Years ago, my friend Henry and I worked together in the travel industry. In addition to working as a graphic designer, Henry was also a Jewish rabbi. I learned a great deal from Rabbi Henry about the celebration of Christmas when he invited me to join his family for dinner on Christmas Eve. Rabbi Henry explained to me that it was the custom amongst some of his Jewish friends to gather on Christmas Eve for a commemoration they called Nittel Nacht. Nittel Nacht customs date back to the days of pogroms in Eastern Europe, when people calling themselves Christians persecuted the Jewish people. On Christmas Eve, Nittel Nacht customs revolve around keeping a low profile. Nacht means night in Yiddish and Nittel is said to be a Yiddish word patterned after a Latin word for birth. So, on the night when Christians celebrate the birth of CHRIST among us, some Jewish people gather quietly, often in silence, during which they refrain from studying the Torah. Rabbi Henry explained that their own Nittel Nacht customs had grown over the years to include inviting gentiles over to share a meal. The idea being, that if there were gentiles in the house the perpetrators of the pogroms would just move on. Henry told me that he saw Jews and gentiles breaking bread together as a fitting way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who lived his life as a faithful Jew and with his life gave birth to Christianity.
Henry and his wife Rachel were, at the time new parents, and I hadn’t yet seen their newborn son, so I was delighted to accept their invitation. That’s how this particular shishka found herself holding a newborn Jewish baby named Joshua, on a Christmas Eve long ago. While holding baby Joshua, the irony escaped me, but I have since learned that the Hebrew name Joshua when translated into Greek and Latin then becomes, “Jesus” in English.
Joshua’s older sisters little Rebekah and Rachel, explained to me that I needed to be very quiet on this Nittel Nacht, because if we were very good girls, their Daddy would put a Christmas movie on the VCR. They were hoping for their favorite Christmas movie “A Christmas Story,” which is also a favorite of mine. Rabbi Henry declared that there’s something wonderful about a shishka, nursing baby Joshua, laughing with two little Jewish girls about a silly Shabbos goy, who is desperately scheming to get a Red Ryder bb gun for Christmas, when everyone knows that such a toy would result in a little boy “shooting his eye out!”. Imagine my delight when Rachel announced that every Nettel Nacht they were inspired by “A Christmas Story” to order out for Chinese food: “Deck the halls with boughs of hori, ra ra ra ra ra ra ra”……it was piking duck and laughter all around. As the narrator of “A Christmas Story” insists, “That Christmas Eve still lives in my memory because all was right with the world.”
On that long ago Nittel Nacht, I held all potential of new birth in my arms. Generations of bad blood between peoples and nations can disappear as we learned one another’s stories even as we create new stores of our own. LOVE is born among us.
Joshua the name in Hebrew means “God is Generous.” Such a god is LOVE itself. Let this and every Christmas celebrate the miracle of new birth as it awakens the DIVINITY which lives in all of us, so that LOVE can come again, and again, and again. Let the awe and wonder inspired by the newborn laying on the straw, open us to the infinite possibilities of LOVE.