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Don't be afraid

"The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid." — Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Don’t be afraid of Christmas, even if you’re Jewish

A few years ago, a Jewish FB friend posted that she had been at some civic luncheon and was sitting next to a non-Jewish woman. One of them was wearing red and the other hunter green, and the Gentile woman said, “Oh, look! Together we make Christmas!” The FB friend reported that she was flustered and didn’t know what to say.

That level of discomfort seems a little out of place to me, living as we do in a nation in which red and green pretty much take over the place for six weeks each year. “Together we make Christmas” would be an unusual remark in, say, downtown Riyadh or at Kol Nidrei services, but it’s a perfectly natural observation in religiously mixed company in the U.S. of A. I mean I like to play a computer game that involves dropping virtual marbles, and I think fleetingly of Christmas every time I see a red and a dark green marble together. All year round. That’s how 62 years of life in America can shape your neural pathways.

The “war on Christmas” imagined by certain right-wing commentators is well-known and completely bogus, but at this time of year, a few of my fellow Jews also seem to imagine a Gentile community that is ganging up on them with verbal greetings of “Merry Christmas” and obliviousness to any other faith community’s seasonal holiday. But we have to expect that. We Jews comprise about 2 percent of the American population (significantly less where I live, maybe up to 10 percent if you live in a major city or one of its suburbs), but unless you reside in one of this nation’s few Jewish enclaves, Christmas is going to be the predominant civic theme between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and Chanukah is never going to get equal time or even a whole lot of recognition.

There are non-Jewish folks who do want to know about Chanukah — I explained the holiday to a bunch of at-risk kids at a very Christian residential facility on Wednesday and next week will light a chanukiyah at a huge senior living center in which the Jewish residents can be counted  on one hand. But Chanukah can’t compete with Christmas in the marketplace of American culture. That’s why Chanukah is so fraught with tension for Jewish parents of school-aged children. It’s a big reason that the December Dilemma looms so large for the intermarried. It’s why Chanukah became a gift-giving holiday, and why I wish the American Jewish community would adopt almost any Jewish holiday other than Chanukah for exchanging presents. (I’ve been on the record about that last point for years: http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/a_modest_proposal_20001215)

Maybe I’m just lucky: old enough to have experienced singing Christmas carols in public school as seasonal rather than religious music, and young enough not to have been chased down the street by anti-Semitic schoolmates. But Christmas doesn’t pose any kind of threat to this rabbi. Christmas is powerful, but it can’t damage our Jewishness; it can’t even detract from the joy we derive from celebrating Chanukah unless we let it.

On Christmas morning my husband and I will open gifts with my Presbyterian mother-in-law and pagan sister-in-law, neither of whom ever bothers to find out when Chanukah actually falls, so it’s always nice when it coincides with Christmas. Tomorrow night I may go to late Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church that’s been hosting my Torah Study for Skeptics class because the music and liturgy are lovely and I have friends there now. I’ll skip this year’s Messiah sing-along because it falls on erev Shabbat, but I may go next year, because the fact that Handel wrote such glorious music outweighs his co-opting Isaiah to celebrate Jesus and his being a massive anti-Semite. And I’ll answer anyone’s greeting of “Merry Christmas!” with “You too!” because I know it’s meant as fellowship, not proselytism, and my neighbors’ neglect of my holiday is as benign as their plates of red-and-green cookies.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This is the first post of my very first blog. Most of you who read this probably know me already, so I don’t have to do a lot of introduction. I’m a Reconstructionist rabbi and a cantor; I live with my husband, Spencer Gill, and two cute dogs in Virginia Beach, VA, and lead a little congregation, Tidewater Chavurah, with no building but nice folks. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for years.

Lately there have been a few people in my life who have suffered physical trauma or emotional pain and didn’t let on until they’d been suffering quite a while. When I asked, “Why didn’t you let me know?” they gave the exact same response: “I didn’t want to bother you.” This would be followed by an exasperated exhalation on my part and a real or virtual hug.

I used to be like that, not wanting to bother people with my problems. Then Spencer contracted flesh-eating bacteria during a beach vacation in 2008 and almost lost part of a leg. All help extended was gratefully accepted: from airport personnel while getting him home to Los Angeles, from friends who sat with me into the night when he had surgery, from neighbors offering dog walks. When Spencer’s arrival home from the hospital coincided with the beginning of the High Holidays and I had to be at the temple when I was cantor, I reached out. Because almost all our friends were not only Jews but shulgoing Jews, I got my parents to drive out from Arizona to hang with Spencer over Rosh Hashanah. For erev Yom Kippur, Spencer’s best bud overcame all his phobias (illness, caretaking, neediness) to spend the evening in our condo, and the next day an Orange County pal gave up temple to stay for like ten hours. When I got home that night to break the fast, she greeted me with a plate of warm brisket. From then on, I made two promises: I would give help when asked, and I would ask for help as needed.

So many people can’t do the latter. Has it been ever thus, that a high proportion of folks think it unseemly to ask for as little as a shoulder to cry on (while a smaller number not only need but demand rescue on a regular basis)? Is the unwillingness to reach out for support exacerbated in some way by the 24-hour news cycle and social media; do we see footage of wildfires and mass murders and Aleppo and decide our problems don’t matter? Has asking for help become institutionalized? (“Please send healing prayers on behalf of Ploni ben Ploni…” “Please sign up for the temple’s Bikur Cholim committee.” “Don’t worry, my insurance will handle it.”) Will the next generation, with its members’ reported reluctance to engage in face-to-face conversation, be able to give hugs, let alone receive them?

Most of us, as we grew up, were exposed to the John Donne poem that begins, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” and the West African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” Both are wise sayings and should be taken to heart, but they don’t go far enough to encourage us to reach out to others when we’re in need. Accordingly, I invite you to turn to the words of that noted young philosopher Demi Lovato, who said, “The best advice I can give to anyone going through a rough patch is to never be afraid to ask for help.” (Thank you, Google and goodreads.com.) You don’t have to have gone through drug addiction and rehab to take that advice, either. Take it whenever you need a hot meal, a word of praise, a bear hug. If you run out of people to bother, by all means bother me.

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