Skip to main content

Bernstein is a Jewish name.  Although our family was Jewish, Christmas was in different ways a part of my childhood and adolescence.  As an adult I spent the better two parts of two decades as a Christian, first in the Episcopal and then the Orthodox Church.  Even since I left, first to Judaism and then to a Quaker Meeting, it has played a role in my life.

This dia4y will be a personal looking back.  It is not that my experiences are so note-worthy.  But there is a theme that will be evident.

I invite you to keep reading, even if you don't really care for the Holiday.


When we were small - I was three and my sister was 5 - we had a tree and gifts in our house.  It was about Santa Claus, because my parents did not think we would be able to understand why some of the other children in our neighborhood had trees and got gifts - even one Jewish family across the street.  

Within a few years that had to stop.  My father regretted that he could not put lights on the beautiful blue spruce trees on our property, because the rabbi moved in down the block, and we were members of the newly formed Larchmont Temple at which he served.

But Christmas became a part of our lives in other ways.  We got our first tv in the late fall of the 1951, just in time for the world premiere of a major cultural event.  Here is the remastered audio from the beginning of that 1951 performance:

And here is some video from a more recent performance:

Amahl and the Night Visitors became a part of our Christmases.  It was a story about the giving of gifts, of generosity.  Later I would play in the orchestra while the local Presbyterian Church performed it.

Ours was a musical family.  We were of an age when there was not the sensitivity about singing Christmas carols in public schools, even though Murray Avenue Elementary, where we attended, had a significant portion of its student body which was Jewish.  My sister and i loved to sing carols.
When we children, New York City still had a morning paper called The Herald Tribune  which for the season ran a charity called The Fresh Air Fund, to raise money so inner city kids could have a chance to attend camp.

My sister and I decided we could combine our love of singing and of carols with doing good work.  We went around our neighborhood ringing the bells of houses decorated for Christmas and sing some carols.  I don't remember whether we wore or carried signs indicating that we were collecting for the Fresh Air Fund, but we regularly got small contributions, and occasionally larger ones - in the mid-195-s a $5 bill was a generous gift.  

In the early years one parent would go with us.

Then we began to be joined by friends.  I remember in particular my sister's friend Karen Suzuki and my friend Stephen Madey, who recently sent me a Facebook Message remembering that caroling.   Some years we would go from our house to Karen's, where her parents would offer us traditional Japanese delicacies, other years we would go from hers to ours, where we would have hot chocolate and toast marshmellows in the fireplace.  We would enjoy quietly, having done our part to bring joy to people not only by the joy of our singing, but in the money we raised so that other young people, not so fortunate as we were, would be able to have some fresh air and some experience of a world not defined by pavement and buildings.

I first attended church as a seeker the 4th Sunday in Advent in 1973.  I had just had a relationship breakup, I was shattered, and the professor who had been my freshman year adviser in 1963, music professor John  Davison, suggested I come to church with him.  Later that day I was in desperate need to talk with someone, to have some connection with something holy.  Out of not knowing better I called the rectory of that Church, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont PA, and the Rev. George William Rutler asnwered the phone.  Christmas was but a few days away, but somehow not only was he home, he had the time to spend with a stranger who was shattered and needed to talk and be counseled.  He gave me the gift of his time.

I found myself drawn to that church, and was there shortly after Christmas, for a small service in the Lady Chapel, when a family came in, the man explaining that his mother-in-law was dying and they wanted to do prayers for her, because she was not expected to make it until morning.  The man would later become my father-in-law, and among his children was the not quite 17-year-old who would in 1985 become officially my partner for eternity, although we committed to one another well before that.

The next year I asked to be allowed to read a passage for the Christmas Eve service.  It was a Jewish text, one which I knew well because of my love for and involvement with music.  I had learned to love part of it in this setting:

Over the years I would help the family into which I would marry organize and prepare for Christmas.  That became a part of my season.

Later, during the years I attended a small orthodox  church in Wallingford Penna, some of the families there would ensure I was included in their Christmas celebrations as well -  the Krowzows for Holy Supper before our Christmas Eve service, the Motels for Christmas dinner.  They did not want me to be alone on that holiday, even though they knew I could participate in some of the celebration of my future wife's family. I experienced the generosity of the season from others.

And again, music was a part of it, as I was the choir director of that Church.  The priest allowed me to bring in some music from the Western Church -  things like this:

Later I would leave Christianity and for a while return to Judaism.  We still for a while would have a tree in our home, and we came to have only blue lights on it, no white lights, and not too many ornaments.  We had to give up the tree when the feline population of the house became too fascinated by the ornaments.

But there was something else that was a part of this time, at least for a while.  We live a very short distance from a Hospice.  I would volunteer there on Christmas so that employees could have the time with their family.

And now?  I still believe in the music, which I love.  For me it is not yet Christmas until I hear this:

Of greater importance, even though I do not celebrate Christmas per se, there is another task that I will do.  It has to do with giving.

Tomorrow I will sit down with a stack of index cards.  On each I will on one side write the name of a student.  On the other I will write something I appreciate about that student.  Call it my gift to them, a gift of an appreciation of her or him, whether or not s/he celebrates this holiday or not.

For our celebration we have appropriated the figure of a real person.  Our Santa Clause can be traced to the Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Lycea, about whom the most relevant tale was his secretly giving three purses full of gold to a family with three daughters that could not afford dowries for them, which meant not only could they not marry, they would probably have to become prostitutes.

There was no benefit to Nicholas in that giving.

The lesson, if any, is that we should give of ourselves, even if we have little, on behalf of others.

This giving does not have to be done only at this time, although this is in our society a most appropriate time.

Not just to our fellow humans.  In our household the cats also get to celebrate.  Tonight they will have human tuna, which they love.  Tomorrow they will share my roast.  If they want to crawl on top of me, that will take priority over anything else I might be attempting to do.

I could reflect on the theology of this holiday.  I remember a phrase from an early Christian Father, Athanasius, that had the idea that God became man so that men could becomes like Gods, divinized.  I take that like this - the greatest gift one can give is freedom to another.  We can do this many ways.  Any gift we give we surrender, we are owed nothing in return, ikt should be an act of pure love.

And pure love is focused not on what we do, but on the other towards whom that love is directed.

When I was young our parents gave my sister and myself the gift of Christmas, of Santa Claus.

We soon learned the importance was not what we received, but what we gave to others, thus my sister and I began our process of caroling.  We gave the gift of joyful music, and in return others gave to the Fresh Air fund.

The Krowzows and the Motels gave the warmth of their families so that on this most familial of the Christian holidays I would feel embraced by family.

What I give is not much - some words on an index card, that my students will receive in January.  It will still be Christmastide, with epiphany falling 3 days after our return to school.

Today, tonight, tomorrow, I will enjoy my strongest connection to this celebration, that of music.  My life will be surrounded by it.

And love -  the love of our felines, who do not know other than how to love without limit.

The love of my spouse.

The love I feel for my friends.

Sitting as I finish writing this in my local Starbucks, I see a father with his young daughter, she is delightedly reading aloud from a book, and looked up and smiled at me when i came in.  I see people who were friends from school getting together as they are home from college.  Others stop here during the process of finishing their preparations - some have already been shopping, others are heading out.

I have one shopping stop to make, for birdseed and corn for the creatures, avian and otherwise, that frequent our property.  They brighten my existence, and i want to thank them.

And I want to thank those here, whose generosity never fails to amaze me.  I see it in the care expressed in IGTNT, in Sara R's quilt diaries, in the emotional support given exmearden, Kitsap River, rserven and others.

At our best, it is the concern for those anywhere, not just in our electronic community or our nation, in need.  Our concerns and our willingness to learn, to serve, is part of what keeps me attached to this community.

That has been a gift to me.  So has the acceptance of the words I offer.  So has the acceptance I have seen given towards others.

Bernstein's memories of Christmas is not a closed book.  This year, and each year, will add more to its text.  Next year I can include in such memories my writing of this diary, and the other events of this day, those that affect me directly and those that I observe.

On this day many years ago, a Church organist picked up a guitar and created a melody for a text written by the pastor.  That evening, it was performed for the first time.

It is perhaps the most beloved of the songs of this season, and it seems appropriate to end a piece in which I discuss music a s major part of my Christmas memories with its sounds.  I have already offered above my wish of piece.  So simply accept and enjoy this:

Originally posted to teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 05:32 AM PST.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (22+ / 0-)

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 05:32:30 AM PST

    •  thanks to those who took the time (6+ / 0-)

      to read, and especially to those who chose to respond in any fashion

      I will shortly be going offline for several hours as I focus on getting through papers and test corrections, so that is out of the way before I tomorrow begin the pleasure - and it is a pleasure - of writing those index cards.


      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 07:05:34 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Chrstmas Memories are the True Gift (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      teacherken, texasmom, ramara

      Many thanks for sharing your experiences of some of your Christmas pasts.  Setting aside our various beliefs, or for some of us the lack thereof, your words remind us how the spirit of the season can touch our hearts and bring out the best in all of us.  I believe the true significance of Christmas lays not so much in our gifts to other, but rather in the gift we provide of ourselves to others through our memories.  Your diary was such a gift.  Another such gift was provided to me by my father who once told me about the best Christmas gift he could ever remember receiving.  Dad was a Lance Corporal in the Canadian infantry during the Second World War, and as part of the Allied forces in the Italian Campaign from 1943 to 1945, he was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.  During December, 1944, the Canadians were engaged in bitter fighting with heavily armed German soldiers who were attempting to hold their positions south of the Senio River.  Notwithstanding the approach of Christmas, the fighting was fierce and casualties were high as the Canadian infantry, supported by tanks and artillery, fought day after day to push the Germans out of their well prepared defensive positions.  My father and his section continued to fight without respite and were well beyond exhaustion, surviving on nothing more than the occasional C-ration.  Wet, bloodied, exhausted and famished, he and his comrades came upon a dry and secure trench works recently abandoned by the Germans. In it they found several loafs of recently baked schwarzbrot (black bread) along with a quantity of jam.  To their utter amazement, all of this had been left in a neatly arranged stack by the retreating Germans complete with a festive bow and ribbon.  The Canadians, wary of a booby trap, at first approached the unexpected bounty with extreme caution.  However, it was soon determined that the gift was exactly what it seemed to be.  My father, who could recall in vivid detail the wonderul taste of that German bread and jam some fifty years later, told me that this was the best Christmas gift he could ever remember receiving.  At this point in his retelling he would add, with much emotion in his voice, "the best gift I can remember receiving was a gift from a stranger who I never met and never would meet, and I could have just as easily killed or have been killed by him.  He would then shake his head and say, "son, believe me, war is the stupidest damned thing that was ever dreamt up."  That my father chose to share this particular memory was one of his many precious gifts to me.  I am now happy to share it with you.

      Best wishes to you and yours for the holidays.

      These Republican gluttons of priviledge are cold men ... They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship -- Harry Truman

      by Laborguy on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 11:47:22 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I posted this (0+ / 0-)

      and knowing you play cello, I thought you would enjoy it.

      When shit happens, you get fertilized.

      by ramara on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 01:52:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Used to play cello (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        have not for more than 30 years.

        I have done the piano part of the Mendelssohn you have in the diary, not the cello part.

        "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

        by teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 02:52:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I wasn't sure (0+ / 0-)
          about the cello, but I'm impressed you have played that piano part.  

          Not the best performance - I go back to the old Beaux Arts Trio recording, so I'm used to some serious rubato.  But the informality of this film is incredible, and on Heifetz' chamber music recordings, he is always miked louder than the others, so that was nice to hear him in balance.  I saw his farewell performance at Carnegie Hall - travelled down from Boston for that.  And they all look so young - or is that just me getting old?

          When shit happens, you get fertilized.

          by ramara on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 07:03:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  blessings, joy, happiness (12+ / 0-)

    to all

    of course for the holiday and the season

    for all the other times as well


    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 05:45:59 AM PST

  •  Thank you, teacherken. (6+ / 0-)

    It's wonderful to get to know more about you. Thank you for sharing.

    A little aside:  my husband is Polish, and he confirms a Polish tradition about which I was until very recently unaware. On Christmas Eve, animals speak with human voices. I don't know exactly when on this date that occurs---I've never witnessed it with any of my previous animals---but today I'll keep a close watch over my cats and am ready with a list of questions for them ;)

    Peace & Joy to you!

    Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. -RD Laing, psychiatrist and author (1927-1989)

    by politik on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 06:09:17 AM PST

  •  What a beautiful idea: appreciation! (5+ / 0-)

    I hope your students know how lucky they are to have you.  More importantly, I hope they are smart enough to regard you as one of the best role models they have.


    You can't have everything. Where would you put it? ~ Steven Wright

    by madame defarge on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 06:12:03 AM PST

  •  From another Jewish kid.... (9+ / 0-)

    with a different experience and different reactions:
    You write:

    We were of an age when there was not the sensitivity about singing Christmas carols in public schools, even though Murray Avenue Elementary, where we attended, had a significant portion of its student body which was Jewish.

    I'm a few years older than you, and raised in N.E. Washington D.C.  I was the only Jewish kid in my early elementary school classes.  Most of the Carols were O.K. but what's with that part about, "born is the king of Israel"  Israel had just been established, and there wasn't a king that I knew of.  And I was part of that new country, of the people, and my Rabbi rejected this king, and ridiculed him.  

    He never had to deal with the "goyem" that's gentiles, neither did my mother.  But I did.  So, the sensitivity was there, but there was no voice for it, so while others could have "chanaka bushes" sort of adapt, we didn't.  It probably explains some of the isolation that has defined my life.  Some, but not all.  Since others in my same situation have gone on to fame and fortune, actually quite a few.

    This is a difficult time for many, for the same reasons that it is a happy time, a time of rich memories of loving family and friends.  Many lack this. We who do have our reasons, fate, failure personal weakness.  And most of us manage to go on with our lives ,enjoying what we can and trying to accept the rest.

    But the these weeks of winter solstice, when the outside cold is a reminder of a warmth that is missing is at time quite bad, depressing. It's being outside looking in, and wishing.....

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with this group.

    •  and thanks for sharing yours (5+ / 0-)

      we all benefit from understanding the breadth of experiences different than our own.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 06:48:07 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  And I grew up (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      texasmom, ExStr8, arodb, Youffraita

      in the Bronx, in a school where the principal was an ordained rabbi and a large number of the teachers and students were Jewish, and still there were the carols.  I have always felt about Christmas that it isn't my holiday, and even when I would have a tree for my son who was not born Jewish, it felt separate from me, had nothing to do with me.  I used to say I was glad I was always in the orchestra, so I never had to learn the words to the carols.

      When shit happens, you get fertilized.

      by ramara on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 08:08:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you Ken, and Peace to you, and yours. (6+ / 0-)

    Tonight at midnight, we make our way up to the barn throught the snow where our livestock are and at the stroke of midnight, according to some German foldklore as told to me by wife, all of the animals will speak to us, and tell us their stories of the past year.  Of course, this has never happened in the past, but we are an optimistic lot, but I wouldn't put much hope in it happening this year....

    Just a funny tradition of ours, as we do give our four legged with fur coats "family" Xmas treats on this special day, and also give thanks that we are blessed with the lives that we have, and with all that we can be grateful for, especially the company of each other.

    I do wish they at least would say "thank you", though...

    Happy Holidays, and have a safe and healthy New Year.

    Hey Boehner and the Republicans: WHERE ARE THOSE JOBS YOU PROMISED????

    by LamontCranston on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 06:38:34 AM PST

  •  Peace unto all (6+ / 0-)

    Namaste, Blessings, and Peace to all.

    "Shared pain is pain lessened; shared joy is joy increased."--Spider Robinson

    by Maggie Pax on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 06:46:50 AM PST

  •  What a beautiful diary. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Laborguy, texasmom, ExStr8, ramara

    Thank you, Ken.  :)

    Proud member of The Rogues Gallery

    by ThAnswr on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 07:41:04 AM PST

  •  Merry Christmas Ken (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, texasmom, ExStr8

    Thank you for the gift of your thoughts and today, with this diary, for the gift of music.  I remember watching Amahl, though it was a later broadcast, later in the 1950's.  There was also a play one year called The Other Wise Man, and a few years later I found it in a little book.  The idea of giving the gift of oneself affected me deeply.

    And you chose my favorite chorus from the Handel - it made me smile so that I can still feel the shadow of it on my face.

    In a strange conjunction, on Saturday Jews will be reading of the birth of Moses, also born when there was a decree to kill all Jewish male infants.

    All the best to you and yours.

    When shit happens, you get fertilized.

    by ramara on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 07:58:29 AM PST

  •  and on earth, peace, to people of good will. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    texasmom, ramara

    Thank you, Ken.

    Stonewall was a RIOT!

    by ExStr8 on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 08:02:34 AM PST

  •  Merry Christmas, Ken... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bink, Laborguy, texasmom, ramara

    ...from another Larchmont Jew.

    My family moved to beautiful Larchmont in 1951. I was four years old, but I still remember that first Christmas morning in the house when my older brother and I ran down the stairs to find presents piled in front of the living room fireplace.  No tree, but presents in beautiful wrapping paper.

    We were members of Larchmont Temple, too, back in the days before the new building, when it was just a big old house.  And yes, we always lit the Chanukah candles, too.  My folks just loved the whole feeling of the season.

    My late mother-in-law, a wonderful woman, also Jewish, also loved Christmastime.  It was when her children - and then grandchildren - flocked to St Louis from their new homes around the country.  She decorated her home with Santas and wreathes and the dismay of her St Louis relatives.  To placate them, she never had a tree, though she always wanted one.

    She passed away in 1998, and when Christmas rolled around, my kids were sad they wouldn't be going to see grandma.  So I suggested we get a tree to celebrate her memory.  And we did.  With a little picture frame atop that held her picture.  I'm looking at this year's version right now.

    Hey, Jesus was born Jewish. And legend has it that he was a pretty liberal guy. So why not?  

    Anyway, Ken, my name is Joel Sanoff.  I am MHS, class of 1965, but your name does ring a bell.  I grew up on Winslow Place, off Pinebrook Drive, a little east of Palmer Avenue.

    And that Rabbi?  Was it Shofer or Kertzer?  

    Nice to meet you...

    •  Leonard Shofer (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      texasmom, ramara

      who was forced to resign because he was involved in investing in a slumlord business with a guy who lived up the block from us in the other direction named if memory is correct Tannenbaum.

      We lived at the corner of Huguenot Drive and Lafayette Road, in the Woods section, just off Chatsworth Ave.

      I was 63.  My sister was '61, as was Karen Suzuki.  Karne's brother would have been either '64 or '65 but he went off to Mount Hermon.

      Before the new building, High Holy Days were held upstairs in the Weaver Street Fire House.  I can remember sitting on the fire engines as a treat at the end of the children's service.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 11:35:57 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Beautiful--another gem of a diary, tk. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Laborguy, texasmom, ramara

    It is so great to see that someone else remembers/knows about "Amahl and the Night Visitors"!  I was introduced to it in the Catholic grade school I attended--don't remember the exact year but it would have been in the 1950s.  I was just thinking a day or so ago about how I don't hear it even mentioned anymore.  I'm definitely going to check out You Tube for it now that I see your link to part of it here.

    Thanks for sharing this diary with us. This I wholeheartedly endorse:

    At our best, it is the concern for those anywhere, not just in our electronic community or our nation, in need.  Our concerns and our willingness to learn, to serve, is part of what keeps me attached to this community.

    I would only add my "Amen" to that.  Peace and blessings in abundance to you, tk, in the New Year.

    You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both. ~ Louis Brandeis

    by 3goldens on Fri Dec 24, 2010 at 10:39:21 AM PST

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site