Growing up Jewish in the South during the 1980s and ’90s wasn’t the easiest. Most of my friends, neighbors and teachers in Marietta, GA, a suburb outside Atlanta, were Christian; even my synagogue’s Rabbi was a Protestant. No, not Protestant…. maybe lactose intolerant? In any case, I know how Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer must have felt while being ostracized and excluded from all the “reindeer games.” I myself–fortunately–was never invited to any of the Klan rallies or book burnings in my neighborhood, but I am prone to believe that this had something to do with my nose. Although mine did not glow.
Back then, the most difficult time for me to be a Jew awash in a sea of gentiles was around the holiday season. Christmas was amazing—especially to a child, regardless of denomination. While the Hanukkah menorah may hold 9 candles, Hanukkah the holiday doesn’t hold a candle at all compared to Christmas. We have dreidels, potato latkes and Hanukkah gelt. They have Christmas lights, Christmas trees and most amazing of all: Santa Claus.
When I was 6 years old, my Mom took me to the mall the week before Christmas, and there he was. He had rosy cheeks and a big beard; I was in awe as I asked my Mom if I could sit on Santa’s lap. She looked down at me and said, “Honey, we’re Jewish; we don’t believe in Santa.”
I said, “Mom, everyone else gets to sit on his lap — Christian, Jordan and Mikey.” It must have been a convincing tantrum – just the right combination of breath-holding, screaming and crying–because Mom shrugged her shoulders.
“What’s the harm?”
So we waited in line, and when I finally got to Santa’s lap, he asked me if I’d been a good boy. “Yes.”
He asked me my name. “Danny.”
“Okay, Danny, what do you want for Christmas?”
“I don’t want anything for Christmas, Santa.”
He seemed perplexed. “What do you mean you don’t want anything for Christmas?”
“Well, Santa, I am Jewish.”
This is no lie. Santa Claus pulled me close and whispered in my ear, “Me too, kid.”
That’s when I found out Santa was a Jew. I went to school the next day, bragging to all my friends. “Santa’s Jewish, Jesus is Jewish, Sammy Davis Jr. is Jewish…. You guys have no one.”
That was years ago. Cut to the other day in Brooklyn. On the subway, I saw a little boy about the same age I was when I met Santa. He sat with his mother, and across from them was a plump, aged Hasidic man with a mane of white hair.
“Mama, why is that man so fat?” the little boy asked. The embarrassed Mom tried to quiet him, albeit unsuccessfully. “Mama, why does he have such a long beard? Why is he so old?”
The Hasidic man leaned over to the little boy and said, “Oy vey!” in an accent rivaling Jackie Mason. “What, you’ve never seen Santa Claus in person before?”
Apparently, Santa is systematically touring the world, telling one little boy at a time that he’s a Jew. And it appears he is much more serious about the religion now, than when I was a child. These days he is a Hasid.