Is it just me, or has the sense of not completely fitting in, which Jews traditionally experience at Christmas, been a bit lacking this season in the Pacific Northwest? As a child growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1960s and ’70s, a palpable Yuletide atmosphere wafted in the air every December, perhaps felt even more keenly by Jews, as it reinforced our status as outsiders.
People in that simpler era could be rather easily sorted into distinctive ethnic and religious categories. Over 90 percent of the local population was neatly classifiable along a mere two dimensions: Jew or Christian, and white or black. Admittedly, in the Bronx, where my grandparents lived, you also could add Puerto Rican.
I had a chance to revisit this ethnic taxonomy a few years ago in the Windy City when the youngest and most demanding of our flock, Izzy, trained for a summer with the Chicago Ballet and lived in a downtown dorm. During our visit he needed to be taken by a parental unit for a haircut. I found a nearby African-American barbershop open on a Sunday, and called to make an appointment. I was told to “ask for Manny, the Puerto Rican guy” when we arrived. My heart immediately filled with nostalgic joy.
In 3rd grade, despite a complete and utter lack of singing ability, I joined our elementary school choir. For the Christmas assembly, we sang all the traditional religious standards, such as “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen” (I prefer the Allan Sherman version, “God Bless You, Jerry Mandelbaum”) along with a sop to the 20 percent of so or us from that other Judeo-Christian faith, “I Have a Little Dreidel.” The version our choir teacher taught us differed from what I simultaneously learned in Hebrew school. One day I explained to that her version of the song was incorrect. I expected gushing gratitude, but instead was met with an icy glare. Grownups.
At the Christmas assembly that year in grade school, I joined in for the non-denominational portions of songs and then in my own small civil rights protest version of demanding service at the lunch counter, remained silent when we reached sections which praised the birth of the son of God or proclaimed his divinity. And of course, as commanded in the Torah, our family went to the Chinese restaurant to celebrate the big day. Bottom line: Christmas was distinctive and memorable, to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Out here in the Emerald City, if you blinked then you might have missed the arrival and departure of Santa. First of all, the rise of e-commerce, led by local giant Amazon.com, has made the entire ritual of schlepping to the mall for holiday shopping obsolete. Members of every new generation look at the habits and cultural practices of the past and shake their collective head in wonder (“How did people ever entertain themselves before video games and the Internet?”). While the economy is humming along, mall sales are down precipitously from last year. Seems reasonable to me: Why burn gas and fight crowds when you can get everything you want delivered to your front doorstep at no extra charge?
Even more importantly, the old ethnic categories no longer apply, at least not in Puget Sound. Determining who is white or Christian is an exercise in subtle judgment. My friends and neighbors hail from every corner of the globe, and many of those who are nominally Christian rarely, if ever, set foot in a church. Right in our own little family, we’ve got two Latin American children as brown as caramel. However, I insist you should at least speak a little bit of Spanish to call yourself “Hispanic.”
Fortunately, there is one thing we can all agree on. Christmas should be celebrated in a Chinese restaurant. It says so, right in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” If that isn’t a reference to the obligation to eat lo mein, as our forefathers did, then I don’t know what is. A station wagon loaded with newly purchased toys and clothing may be passé, but some traditions are worth preserving. Who wants some hot-and-sour soup?