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Congregation to discuss how Jews stay jolly at Christmas time

Jews navigate identities of religion, nationality

By David Greisman, dgreisman@tribune.com

8:44 AM EST, December 14, 2011

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When Rabbi Susan Grossman's son was much younger, he noticed that a movie theater had put up a large Christmas tree and a comparably little menorah.

"He turned to me and said, 'How come the tree is so big, and how come the menorah is so small?' " Grossman recalled, noting that at the time she wondered if he thought the size difference meant Christmas is a big holiday and Hanukkah a small one, or that Christianity is a big religion and Judaism small.

And then her son finished his thought: " 'The tree is really beautiful,' " Grossman recalled him saying. " 'And Hanukkah is my holiday.' "

The interaction between Jews and Christmas goes beyond the symbols for both holidays. It includes how those not of the Christian faith interact with, and sometimes enjoy, elements of Christmas; how they feel when surrounded by the ubiquitous music, decorations and merry wishes; and how they maintain their own identity amid a majority that practices and celebrates something else.

Those questions will be among those discussed Friday, Dec. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Beth Shalom Congregation, 8070 Harriet Tubman Lane, in Columbia. "The Jewish View: Coping With Christmas — Can we be both jolly and Jewish?" will be modeled after the television talk show "The View."

"It's a time of year that Jews feel their other-ness in society," said Grossman, who will be moderating the discussion. "The whole world is the music, all the decorations, all the good wishes, all the advertising. For those cultures that don't celebrate, it can be very overwhelming. It's a beautiful time of year and worthy of enjoying, but also as Americans reverberates in our other-ness that we're not in the majority."

Those who practice Judaism in the United States navigate two identities, as Americans and as Jews, she said.

"How do you enjoy the beautiful parts of this season, the colored lights on the trees, and still feel okay about where you fit in America?" she said. "How do we share in our neighbor's celebration — and how do we invite them to share in our celebration?"

Hanukkah is not one of the Jewish high holidays, such as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hanukkah commemorates a period after the destruction of the Jews' Second Temple when the practice of Judaism had been forbidden by the conquering Syrian Greeks. The Jews revolted, chased them out of Jerusalem, reconsecrated the temple and were able to use one remaining flask of oil to light a menorah for eight straight days.

This year the holiday will be celebrated from nightfall on Dec. 20 and runs through Dec. 28.

"It shouldn't and it doesn't compete with Christmas, even though it's positioned to do so on the calendar," Grossman said.

Jews need not feel separate from those celebrating Christmas, however, and some area residents said they participate in activities with friends.

"If a friend invites me over, I'd be happy to come over and help decorate the tree, because it's fun to do," said Irva Nachlas-Gabin, of Long Reach, who will be part of Friday's discussion. "Just as they'd come over and eat latkes with me, because they taste good."

Larry Cohen, a Columbia resident who also will be on the panel, recalled growing up in a predominantly non-Jewish area of New York City.

"I always understood the fact that Christmas wasn't my holiday in a sense of a religious perspective, but I enjoyed the hoopla and the fun and all the activities and the music that went along with it," he said. "I didn't look at it as a religious holiday, but I knew it was."

He was able to make the distinction that he was Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, while Christians celebrated Christmas. That didn't take away from his enjoyment.

"Wasn't it Irving Berlin, a Jewish guy, who wrote 'White Christmas'?" Cohen said.

"From the Christian point of view, I understand it's religious. From a non-Christian perspective, it's a holiday season."