When I was 20, I spent my junior year in college in England. When classes let out for the last two weeks of December, I traveled to Morocco, where something life-changing occurred.
What happened was that I felt a longing, even an emptiness, I had never before experienced. Something was missing from my life, but I could not at first identify it. I knew it was not about being without friends or family — after all, I hadn’t been with family or friends for the previous three months. And it wasn’t about being alone — I had gotten used to traveling alone.
This sense of missing something kept gnawing at me, until one day I realized what it was: I missed the Christmas season. I missed that time of year in America.
At first I denied it. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home and in yeshivas (Orthodox religious schools where half the day was devoted to religious, and half the day to secular, studies), I had, of course, never celebrated Christmas. How, then, could I miss something that I never had? How could I, raised in an Orthodox Jewish world, miss the quintessential Christian holiday?
But I could not conjure up any other explanation: I was in a non-Christian country, and therefore I heard no Christmas songs, saw no Christmas decorations, and Dec. 25 was just another day.
I subsequently spent a lot of time reflecting on why this yeshiva boy would miss the Christmas season.
I came to two life-changing realizations. First, though my yeshiva world did everything possible to ignore Christmas — we had school on Christmas Day, and we had a “midwinter vacation” at the end of January instead of a Christmas vacation — I really liked the Christmas season.
And, second, this Jew, whose rather insulated Orthodox upbringing overwhelmingly emphasized Jewish identity, was in fact intensely American.
My youth in New York had consisted of an Orthodox home, Orthodox synagogue, Orthodox yeshiva, and Orthodox friends. In that world, one’s American identity was never denigrated, but it was largely ignored. And Christianity was entirely ignored (though it was an annual ritual in my home to watch the midnight Mass from Rome).
Until I was in college, my contact with Christianity was almost nonexistent — except for Christmas decorations and Christmas music. Morocco made me realize that I missed something Christian, and that I felt profoundly American.
As the years passed, I came to treasure this season and to fall in love with America and its distinct values (what I call the American Trinity: Liberty, In God We Trust and E Pluribus Unum). While director of a Jewish institution from 1978 to1983, I volunteered to be Santa Claus for the Simi Valley Rotary Club, of which I was a member. So, during the same week that I led Sabbath services and study for about a thousand Jews, I also went to my Rotary Club meeting — what is more American than the Rotary Club? — and was the Santa Claus for a local department store.
It is that season now, and I never fail to get goose bumps when I hear Burl Ives sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” let alone when I attend a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” surely the greatest religious music ever composed. I love hearing people wish each other “Merry Christmas.” When my Jewish day school-attending children were young, I used to take them to see homes that had particularly beautiful Christmas lights.
Those who wish to remove Christmas trees from banks and colleges and other places where Americans gather are not only attempting to rob the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas of their holiday, they are robbing this Jew, too.
And I first realized all this in a Muslim country.