Jewish Christmas Carols

The Jewish Journal/North of Boston
American Israelite • 2006
Growing up in rural New Jersey, we were the only Jewish family for miles around. We were told that we special, not like our neighbors, who were mostly farmers. But special means different, especially at Christmas time.

Simply put, there was a party on, and we were not invited. Religious belief aside, to a child, those halls decked with boughs of holly and gaily decorated Christmas trees were entrancingly beautiful. A ride down Somerville’s Main Street, with its glitzy window displays and glittering garlands of Christmas lights overhead might easily overshadow a week of subdued candle-lighting ceremonies, however meaningful. Though we tried our best to ignore the creche smack in the middle of town, those gentle-eyed cows and sweet little lambs were just so cute. And receiving gifts from your parents, even if they are eight consecutive ones, is somehow not the same as receiving all your heart’s desires from a rosy-cheeked Santa leading a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

To tell the truth, a Jewish child could get tired of feeling special. Secretly, in her heart of hearts, she might wish that she had a tree a-shimmer with blue lights, like her best friend. She might wish that her mother made bell-shaped Christmas cookies topped with red and green sprinkles instead of potato pancakes topped with sour cream. And without meaning to, she might find herself humming Christmas carols along with the radio, along with her scout troop, and in music class.
For Jewish kids with a decidedly musical bent, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “The Little Drummer Boy” raised philosophical questions that we were ill-equipped to answer. Imagine a nine year old, in music class, wondering if “Adestes Fideles,” because it was rendered in incomprehensible Latin, was as kosher say, as, “Jingle Bells.” And what if some songs, clearly off limits because of their content, had melodies that touched her soul? Should she hum along, should she mouth the words? If she sang everything except Jesus, what would the teacher do? And, worst of all, what would happen if she sang every word–and enjoyed herself ?

I was that child, torn between the Christmas music and being Jewish, being special. Alone, the only Jew in the class, I navigated my way through that musical and religious labyrinth, striking an uneasy balance between conscience and beauty.
I hummed, I mouthed, I sang, and I survived. Little did I know then that one day I myself would become a music teacher.

Because of my childhood musical agonies, I knew I could never teach Christmas carols, however beautiful, nor could I prepare Christmas pageants or concerts. In fact, I actually left New Jersey for Israel for this reason. Simply put, I was determined to be part of a tribe, nobody special.

In my new life, Christmas comes in silence and, except for a few headlines about tourists in Bethlehem, leaves just as quietly. My children, in fact, sabras both, have barely heard any Christmas tunes.

But when I hear the occasional carol, I am whisked back again to Mrs. Estok’s fourth grade music room. And once more, religious belief aside, the music overcomes me, and I sing my heart out.