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New York’s Secular Jews Celebrate Their Christmas Traditions

  • Adam Phillips

Commercial, tinsel bedecked and secular it may be, the Christmas holiday is Christian at its core. And so, for centuries, Jews have stood apart from the celebrations the mainstream enjoys. However, in New York City, which boasts the world’s largest Jewish population outside Israel, secular Jews have developed their own parallel seasonal traditions.

Sean Altman is a New York Jew. He is also known as the singing and songwriting talent behind “Jewmongous,” his popular comedy show that affectionately satirizes his fellow Jews and deflates the stereotypes Gentiles sometimes have of them. Altman said this is the busiest time of year for his act among Jewish audiences.

“Jews - at least in New York City, because there is such a huge Jewish population - we have sort of made Christmas our unofficial other holiday. It’s that there are so many entertainment and social events now for Jews around Christmas. It’s a bigger celebration almost than Hanukkah is, at least in New York, because for secular Jews, it’s a time for us to come together,” said Altman.

Growing up Jewish in a Gentile culture wasn’t always easy for Altman.

“I have a mixed relationship with Christmas in that I have spent many, many Christmases decorating other people’s trees. Because I’m tall. So I am always the guy who they say ‘Hey! Will you put this on top of the tree?’” he recalled. “It felt fine. I’m secular so I have no religious association with Christmas at all. That being said, I’d never have a Christmas tree in my own house. But I have no problem at all with the commercial aspects of Christmas. That’s the part that I actually like. It’s the religious part I have no use for. And also, as you know, Jews have a long history of capitalizing on Christmas.”

Indeed, old standbys like “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” “Home for the Holidays,” “Santa Baby,” “Silver Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were all penned by Jews.

“I myself have a holiday song called ‘Ruben the Hook-nosed Reindeer’ about Santa’s misunderstood reindeer,” said Altman.

“He’s Ruben the Hook-Nosed reindeer, with his bulbous Semitic beak,

Cooks blintzes for Blitzen, does Santa’s taxes, cleans his hooves every week.

He’s Ruben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer, but the gig is taking its toll,

Cause it’s a bitch to finagle a lox and a bagel up at the North Pole,” he sang.

Other, more stridently secular music, can be heard at the annual Christmas Eve MatzoBall - named for a traditional Jewish comfort food. Matzo ball is a Jewish-American staple in twenty cities. Jaime Blanke oversees the New York event, attended by over 2500 people.

“Christmas is such a beautiful holiday, but being Jewish you don’t get to celebrate that. So what’s amazing is that you get to celebrate the MatzoBall on Christmas. It’s just really a place where you really feel like you are with your tribe,” said Blanke.

MatzoBall is also billed as a singles event. That’s why twenty-something Oren Cohen came.

“I am here to meet my one true love. I want to marry a Jewish woman. That’s why I’m here. But it’s mostly guys here, so I am disappointed,” said Cohen.

Jeff Finkle, one of the few men here sporting a necktie, also came to meet “a nice Jewish girl.” So far, no luck, but Finkle says that’s okay.

“You know what it is? It’s the night before Christmas and all the Jews like to huddle, and because there is nothing open. And you know what? Everyone just likes to have a good time during the holidays. That’s really it in a nutshell,” said Finkle.

For many New York Jews, it’s an unofficial Christmas Day tradition to go to the movies and eat Chinese food. Perhaps some dim sum, or a nice Peking Duck. Finkle observes and appreciates the custom.

“You know what? The Chinese work very, very hard in this town, and you have to respect them. On a night like this, and the next day, whenever everything is closed, they are busting their asses. That’s something to be appreciated,” he said.

Sure enough, on Christmas Day, the Shun Lee restaurant near Lincoln Center is packed with Jews who have stopped in to chow down before show time. Frank and Lillian Hollander are between courses, looking happy and looking around.

“At Christmas, all the Jewish people go to Chinese restaurants,” said Lillian.

“The food is good here, and they are very nice people,” added Frank.

Lillian is happy to take part in the New York traditions.

“I was born in Springfield, Vermont. We were the only Jewish family there. My mother kept a kosher house. So they did not eat Chinese food. When we moved to New York, [it was] fabulous! I never tasted anything so good,” said Lillian.

A little Big Apple holiday cheer - Jewish style.

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