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Christmas and the Jews?

I packed away Christmas 35 years ago,

But I still bring holiday joy to others



BY JANET SILVER GHENT | DECEMBER 21, 2023

Thirty-five years ago, I packed up treasured family ornaments and put Christmas away forever.

I don’t shun Christmas — I still enjoy the music, the food and the festivities — but it doesn’t enter my home anymore. Instead, I bring the holiday to others.

In a touching scene in Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” kibbutzniks sing “Silent Night” in Hebrew to an American Christian nurse. I recalled that scene the year I visited the Palo Alto VA Medical Center with the Aurora Singers and sang “Silent Night” to a young veteran of the Iraq War. We both cried.

Several years ago, my husband and I joined members of Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills to serve Christmas Eve dinner at a South Bay homeless shelter. After dinner, while folks were nestled on the floor in sleeping bags, my husband and I led Christmas carols. Rabbi Janet Marder, who was senior rabbi at the time, later drew us aside and thanked us.

“There’s more than one way to feed people,” she said.

I didn’t give up Christmas because of rabbinic tracts telling Jews that the evergreen trees represent eternal life and that holly berries recall the blood of Jesus. Those symbols came from pagan festivities that existed long before the birth of Jesus, which likely didn’t occur on Dec. 25.

I gave up Christmas for the same reason I now wear a Star of David. I gave it up because I reclaimed my identity as a Jew after decades of assimilation. Unlike my parents and even my American-born grandparents and great-grandparents, I had no reason to Americanize. They’d done it for me.

I often joke that my parents only began using Yiddish expressions when they heard them on Johnny Carson.

My paternal grandfather, a Shakespearean actor who performed across America at the turn of the 20th century, reprimanded my father if he uttered a Yiddish expression. And one set of great-grandparents served Blue Point oysters in 1911 at their 25th anniversary party in New York. This is the heritage that was passed on to me. I often joke that my parents only began using Yiddish expressions when they heard them on Johnny Carson.

But getting back to the December holidays: When I was a child, Hanukkah never crossed our threshold, and Christmas Day was a big deal. After the turkey and cranberry sauce was cleared away, my brother and I put on a show for the extended family, often lampooning our guests. Every few years my parents would decide that we couldn’t have a Christmas tree because “it wasn’t right.” In our Jewish neighborhood in Queens, New York, plenty of folks celebrated Christmas, though the tree was considered a bridge too far.

Feeling deprived, I gave myself permission to decorate a huge tree, make stunning ornaments and even bake fruitcake starting in 1965 when I married a man who wasn’t Jewish. After we split in 1988, I gave up everything but the fruitcake. I had fond memories of the holiday but wanted to create new memories instead.

Then in 2000, I married a Jewish man who had previously been married to a non-Jewish woman. When we married, he gave away his Christmas ornaments and stopped putting up a tree. One of his adult daughters didn’t understand why we couldn’t have “just a little tree.”

“A little tree is like a little pregnant,” I said, letting her know that we weren’t taking Christmas away from her or anybody else. We would still share celebrations at their homes, just not at ours.

We started to host low-key Hanukkah parties with singing and homemade latkes. Our poor little dreidels, chocolate gelt and even our menorahs are no competition for Yuletide. That said, we relish our year-round celebrations and Shabbat every week.

Once the holiday season starts, we visit senior residences with two of our choirs, singing both Christmas and Hanukkah songs with the Aurora Singers and Hanukkah favorites with HaShirim, a Jewish chorale we co-founded 20 years ago. During our visits with HaShirim, we bless the Hanukkah candles and invite the audience to join in. I love watching the glowing faces of elderly Jews as they sing the songs they remember.

Sadly, “Maoz Tzur” and “Mi Y’Maleil” are not the songs of my childhood. Jewish composers Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé and Johnny Marks wrote the Christmas songs I sang back then. But it’s not too late to make Hanukkah songs my own.

Preorder Janet Silver Ghent’s book, “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-Life Love” (Mascot Books), at tinyurl.com/janetslove.


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