Christmas lights for the Jewish eyes

Christmas lights for the Jewish eyes

I’m really not crazy about dead Santas.

I mean the giant inflatable Santa Clauses that end up supine on someone’s lawn, deflated, shriveled, pathetic.

I’m also not crazy about large plastic singing families, or wire-framed reindeer caught mid-hoofstep in their unlikely clamber across roofs, or large flashing lightbulbs seemingly tasked with causing epileptic seizures.

But – and isn’t there always a but? – I love the magic and the beauty of the lights this time of year.

The Christmas lights I remember from my childhood were big and blunt. Their colors, too, seemed blunted, probably by the thick plastic that shielded them. They were dull. What I really loved then was the tinsel that still coated the trees that were thrown out onto the street after the holiday. I remember gathering strands of them in my mittens and watching them sparkle.

There seems to have been a revolution in Christmas lights since then, and we – no, let me speak for myself, I, at least – am its beneficiary.

I love the tiny white bulbs that glow and blink. I love the colored ones, those small but intense bursts of fierce color. I love the way the clarity of the new winter light seems to make them glitter even more sharply – these lights don’t warm, but they illuminate. I love the way they are essence of winter.

I love the way that I, as a Jew, can revel in the beauty of these lights.

I live in an apartment building on the Upper West Side that is home to many observant Jews, and the Christians who live there are way outnumbered by us. Still, about the middle of December, our building decorations go up. Sparkling little white lights drip down from our canopy; when it is windy, as it so often is, they beckon and wave. There is an ornament-bedecked tree in the corner of our long marble shabby-chic lobby, and colored lights go around the probably-not-as-old-as-it-looks mirror at the far end. It is lovely.

We would never have those lights inside our apartment. We would never want to. But this is public space, and it is wonderful.

When she was in middle school, my daughter Miriam wanted to be a Christmas light decorator. We would drive around Tenafly and Englewood as dusk darkened to night and the lights came on. She would point out successes, bold new ideas, failed executions, and outright faux pas. She knew, she told me, that she could never have Christmas lights of her own. Jews don’t do that. But that didn’t mean that she couldn’t apply her clear eye and aesthetic sense to them. (It’s okay. She outgrew it. She’s a lawyer now.)

As Jews in America, we are free to use whatever lights we want. One of the strongest visual images I retain from Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie, “Diner,” was a shot of the house where one of the boys lived. The block, in Baltimore, was burning with Christmas lights. (In my memory they were the old, ugly kind.) The house we, the audience, were taken to had no lights. There was no comment about it. It just was. Jews lived there. So what? That seems to me to be exactly right.

One of the many wonders of the United States is that we as Jews are free not only to light our own lights – as we just finished doing on Chanukah, as we do every Shabbat and chag and yahrzeit – but also to glory in the beauty and bask in the glow of other people’s without compromising ourselves.