Rabbi Simeon Glaser

The Temple Israel rabbi on being a non-Christian at Christmas—and all the rest of the year

What is it like for you to be a Jew at Christmas?

In 1969, when I was 14, my family moved from Palo Alto [California] to Jerusalem. Moving to Israel was a culture shock like none other. It was a couple years after the Six-Day War, an exciting time to be in Israel. I will never forget walking around Friday afternoons with my father and brother and sister and sometimes my mom. Shops closed down, everyone got into their best clothes and went off to services. It was then I realized how significant it is to be part of a majority religion. Because there’s part of everybody that wants to do what everyone else is doing. We want to be part of the greater whole.

And in Minnesota?

Here, if you’re Jewish, you can fool yourself 364 days out of the year that you and everyone around you is American and just like you, and everyone’s on the same page. Then Christmas comes around, and it’s disquieting, discomfiting. A lot of people in the Midwest don’t get why anyone wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas or any other Christian occasion. I was in Byerly’s one Friday afternoon buying challah [ceremonial bread] and grape juice. A woman with a young daughter behind me on line tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Communion, right?” I turned to her and said, “Actually it’s for the Jewish Sabbath.” Any sign of understanding drained out of her face. It was extraordinary. I might as well have been speaking Hebrew to her.

What do you do on December 25?

Here at Temple Israel we have a tradition called “Chinese and Movies.” We eat Chinese food and watch films, one for the kids, one for the rest of us. It’s a solidarity thing.

How do you feel about Jews who celebrate Christmas?

I know a number of Jews who celebrate Christmas. They say even Christians claim it’s not really a religiously charged holiday. My answer is that since all Jewish holidays are religiously charged, we should respect religious holidays for other people. It’s their business if they want to tell you it has no religious meaning to them. But you, by doing it, are mocking the notion of what should be a religious holiday. I’m not saying you’re being a bad Jew—I’m saying you’re not honoring the Christian tradition. It’s like Christians taking a menorah and saying, “We just like to light the lamp.” Then I wonder: are you making fun of the religion?

As the son of a reform rabbi and Holocaust  survivor, has Christmas ever been part of your family tradition?

I love Christmas lights. I love walking my dog in winter. I stop in front of trees decorated outside homes. I think Christmas would be a lovely holiday to celebrate. But if I were doing it, I would want to do it because it celebrates the birth of my Lord, Jesus Christ.