A Jew at Christmas

12/16/2010 08:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Christmas will be the first since Justice Elena Kagan's reply to the member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who inexplicably asked her how she had celebrated Christmas last year. She replied, without missing a beat, that "like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."

That line became instantly famous and beloved among American Jews -- and not only because the wit and honesty it exhibited seemed to presage a career on the court of which Jews and other Americans would be proud. Something else got expressed at that moment: The fact that a future Supreme Court justice was so totally comfortable in her own skin as a Jew, so utterly confident of her standing as an American, that she could not only aspire to serve on the nation's highest court but confess her enjoyment as a Jew at Christmas. It was an important moment, all the more so for being light-hearted; it expressed part of what is uniquely precious about being a Jew, or a Christian, in America.

I understood, as a boy growing up in one of Philadelphia's ethnic neighborhoods, that I had just as much claim on America as the Catholics whose church stood on the corner three blocks away or the Italians who strode down Broad Street in the Mummers' Parade on New Year's Day. My at-homeness in the United States did not come despite ethnic and religious differences such as these but because of them. My family and I took our legitimate places side by side with other Americans by virtue of the hyphen in our identities. We proudly put out flags on the Fourth of July, attended interfaith services on Thanksgiving morning, and displayed brightly lit Hanukkah candles in our windows. Some of our neighbors put candles in their windows too, others whom we knew to be Jews did not light candles or display them, and still others -- more and more, as I got older and the neighborhood changed -- had Christmas decorations both inside and out. They included the Ukrainian families with whom we were friendly despite the fact, as my parents relished telling me, that Jews and Ukrainians had not gotten along well in the old country. This was America. We publicized the miracle of Hanukkah in our windows without hesitation.

There were some awkward moments at Christmas, I confess. What should I do when singing Christmas carols in elementary school assemblies? I wasn't bothered by the fact of the songs. Christian teachers led us in recitation of the 23rd Psalm in class each morning, if memory serves. That's how I learned about "Judeo-Christian America." The prayer seemed to fit right in with the Pledge of Allegiance and "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't think I was bothered, either, by the fact that Hanukkah was represented in school assemblies only by a token song or two among what seemed to be dozens of Christmas carols. Hanukkah menorahs would sometimes appear that way in department stores, I noticed: a modest appearance dwarfed by giant Christmas trees and pervasive holiday decoration.

I knew Jews were a minority in this country. It was a point of pride for my parents and teachers that we clung faithfully to traditions such as Hanukkah in the face of so much Christmas -- and a source of pride in America that we could do so, for the most part, unmolested. Even as a teenager I followed with interest the Supreme Court cases that drew the line between legitimate public expression of Christmas as an American holiday, beloved of the country's majority, and illegitimate state support for observance of Christmas as a religious holiday. Trees were okay on civic property by this reasoning. Creches and crosses were not.

The distinction jibed with my comfort in singing "Silent Night" or "Adeste Fideles" during school assemblies -- and my discomfort at bringing my lips to form words such as "Christ the Lord." Mid-song, I'd turn in an instant from full-throated performance to barely audible mumbling and look around furtively to see if Christian friends and teachers had noticed the switch. (I also wanted to find out if Jewish friends had taken the same evasive action I had.)

I love Christmas carols to this day. Not just the secular ones, sometimes written or performed by Jews, that make it perfectly okay to enjoy the holiday without ambivalence or embarrassment: "White Christmas" or "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." I enjoy the religious tunes just as much: the "rum pum pum pum" of "The Little Drummer Boy"; the dignified, comforting waltz of "Silent Night"; the grandeur of "Adeste Fideles," undiminished in my mind by a rendition lacking the triumphant affirmation of its last three words. It matters that Jesus was a Jew, of course. I feel the pride of many Jews in being connected to his courage and his teaching, whatever theology and history have gotten in the way over the centuries. As a religious Jew, I relate easily to the satisfaction Christians take in focusing themselves and the country for one short spell on the values that should be guiding us year-round -- and appreciate why some religious Christian friends recoil in horror from the merchandising that often seems to drown out hopes for "peace on earth and goodwill among men," let alone obedience to God's will. I like to sing, and the songs are good. The world needs brightening this, as every, December. Hanukkah lights can use the help of Christmas cousins.

Some Jews, I know, have trouble with the holiday. They get tired of clerks at the check-out counter thoughtlessly saying to their kids, "And what do you want Santa to bring this year?" They resent not being able to enter a store, or ride down a street, or turn on a radio without being subjected to what can seem propaganda for a holiday, a religion, a vision of America in which they do not have a part. The holiday can be particularly hard for Jews who are married to Christians. Negotiation over celebration of Christmas is a notorious point of discord. (Exhange presents? Decorate a tree? Spend Christmas Eve at the in-laws' house? Have Christmas dinner with a ham on the table?) Crossing boundaries is a lot easier when the boundaries themselves are clear.

I won't be going to a Chinese restaurant this Christmas Eve, or (my family's custom) catching a movie, or attending one of the many churches in New York City that offer midnight concerts to the public. For this Christmas Eve falls on Friday night: the Sabbath. That "holy night" and holy day lend purpose and beauty to every one of my weeks and remind me, along with other members of the "people that keeps the Sabbath," of God's intentions for Creation. Oh well. Maybe next year.