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The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Except it's not exactly a Christmas story -- it's a story about a latke who escapes his Jewish home (a home "regarded with suspicion," thanks to its lack of Christmas lights), only to find that he's not exactly understood by the outside (read: Christian) world. "I'm something completely different!" he screams -- to no avail.


I concede on the sweets and salt. I knew it was a narrow view. But I was just a kid. And yes, Jackie Mason has a routine about Jews eating cake -- but it's coffee cake, not the food-coloring-dyed icing-topped candy-studded kind. What Jackie Mason really said about telling a Jew from a gentile was this: "I'll tell you who's a Jew and who's a gentile. You can always tell a Jew and a gentile. After the show tonight, what will every gentile say? 'Go for a drink? Drink? Have a drink? Drink?' What'll every Jew say? 'Did you eat yet?' " Jackie Mason I know by heart.

And you're also right about horses. As an old punch line went, "What's a Jew doing on a horse?" Though Mark was braver than I, we both, true to the genes, knew nothing from horses -- except that the thing Southern California boys did to celebrate a birthday in the '50s was to go horseback riding in Griffith Park, by which was meant going and coming along a dusty, familiar, fenced trail on the back of an old jade who knew the drill by heart. I've learned a little more about horses since (also on the farm of my teacher), but not enough to convert.

The real difference in our experience is that when you were young, you didn't give Hanukkah much thought. Christmas was the real deal, and Hanukkah was not much in evidence and required little of your attention. For me there was no such luxury, because Christmas, of course, was everywhere, inescapable. Inevitable Christmas-carol Muzak in the stores, Santa Claus putting in an appearance somehow on every one of my favorite TV comedy shows, and all those lights on the houses and reindeer in the front yards. This is why my sister observes that "on Christmas Jews huddle." Not because they have to, like the Jews of medieval (and later) Europe, who had better huddle to avoid massacre by mobs driven to frenzy by blood-libeling Easter sermonizers. No, thank God. But because anyone would want to huddle when confronted by nearly everybody else's celebrating an event of such cosmic niceness that if you didn't believe in it you were probably going to be damned.

It wasn't until I was in college and began to learn the great profundity of Christianity and of its art that I began to see that Christmas might be a true vehicle of grace for Christians, even though it would not be that for me. My greatest teacher was a Christian, and being at her house during the Christmas season was a joy because being at her house anytime was a joy. And she was a true lover of the Jews -- not tolerant, not patient, not patronizing, not suspicious. She could be a Christian and let the Jews be Jews and the Hindus be Hindus and the Buddhists be Buddhists. And she knew them often better than they knew themselves. Being with her at Christmas was a path to discovering not only what it meant spiritually to be a Christian but also what it meant spiritually to be a Jew. It is because of her that I grew to realize that all true paths lead to the center.Matthew: A few bleats of protest: While I'm pretty sure that you know more about mobs driven to frenzy by blood-libelers than I do, do you have to bring in the suggestion of damnation to explain huddling? As Christian moments go, the Incarnation at Christmas is about as far away from the Judgment as you can get. The Judgment -- whether the personal judgment at death or the general judgment at the end of the world -- does involve the separation of the wheat from the tares, with Christ commanding the evildoers to depart. The Incarnation, however, is a moment of supreme condescension ("cosmic niceness" is excellent), an affirmation of common humanity. As you note in your thought about Christmas starting with the Jews, God became not just a human child, but a Jewish human child, albeit one who would extend the promise of God's salvation to the gentile world. The angels sang of peace to men of goodwill -- a pretty inclusive offer. Couldn't the huddling be explained another way: "The whole country is throwing a birthday party, and we are unable to accept the invitation." Unable, not because you were probably damned, but because you didn't believe that the birthday boy was God -- which strikes me as not quite the same thing.Gideon:

I like that about not being able to accept the invitation. But I didn't mean it was because we thought we were damned. We knew God better than that. And you're right that an issue was not made of the differences on Christmas by our neighbors. It was we who knew that we shouldn't be fraternizing with those who believed "the birthday boy was God." From our point of view, that would be sending the wrong message to one another, and to God.

Since then, having learned that Christmas was really about Incarnation and Salvation, as you say, I have tried my best to teach post-"there is no Santa Claus" kids in my classes that there really is a Santa Claus. The love embodied in the parental and fraternal and childlike joy of giving and receiving on Christmas is Santa Claus, and anyone who doesn't believe in that spirit is a goner. Incidentally, Santa has also proven very useful to me in trying to explain Shakespeare's inherited theory of the four humors: Santa being a classic example of the sanguine complexion or temperament -- red-faced, fleshy, and jovial (the other three being the phlegmatic, the melancholic, and the choleric).Matthew: I take your point about Christmas-culture's relatively recent foundations compared to Hanukkah, but I'm happy to quibble. Christmas trees, according to the legend I heard recited by Garrison Keillor, were invented by Martin Luther in the early 16th Century and are supposed to symbolize the fusion of heaven and earth at the Incarnation -- the lights on the tree standing in for the stars among the branches. (Makes you wonder if the iconoclasts, for all their hatred of graven images, were somehow haunted by the desire for sensible reminders of the spiritual world.)

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