By Bill Bonvie
About four decades ago, a comedy album called
Have a Jewish Christmas . . .?
offered a hilarious take on what it might be like if typical American Jews were to abandon their constraints on engaging in traditional Yuletide festivities.
We sure could use an album of that caliber today. Its depictions of things - two Jewish neighbors trying to outdo each other in outdoor decor, nocturnal visits from the "Hanukkah ghost," and elderly Tanta Sophie remarking, "If mine husband would be alive, he would die," after seeing "Jewish people with Goyish trees" - might provide us with some welcome relief from Americans' increasingly uptight attitudes toward their "beliefs."
I think that in most cases, such beliefs aren't really true beliefs in the sense of well-reasoned convictions, but rather unquestioned ideas associated with customs and traditions imbued in our psyches during childhood.
Should you be among those who think that all Jews are compelled by their beliefs to spend Dec. 25 in a self-imposed Chinese-restaurant exile, I'm here to tell you otherwise. There are those who are every bit as proficient as any gentile when it comes to decking the halls. I should know, because I'm one of them.
Yes, I do the whole schmear: the tree, the cards, the last-minute shopping, the caroling, the jing-a-linging, and the general jollifying.
Of course, considering my last name, you may suspect that my enthusiastic embrace of the occasion is due to having a non-Jewish parent. While it's true my stepfather introduced a Christmas tree to our household, it only served to complement a celebration that was already a well-entrenched family tradition.
For that, I can really thank my maternal grandparents, Harry and Fanny Comanor, who were moved by the Christmas spirit after arriving here from Russia about a century ago, as was a contemporary Russian Jewish compatriot of theirs named Israel Isidore Baline.
But it isn't merely tradition that compels me to revel in this ritual every year. I'm also drawn to its nostalgic and aesthetic aspects - its ability to evoke some of my fondest childhood memories. A menorah, notwithstanding its symbolic significance, is simply no match for an artistically decorated, colorfully lit Christmas tree when it comes to brightening up and beautifying one's environment.
Likewise, I'm perennially enchanted by the season's magnificent music, and even play some of it on my beat-up guitar (although admittedly thatBrooklyn-born Jewish bard, Neil Diamond, does a much better job). Should singing carols be reserved for true believers in the biblical account of the birth of the baby Jesus? Come now: Does singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" require a literal belief in the lyrics?
Then there's the view (supported by my dictionary) of the occasion as a stupendous secular festival to which no invitation is needed. I, therefore, see no reason not to attend, especially since it's ostensibly meant to honor a member of my own tribe (whether or not one chooses to believe he was a divinity).
To those who might feel affronted by such sentiments, I can only ask whether they take similar umbrage upon hearing that most popular of all songs, "White Christmas," which was written by the aforementioned Israel Isidore Baline after he disembarked on these shores and changed his name to Irving Berlin.
Still, most Jews would not feel comfortable joining in the festivities - even if they'd secretly love to (as I have no doubt many would). But Christmas is essentially an international holiday, an occasion of good cheer that people of all faiths (including those of little or no faith) are free to celebrate, if they so choose. Whether it's considered a holy day as well should also be purely a matter of individual choice.
So, to paraphrase a line from a famous editorial: Yes, Virginia, there is indeed such a thing as a Jewish Christmas.