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Insights Into This Holiday Season

 

As Chanukah comes to an end, I have been thinking - what would be a relevant take away from our holiday experience? Luckily, I found a terrific insight from a Florida colleague - R. Phillip Moskowitz. Hopefully, R. Moskowitz’s article will encourage us all to raise above ordinary in even our most mundane activities. The second article that I’ve shared reflects on the fact that this year, just a week after Chanukah (most of) the Christian world will be celebrating their main holiday of the year. Now why on Earth would I choose to say anything about Christmas? Well, Jeff Jacoby suggests that Christmas here in America has come to represent something that we Jews should be thankful for. Let me know if you agree – or not. 

Blog #1:

One of the most inspirational and impactful stories I have read is in a short, easy-to-read book called “The Fred Factor,” by Mark Sanborn. Fred is the ordinary-looking postal carrier with a small moustache who once delivered mail to Sanborn’s house in the Washington Park area of Denver. But Fred is no ordinary U.S. Postal Service worker. According to Sanborn, he is the kind of worker who exemplifies everything that is “right” with customer service and is a role model for anyone who wants to make a difference in his or her work.

Sanborn describes that when he first moved into his community, Fred stopped by to see how he could help his newest customer. When Sanborn would travel for work, Fred would suggest ways to ensure that piled-up mail wouldn’t alert unsavory passersby when the home was vacant. As Sanborn got to know more people in the area, he soon learned that Fred the postman provided extraordinary service for all the customers on his route. Time after time, neighbors recounted tales of the many ways Fred went above and beyond in his job. In his book “The Fred Factor” Sanborn describes how each of us can become a Fred.

After observing Fred the Postman, Sanborn came to a profound realization: anyone can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. It applies to your work, to your relationships, and to your Judaism as well. Think about what Fred did most of his life. He delivered mail. And where others might have seen monotony and drudgery, Fred saw an opportunity to make a greater difference in the lives of others.

After reading this short book, you will quickly realize that if Fred the postman can excel at bringing creativity and commitment to putting mail in a box, then every single one of us is certainly capable of doing as much or more to reinvent and rejuvenate our efforts, whether it be as a parent, as a spouse, as an employee or as a Jew.

As Sanborn writes, “Mediocrity is our silent opponent” and “nobody can prevent you from choosing to be exceptional. At the end of the day, the only question that matters is, what kind of difference did you make?”

He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who once said, "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause and to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"

If there is one idea that captures the holiday of Hanukkah, it is this notion of being exceptional. The Talmud tells us that while the commandment is to light one candle per house, there’s an even more beautiful way of performing the mitzvah: to light one candle per person in the household. And then, the Talmud tells us, there is an even more beautiful way to do the mitzvah: light one candle per person, per night of Hanukkah.

We call this hiddur mitzvah, which means that I am not simply performing a mitzvah, but that I can beautify my service of God by putting in the time and effort to perform the mitzvah exceptionally.

While beautifying the mitzvah applies to Hanukkah in a unique way, the holiday also challenges us to apply this notion of beautifying to every aspect of everything that we do.

After all, we all wear many hats and play various roles in our lives, be it as a parent, a spouse, a child or a coworker. Why not give push ourselves to be just a little bit more like Fred, live with a little more beauty and do things exceptionally?

If Fred could bring such beauty to putting mail in a box, how much more could you and I bring beauty into our lives? I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing days when I wake up tired. I do everything I can possibly do but sometimes I’m still fatigued and unmotivated to do much with the day.

Hanukkah challenges us to bring that excitement, creativity, enthusiasm and exceptionalism to every aspect of our lives. So think about Fred. Because if Fred the Postman could bring that kind of creativity and commitment to putting mail in a box, then you and I can do as much or more to bring creativity and commitment to our lives.

The choice of being ordinary or exceptional is yours.

Blog #2:

For Jews in old Europe, the Christmas season was a time to be watchful and wary and to keep out of sight. For their descendants in America, the Christmas season — which is also the season of Chanukah, of course — is a time to celebrate and give thanks for the freedom of religion that protects the menorah in their living room window no less than the Christmas tree in their neighbor's.

In medieval and early modern Europe, this time of year often brought sermons filled with invective against Jews for the supposed crime of crucifying Christ. Instead of "good tidings of great joy," there were apt to be blood libels and pogroms. In some Polish and German communities, Jews referred to Christmas Eve as Vay Nacht (Woe Night), a bitter play on Weihnahchten , the German word for Christmas. So great was the fear of antisemitic violence that rabbis in many communities took the radical step of prohibiting Jews from studying Torah on Christmas, in order to keep them from going to the synagogue or the study hall. Hatred of Jews polluted even Christmas music: As recently as 2013, Romanian public TV broadcast a program in which a folk ensemble sang a Christmas carol with hideous lyrics about burning Jews:

A beautiful child was born/ His name was Jesus Christ/ All the world worships him / But the kikes / Damn kikes / Holy God would not leave the kike alive / Either in the sky or on the earth / Only in the chimney as smoke / This is what the kike is good for / To make kike smoke through the chimney on the street.

How blessedly different is Christmas in the United States!

This season more than any other underscores the uniqueness of America's Judeo-Christian tradition. Notwithstanding all our political differences, notwithstanding the endless recriminations and acrimony of the culture wars, notwithstanding even the sharp rise of irreligion in recent decades, America remains a nation in which religious tolerance, both legal and social, is deeply rooted. By and large, Americans of every confession — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs — treat each others' religions with courtesy.

That tolerance is a reflection of the fact that religion in America has always been a matter of individual choice, with government barred by the Constitution from either establishing an official faith or prohibiting the free exercise of any faith. No religion is funded by government. Elected officials have no say in the doctrine of any faith or the content of any religious service. Religion has flourished in America because church and state are separate. And it flourishes in peace because no one is forced to support anyone else's faith, or to attend a church he isn't happy with, or to bring up children according to the religious views of whichever faction has the most votes.

In short, religion in America is peaceful because it is government-free. And that, in turn, is a principal reason why, in this overwhelmingly Christian country, it isn't only Christians for whom Christmas is a season of joy. And why it isn't only Christians who should make a point of saying so.

Jews like me, who have grown up amid this religious acceptance, may be inclined to take it for granted, but imagine how extraordinary it must have seemed to Jews who immigrated to America from lands where Christmas was Vay Nacht, or whose parents recalled all too vividly the fear and anxiety that this season used to evoke when they still lived in Poland, Hungary, or Lithuania. Perhaps that explains why so many of America's most beloved Christmas songs were written by Jewish immigrants or their children.

Think, for example, of Israel Beilin, who was born in the Siberian village of Tyumen in 1888 and immigrated to America as child. He grew up as "Irving Berlin," and went on to compose more than 1,500 songs and score dozens of musicals and films — but nothing he ever wrote proved more popular and enduring than a 1942 song first recorded by Bing Crosby: "White Christmas." It is the best-selling single in the history of recorded music, and it is impossible to imagine the Great American Songbook — let alone the American Christmas Songbook — without it. It evokes what have become classic Christmastime themes: home, childhood, and nostalgia. But in its minor chords, as composer Rob Kapilow has shown, is also "all the yearning of an immigrant to be assimilated."

Berlin was the first of a long line of Jewish immigrants, or their children and grandchildren, who helped create the soundtrack of Christmas in America.

Almost as iconic as "White Christmas" is "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose"). It was written in 1945 by 19-year-old Mel Tormé, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, together with his Jewish partner and lyricist, Robert Wells. The following year it was recorded by Nat King Cole, and almost at once became a Christmas classic.

Ray Evans and Jay Livingston were the Jewish songwriting duo who composed "Silver Bells" for a Paramount Pictures film called "The Lemon Drop Kid." They were reluctant at first, Evans recalled years later, because "we figured — stupidly, thank God — that the world had too many Christmas songs already." The song they wrote became a standard, recorded by artists as different as Doris Day, The Temptations, Johnny Mathis, and Elvis Presley.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written by Johnny Marks, another Jewish songwriter. That song alone would have guaranteed that Marks would go down in history, but he also created "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" (which is based on an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow); " Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," which has sold tens of millions of copies since it was first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958; and "A Holly Jolly Christmas," which hit No. 10 on the Billboard "Hot 100" as recently as January 2020 — 58 years after it was composed.

The list goes on and on. Eddie Pola, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Hungary, wrote "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Felix Bernard created "Winter Wonderland," which has been covered by hundreds of performers, including Michael Bublé and the Eurythmics. From Walter Kent (originally Walter Kaufman) came "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a beloved song that astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell requested NASA to play for them while they orbited the earth aboard Gemini 7 in December 1965.

Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne were both born to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe (Galicia in Cahn's case, Ukraine in Styne's). During a heat wave in Hollywood in 1945, the duo wrote "Let It Snow," which doesn't actually mention Christmas but has long since earned a spot on the Christmastime playlist. Another pair of Jewish songwriters, Joan Javits and Philip Springer, came up with "Santa Baby," which was first recorded by Eartha Kitt and became the best-selling Christmas song of 1953 — despite being banned in some states because of its slightly suggestive lyrics. ("I'll wait up for you, dear Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.")

One last example: Gloria Adele Shain was born in Brookline, Mass.; her family lived next door to Joseph and Rose Kennedy and their children (one of whom was John F. Kennedy). In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she wrote the music to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" which was intended as a plea for peace. Today, Kennedy and the Missile Crisis are practically ancient history, but Shain's beautiful song lives on and is heard every year at this time.

In my Jewish home we don't celebrate Christmas, but I enjoy seeing my Christian neighbors celebrate it. I like living in a society that derives so much happiness from its religious holidays. For my ancestors in Europe, the sights and sounds of Christmas could be menacing, but for me and my family — thoroughly Jewish and thoroughly American — they are reassuring and joyful. I am thankful for the freedom that makes that possible, and that inspired so many of the season's songs.