Early this morning our friend, Eve Ilsen, sent me a post about how she and her husband, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, used to celebrate Christmas. There was the usual Chinese food, but also a Christmas Seder with the Jesuit Edward Zogby, where participants were invited to set out on the table foods and items relating to the story of Christmas and what it evoked for them.
Suddenly I was thrown back to the past, and to how my family celebrated Christmas. Or to how they not only never ever celebrated Christmas, but practically denied its existence.
In our house nobody ever mentioned the word Christmas. Yes, Donald, you are right, there are households that don’t mention the word, but not for the reasons you think. Nobody meant to be irreverent or insensitive, nobody dreamt of belittling Jesus. It was simply a matter of fear.
If you grew up as I did, you knew all about the pogroms in which Jews were killed across Europe over many centuries. You knew how apprehensive everyone got before Christmas and Easter in particular, because that was when local priests would denounce the killing of Jesus by Jews, or else they’d suddenly be sure that a local child had been murdered by Jews, and off everyone would run straight from homily to the killing fields.
Those events have preyed on Jewish collective memory for centuries. Something that powerful doesn’t die just because we’ve enjoyed several decades of safety and security in the US. Many Jews don’t celebrate Christmas not just because it’s not their observance, but because their ancestors were killed Christmas time; for them it was a season of terror, not joy.
I had that drilled into me for years, and I went through many Christmas seasons purposely and stubbornly oblivious to the wreaths, decorations, gifts, lights, and greetings everywhere.
Easter began to change that for me. I loved to watch the women emerge from church wearing splashy hats after Easter service, I loved even more the new leaves that began to splash all across New York City’s Central Park.
Then I began to do street retreats with Bernie. Some of those early retreats took place on Holy Weed, the week of Passover and Easter, and culminated at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with the Easter vigil service on Saturday night. The play of sorrow and joy, darkness and light, stirred me deeply, especially after living on the streets for a week, and I finally gave myself permission to—as we say in Zen Peacemakers as part of our precepts training—be touched by the joys and pains of the universe. Feel them tangibly, palpably, now.
Easter continues to be my favorite Christian holiday. I have been at Tenebrae, Easter vigil service, and Easter dawn service. I’m a sucker for rebirth and renewal.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s I worked in Yonkers as part of the Zen Community of New York building homes for families with no homes. The Christmas after we opened the first building of apartments, an assistant bookkeeper by the name of Hermina came into the child care center dresssed as Santa Claus and bringing gifts to mothers and children (the residents were mostly single mothers with children). Hermina was a sassy, chunky Santa, full of cheer. Her boss was Florence, who drove every day from Brooklyn to help us in our work.
Where did Hermina get that terrific Santa Claus outfit, I wondered aloud to Florence.
I gave it to her, said Florence.
You? Florence was a Jewish Communist, the last person on earth I’d have imagined with a Santa Claus outfit.
She nodded. It belonged to somebody I knew years ago, a Hasid.
Now I really couldn’t believe my ears. Hasidim are very orthodox Jews, wearing black suits, long black coats and wide hats all year round, living together with similar families and rarely emerging from their religious enclave.
He was like all the other Hasidim, said Florence, except for one thing. He loved Christmas! He thought it was the most wonderful thing ever invented. So what he did was he’d save money all year round, and come Christmas he’d put on this Santa Claus outfit and go into hospitals and community centers with large bags full of gifts that he bought with the money he’d saved. He did that year after year, till he died of liver cancer at a young age. The Santa Claus outfit Hermina wore was the one he wore for many years. He was tall and thin, and she’s short and on the heavy side, but it fitted just fine.