Guest Column by Rabbi Shalom Lewis
Our history is one of victimization, exclusion, and begrudging, occasional tolerance. When we were embraced, it was for a purpose, and when we were invited in, there was an agenda of exploitation.
Typically, we were ostracized and dwelt apart. We lived far from the action. Social evolution and social revolution were distant, tantalizing dreams, but not ours to experience.
It was clear who we were. Our language was different. Our faith was different. Our clothing was different. Everything about us screamed outsider.
There was no difficulty identifying the Jew. Eating a salad, tucking in our tzitzis, shaving our beard just didn’t work. We were branded.
But the bittersweet consequence of such isolation preserved us from assimilation. The rejection without preserved the Yiddishkeit within. There was limited commingling, restricted interaction and deliberate segregation.
The isolation stunted us but sustained us as well with the absence of facile, alien seductions. And so we lived in the shtetl, in the ghetto, in the Pale, and life proceeded year after year without McDonald’s, golf and Shabbos SATs. Options were narrow, bigotry strong, and so we rarely strayed far from home.
And then along came America.
A nation unique in our history, where the Jew is embraced unconditionally and granted full citizenship, no strings attached. This blessing was sweet, but in time we ate and dressed and lived like everyone else. We were indistinguishable from our neighbors in appearance and in deed. The melting pot homogenized everyone.
In the mirror, staring back, was not Finkelstein and Schwartz, but Smith and Jones. We had arrived.
It was and remains a great moment in our history, but how do we remember that Moses and Hillel are our heroes alongside Lincoln and Mantle? That Torah is our sacred document as well as the Constitution? That Sinai and Washington are both holy places?
Rabbis can wax eloquent and preach with podium-pounding passion, but folks are going to do what they wish, what is easier, and what, let’s face it, they perceive as more fun.
So what do we do to remind the possible spiritual defectors that they belong here, not there? It is a challenge, but at least once a year we loyalists have an ally in Christmas. During the post-Thanksgiving weeks till New Year’s we have a friend in Jesus. (Please do not quote me out of context.)
The beauty and allure and bombardment of Christmas remind the Jews of their Judaism. From the outside we can admire and appreciate the sentiment of “peace on Earth and good will toward men,” Drummer Boy and Santa, but they do not belong to us.
I love the lights and the melodies, the tinsel and Rudolph. I appreciate the majesty of Handel’s “Messiah” and the towering, glittering tree at 30 Rock, but these serve as gentle reminders that we are Jews.
It is a kindly push-back, and for those among us teetering on the cusp, it is a call to return home, to light our chanukiah, to sing “Maoz Tzur” and to eat latkes.
There are places in this glorious country where faith overlaps, and there are places of religious distinction. We dare not get confused and lose our dignity in the pursuit of that which belongs to others.
But if all else fails, remember the Claxton Fruit Cake. A nibble and our equivocating co-religionist friends will come begging for bobka and rugalach.
A merry Christmas to our Christian friends, and a happy Chanukah to us.
Rabbi Lewis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim.