Movies, Chinese and Giving: The Jewish 'Christmas'
Not just another day, the holiday have Jews hitting the cineplex, ordering out and volunteering to help those in need.
Not everyone celebrates Christmas with church, a tree, caroling, and exchanges of presents with family Christmas morning. Other faiths – or even those with no faith at all – find ways to acknowledge an American national holiday.
A central message of Christmas, of good will toward all men and women, has a wide appeal, including to Jewish people. Irving Berlin, who wrote the classic song "White Christmas," and Mel Torme, who penned the lyrics to "The Christmas Song," were Jewish.
Saturday Night Live presented its own satiric song this year for the annual Christmas show, called "Christmastime for the Jews."
"They can finally see King Kong without waiting in line
They can eat in Chinatown and drink their Swedish wine
They can crank Barbara Streisand on the streets they cruise
Christmastime for the Jews."
Sometimes called Jewish Movie Day, Christmas is one of the few times movie theaters have guaranteed room for the most popular shows such as "Tron Legacy" along with those opening such as "Little Folkers" and "True Grit."
The same goes for Chinese restaurants, usually with fewer customers and no lines on the holiday. The connection between Jews and Chinese food is apparently legendary, its origins probably American. With reliance on pork and shellfish, Chinese food is clearly not kosher. In Brookline, however, a Jewish Chinese restaurant prepares General Gau's Chicken under rabbinical supervision (it's closed this year Christmas Day because it falls on the Sabbath).
An old joke: a Chinese man and a Jewish man are bragging about each other's cultures; the Chinese says that his culture is 3,000 years old and the Jew counters with his is 4,000 years old.
"That's impossible," said the Chinese man. "Where did you people eat for a 1,000 years?"
Aside from movies and food, another way for local Jews to observe the spirit of Christmas Day is through volunteering.
Project Ezra began in 1972, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, to provide services for the neighborhood's many Jewish senior citizens. That organization inspired others across the country through the support of local synagogues.
The scope of Project Ezra also expanded to helping out the Christian community on a day when many caregivers are busy with their own families and friends.
Close to 1,000 volunteers, representing dozens of Massachusetts congregations and Jewish organizations have participated each year in Project Ezra on Dec. 25. Some Project Ezra volunteers go to shelters and meal delivery, or assist soup kitchens, nursing homes, residential homes, and hospitals.
Belmont Temple volunteers
Beth El Temple Center on Concord Avenue is one of those synagogues. Belmont resident Amy Rosenstein, the Social Action committee chairperson, says that the Temple's involvement has been going on for at least six years. Each year eight to 10 Temple members spend Christmas Day at the Center Club of Boston.
Located near Government Center, the Center Club provides a safe place where members can work towards personal goals in employment, education, housing, and making friends, at their own pace.
It is open five days a week, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on a few holidays and has been around for 50 years.
The members struggle with psychiatric disorders. Many are in addiction recovery programs. The Club offers a gym, computers, a coffee house, crafts, free breakfasts and $1 meals, along with a trained staff.
For nearly 30 years, Mary Gregorio has been directing Center Club programs. She looks forward "to Project Ezra volunteers each Christmas, particularly the children."
"The day is an opportunity to showcase our programs and combat the myths about people with mental illness. Our volunteers work side by side with club members in preparing and serving the meal,"said Gregorio.
The Club provides Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations (the decorations include Hanukkah and Kwanza).
Beth El Temple members help with the Christmas dinner, which is traditional: turkey, ham (for some Jews, the closest they come to this delicacy), mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad, apple cider, coffee, tea and dessert. One year, the group ran out of bags of sugar for the cranberry sauce. The group's teenagers were tasked with opening hundreds of sugar packets to get enough.
Wearing aprons, hairnets and hats, the Beth E l servers cook, slice, set up, serve and clean up for the 50 to 70 men and women members celebrating Christmas. In years past, one of the members has sung Christmas music for all to join in. Each participant, including the servers, is also asked to tell the group what Christmas means to them.
The Club members often thank the staff and the servers for a Christmas meal and fellowship they would have likely had nowhere else.