A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

A Disturbing ‘Happy New Year!’

So, this happened: Gary and I were attending morning services at synagogue last Tuesday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when a man ran down the aisle naked from the waist down. The rabbi blocked his path as he was attempting to go up to the bimah (in our shul it is a raised stage where the rabbi and cantor lead services and where the Torah is housed). The rabbi yelled, “Get out! You can’t do this!” Four male congregants ran to assist the rabbi, escorting the man back up the aisle and out of the sanctuary. The naked man was yelling ‘Happy New Year!’ He did not resist the rabbi’s effort to block him or the men who led him out. The whole incident took only a minute or two. When the rabbi resumed services, he began by saying that though it is understandable that we react in anger to this disturbance, we must also remember to have compassion. There are broken people in our community, and we should have compassion for those who are.

I felt terribly sad. Gary and I stayed for the remainder of the service. I thought the rabbi handled the incident well. I thought his message was on point.

While riding home in the car, I learned Gary’s reaction was similar to mine. We were both aware that it could have been so much worse – from the man being aggressive or belligerent, to congregants overreacting and assaulting him, to totally disrupting the service. Gary told me he didn’t move to help because he thought the men who were closest had it under control – at a certain point if more people went over it would make matters worse. I agreed with his judgment. We were both unnerved that someone would do such a thing – we wondered what was going on in his mind.

When I got home, I looked at my phone (I had not brought it to temple) and saw that I missed a call from a friend who is also a congregant at our synagogue. Her voicemail asked me to call her back. I did. Our conversation shed a different light on the events I described above.

She had been at services and was in the lobby getting ready to leave because her husband was feeling uncomfortable about the man’s behavior. Let me give some context.

Probably a half hour to 45 minutes before galloping down the aisle with only a red Coca-Cola t-shirt on, the man was meandering through the pews wishing each congregant a happy new year. He stopped and shook each man’s hand and greeted each woman – Gary and I included. This is not the custom in synagogue. He was somewhat underdressed for the holiday wearing a plaid button-down shirt and beige corduroy pants (most men wear suits and ties). He was not wearing a tallit (prayer shawl which men typically wear on Rosh Hashana), but he did have a yarmulke on. I thought he seemed odd and I looked at him closely. I noted that he had a small hard cover book in his front pants pocket. I did not see anything that seemed menacing. Though his demeanor seemed off, I was not frightened.

After greeting each congregant, he climbed up the stairs to the bimah to see the rabbi – this was during silent prayer. The rabbi waved him off gruffly and the man turned around and climbed back down the stairs. Not long after, as he was standing in the aisle, a congregant, who I thought I recognized as a member of the temple board, approached him and invited him to sit next to him. He went willingly. They were seated a few rows ahead of Gary and me. I was very appreciative that someone reached out to connect with him. The two men appeared to engage in some conversation, and he stayed seated there for a while. Eventually he meandered away, but I didn’t see where he went.

The next time I saw him, he was loping down the aisle sans pants shouting happy new year, as I described above.

My friend’s experience was totally different. Her husband, put off by the man’s odd behavior, decided they should leave. He was uncomfortable and felt unsafe. They left the sanctuary and were in the lobby chatting with someone when they saw the man come back into the temple from a door that is normally locked. He was carrying a Husky tool bag (a small duffel bag). Alarmed, they quickly went down the stairs to the parking lot in front of the synagogue where a policeman was sitting in his cruiser keeping an eye on things. They told the policeman what they observed and urged him to go inside and make sure everything was all right. The policeman was reluctant to do so because he wasn’t supposed to intrude unless there was a call from inside the building. My friend and her husband were insistent. The policeman agreed and was walking toward the synagogue when another congregant came running toward them saying they needed help inside. Then the policeman ran in.

After the policeman ran in, my friend called 911 because she was concerned that a single policeman would be overmatched if the man had a weapon or weapons. The dispatcher assured her they were on it. She and her husband got in their car and went home.

As we discussed the incident, it was clear that my friend was very distressed. I understood that seeing the man come in with a duffle bag was very disturbing and I had not witnessed that part. If I had, I believe I would have done the same as she did in alerting the police. I also shared her concern about the door being unlocked.

Security at the temple has been a source of anxiety for years, not just as a result of the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric have flared up again and again over the years necessitating more elaborate security plans. There are volunteer ushers who greet congregants at the front doors (which are not locked) and stationed throughout the building. Their responsibility, as I understand it, is to greet members, help anyone who needs assistance, and keep an eye out (along the lines of ‘see something, say something.’) All other doors, other than the main entrance, are supposed to be locked. On ordinary days, when large numbers of people are not expected for services, even the front doors are locked, and you are either buzzed in or you have the code to punch in to gain entry. During holidays one or two police cruisers are stationed in the parking lot (last Tuesday there was only one).

While I agreed with my friend on some points, we had differences. She thought his behavior in the first instance, wandering about the sanctuary greeting everyone, merited more attention and perhaps a request that he leave. I wasn’t willing to go that far since at that point he hadn’t done anything wrong. My friend’s take was that a mentally ill person may be harmless, until they aren’t. My thought was that all people may be harmless, until they aren’t. How can we know?

The incident left me with so many questions:

What can the usher do? If I were ushering and a person came in with a duffel bag, would I ask them to leave it in their car? Would I ask them to explain why they needed it? Maybe I wouldn’t ask anything. Do we need metal detectors at the entrances of our houses of worship?

I can say with certainty that I do not believe that the answer is to arm the ushers!

If a person is acting oddly, is that enough of a reason to ask them to leave? What is odd behavior? I know it makes me uncomfortable if a person speaks too loudly for the circumstances, or exhibits vocal tics, or is seemingly disconnected, or highly emotional (without context).  That discomfort may correspond to an instinct that something is wrong or off, but that may not mean that the person is a danger to anyone. If we can’t know, do we err on the side of preserving our comfort (security) or the rights of that individual who may have a mental or physical disability? It is a painful choice to make. People struggling with these conditions are certainly deserving of compassion. As a society we don’t offer enough support in terms of treatment, prescription coverage or residential options.

Gary and I have processed this incident a few times since it happened. Yesterday we were discussing whether, if somehow we knew that the guy was going to get naked and run down the aisle, would we want him escorted out earlier. Gary said that he would – that he wouldn’t want us all subjected to that during Rosh Hashana services. I could see his point. On the other hand, if we could know that he wasn’t dangerous, was it really all that bad? Nobody got hurt. We both recognized, of course, that no one is clairvoyant and human behavior is unpredictable, so it was pointless to conjecture.

After my conversation with my friend, I wonder, if there was a congregation-wide conversation where these issues were discussed, would we be able to come to a meeting of the minds about the lessons learned from this incident? Would we agree on an approach for the future? Can we overcome our differences which stem from our respective values and fears? The frequency of mass shootings has frayed nerves and that makes it even more difficult to navigate these issues.

Please feel free to share your perspective by leaving a comment. Thank you.

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symbols of Rosh Hashanah