile, I am still part of them as they are part of me.

Speaker: Rabbi Edelman-Blank

Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank has been the rabbi of Tifereth Israel Synagogue since 2009. He received his Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Previously, Rabbi Edelman-Blank graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. His eclectic experience includes interning at Burbank Temple Emanu El in Burbank, California, directing youth programs at Congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assisting with research in the field of psychology at Boston University, serving in AmeriCorps and an array of community service. His passions lie in community development and making Torah meaningful in our daily lives.