Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Revisionism


As Christmas time approaches once again, our thoughts naturally turn to decorating our Menorahs with glitzy tinsel and giving generously to Jewish charities in order to mitigate our collective guilt for the suffering of innumerable Jews during the Holocaust. After all, that's what Christmas is all about, right? Or is this only a recent trend? Didn't Christmas mean something different in former times? It can be confusing when the Christmas tree you saw in the city center last year has curiously morphed into a Jewish Menorah for this year's celebrations.
Also, president Bush's family video greeting to the nation concludes by wishing everyone "Happy Holidays" rather than Happy Christmas. It's all very confusing. I concluded that my memory had become blurred (probably advancing age) so I did what any other committed truth-seeker would do under the circumstances: I asked my local Rabbi.

I had never entered a Synagogue before and felt slightly ill-at-ease initially; but I needn't have worried, for the building was quite deserted with the sole exception of the considerable personage of Rabbi Eli; an engaging fellow with an infectious smile who welcomed me warmly. Dressed impeccably in a dark overcoat and incredibly shiny black shoes, he ushered me closer towards the interior of the sumptuous and impressively decorated building.

"Are you seeking advice on converting to Judaism?" he inquired, innocently. I guess it was apparent at first sight to a man of such discernment that I was not of the Jewish faith and doubtless conversion info is the top question among visiting Gentiles.
"No, no," I replied, a little nervously, "I'm simply seeking the TRUE meaning of Christmas. It seems to have changed over the years since I was a boy. I don't recall it being so, well... Jewish."

He considered me intently with his inquiring, dark eyes; almost as though he were anticipating some sort of trap. But then at once he broke into a warm and broadening smile. He placed his arm over my shoulder in that easy-going way that Rabbis have of putting us mere mortals at ease: "My boy, you have come to the right place!" he assured me, "What exactly is it you wish to know?"
"Well," I began, a little uncertainly, "Wasn't Christmas originally a celebration of the birth of Christ?"
"Who?" inquired the Rabbi, clearly perplexed.
"Jesus Christ," I persisted, "you must know him - called everyone sinners; got crucified on the cross; gave rise to the Christian church."

Rabbi Eli looked at me blankly for a moment. Then his face broke into a smile of recognition. "Jesus of Nazareth, you mean!" he exclaimed. "Yes!" I responded, much relieved at his sudden realization. The Rabbi drew his lapels together in a suitably judicial, authoritative fashion and pronounced: "Jesus. A great Jew indeed. He was a Rabbi too, you know." "So I believe," I said, much relieved that now we were on common ground some useful information might be forthcoming.

"Yes, your question is a valid one," Eli reassured me, "in fact it was Jesus who told us that it is more blessed to give than to receive - and that is the CORE Message of this important annual Jewish festival."
"But I thought it was a CHRISTIAN festival!" I couldn't help but blurt it out. The Rabbi mocked me with his gentle smile, but not in an offensive way. It was more in the manner of master whose pupil has made an engagingly foolish mistake. His eyes seemed to grow even warmer, wider and more intense behind his gold-framed spectacles.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to offend you, but Christmas has always been and will always be a JEWISH festival. It was taken over for a long time by the Pagans with their decorated trees, and we pretended not to mind; however it's time for everyone to accept that it is in reality a JEWISH festival. But we don't mind sharing it with people of different faiths." he went on, "we believe it's for EVERYONE, not just Jews and followers of Jesus. So in order not to discourage Muslims, Hindus and everyone else, we nowadays simply call it the 'Season of Giving' so no one feels excluded and everyone can have a great time in the shops."

"And these Menorahs that are suddenly popping up all over the country?" I ventured..
"Simply to remind all folk that it IS after all, fundamentally a JEWISH festival," replied Eli, with a good-natured smile, "and it is solely about GIVING to others. Not just some crappy corn dolly you've put together yourself like in the old days, but really expensive goods like the kind you can only buy in the swankiest department stores. Let's face it: It only comes once a year and no one wants to look a cheapskate!" I nodded ruefully in agreement. I guess he had a point.

"But don't you think that the commercialization of Christmas has gone too far?" I ventured.
"On the contrary," replied the Rabbi, "it can NEVER go far enough."
"How so?" I pressed him.
"Jesus once said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven..."
"Yes, your point being..?" I tentatively inquired. I didn't want to appear ignorant in front of such an erudite man.
"Rabbi Jesus taught us that we can NEVER give enough!" Eli proclaimed triumphantly, "Even if we give to others ALL that we own we can only be no more than HALFWAY to heaven. Anyone who knocks upon heaven's gates who isn't saddled with enormous debt will simply be turned away," he pronounced flatly. "This is why we have the character of Santa Claus which has come to represent the personification of Jesus: he carries out good works by giving away expensive toys to girls and boys - and the more expensive the better! Only in this way can mankind redeem itself and be saved from damnation."

"So one can literally INDEBT one's way to paradise?" I asked him. "Yes!" He joyously proclaimed, "and the bigger the burden of debt one assumes, the greater one's glory in the afterlife! The secret to eternal glory is not through worshiping God or Jesus or any other spiritual entity; it is simply through working all the hours in the day and to spend DOUBLE what you earn in the shops! It matters not WHAT you buy, just BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY!! and WORK, WORK, WORK, WORK, WORK, WORK, WORK!! And those who venture outside to spend on the holy Jewish festival of Christmas day itself in the act of shopping are DOUBLY blessed, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven and everything in it!"

Suitably inspired by the Rabbi's oratory, I resolved to get out my credit cards and head for the nearest mall. it had proved to be a liberating discussion. Eli accompanied me to the door, his arm across my shoulders in that endearing, avuncular way that only senior Rabbis have; his eyes still glowing with goodwill. I was about to step outside when I noticed he had not yet released his arm and was clearing his throat in a strange way. I turned and looked down and saw he was extending a collection box towards me.

"I'm so sorry!" I blurted out in embarrassment, "what on earth was I thinking of?" Eli nodded understandingly, "In the holiday season, we really must consider those in need above all else," he said, "there are many aged Holocaust survivors in this city who could really use any sum, however small, to make what remains of their miserable lives more bearable." Humbled by the directness of this simple statement, I fumbled in my coat pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill. I folded it neatly in two and inserted it into the slot in the box. Rabbi Eli looked up at me with those sad, droopy, puppy eyes. He said nothing but the message was clear: my 'contribution' was an insult to the memory of the dead and their (barely) surviving relatives. I therefore reached in deeper and found two fifty dollar bills which I likewise folded in half and inserted through the slot in the box. The Rabbi shrugged his shoulders, nodded resignedly, and closed the doors of the Jews' House of Worship behind me.

But the message of this strange encounter haunts me still. And it is this: we can never do enough for the Jewish people. Whatever we give will never be sufficient recompense for the suffering they have endured at our hands. I made my way out from under the portico onto the frosty street; the light now fading fast into the gloom of yet another icy December night. Two blocks up I crossed the road and noticed another improvised Menorah. Last year on that same spot there was a tree - a filthy, Pagan contrivance, I had just learned. But I had from my encounter with Eli absorbed a great deal more: Christmas is primarily a JEWISH festival. It is the time of year when we think about the countless lives lost in the Holocaust. it is the time of year in which we must embrace getting into enormous debt with the banks. It is the time of year when we must give endlessly to Jewi$h Charitie$ - and most of all, it is the time of the year to "shop until we drop." - even unto Death if necessary.

No comments: