The best Jewish Christmas I ever had was when I was 16. My sister was going to New York University for graduate school at the time and my parents gave me their blessing to visit her during my winter break and see New York City for the first time.
Christmastime was both an odd and magical time to experience New York City. The city was a-glitter with decorations and festivities. My sister and I went sight-seeing: We shopped and ate around Greenwich Village; we bought hot chocolates and went to Rockefeller Center; we visited the top of the Empire State Building; we ate dinner in Little Italy, with Christmas garlands and Italian lights strewn over the streets. We even went to see the holiday windows at Macy’s—that is, before Macy’s became evil and bought every Marshall Field’s in Chicago.
It’s weird and also not strange at all to be a Jew during Christmastime in New York City. In some ways, the whole city feels Jewish, what with the availability of deli food at 3 a.m. and the fact that everyone sounds a little Jewish.
However, I was reminded of how insignificant the Jews are, even in Manhattan, when Christmas actually arrived and the city shut down—yes, even New York City has a sleepy night on Christmas. My sister and I followed suit with our family ritual of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve and went to Chinatown. Afterward, we skimmed the streets for something to do and stumbled into the Comedy Cellar—a comedy club which has featured the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle. To our delight, the club was filled with Jews. And, not only was it filled with Jews, but diverse Jews, including a group of teenage Chasidim. The comedians had a good time with the audience and poked fun at the fact that we were the only ones out on Christmas. Oddly, I felt a sense of Jewish solidarity that night that I’d never even experienced growing up in a nearly all-Jewish suburb of Chicago.
Growing up on the North Shore, I was keenly aware that most around me were Jewish. But, this didn’t help the fact that Christmas was a lonely and boring time for the Jews. While many of us were Jewish, the local businesses still closed and there was nothing to do on Christmas but eat Chinese food and go to a movie. We all did it. Big whoop.
Perhaps I needed to move away from my Jewish hometown to truly appreciate my Jewish-ness on Christmas. Only in the last few years living in Chicago have I been able to rekindle some of that Jewish solidarity magic that I experienced that night in New York City.
As my roommate, who also attended a predominantly Jewish school growing up pointed out, having no-school days for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were like free days for the non-Jews to romp around and have fun. For us, we meant business—religiously that is. Christmas in Chicago is a bit like that for the Jews. On Christmas Eve and Christmas day the Jews have nothing to do but go out and play.
I became aware of how funny and amazing this phenomenon is when I started attending the Jewish bar events in Chicago on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, the city of Chicago is ours for the taking. There is something tranquil and delightful about the snowy streets that are empty—if not for the Jews. I’ve run into people I haven’t seen in years!
On Christmas Eve and Christmas day we all come out from our neighborhood crevices in the city and reunite for a night of mayhem, and a day of good ol’ Asian food and a flick. We nod with a knowing smile to those we haven’t met; we hug and kibitz with those we have. Beginning on December 24th, Chicago is a Jewish city for 24 hours.