Talking about the Christmas dilemma

Talking about the Christmas dilemma

Rabbi David Fine and Rev. Nolan Palsma confront the season’s challenges

Rabbi Dr. David Fine, left, Reverend Nolan Palsma
Rabbi Dr. David Fine, left, Reverend Nolan Palsma

You can try to be cute and talk around the issue by calling it the December dilemma, Rabbi Dr. David Fine said.

But let’s be real. It’s not about December. It’s about Christmas. It’s about the problems posed by the inescapable — and to continue to be honest, occasionally appealing — ubiquity of Christmas to Jewish families.

Rabbi Fine, who leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, will talk about the Jewish side of the problem on Sunday, November 20, at the shul. The Reverend Nolan Palsma, pastor of the Upper Ridgewood Community Church, an institution that its website says belongs to the “Presbyterian/Reformed family of churches,” will join Rabbi Fine to talk about the problems that Christmas, as it presents itself today, poses for believing Christians.

Rabbi Fine, who is Conservative, summed up the problem as he sees it. “There is Christmas everywhere,” he said. “What are Jewish kids supposed to do?” He recalls his own childhood in Chappaqua, in northern Westchester County, the son of another Conservative rabbi.

“The essay that got me into Wesleyan was about singing a Catholic mass in my high school choir,” he said. “We had an annual Christmas concert, and we sang Handel’s ‘Hallelujah.’” And the thing is, “it’s beautiful stuff,” he added.

The point he made in his essay — a pre-internet essay that he knows he must have around somewhere, buried in a box, unfindable — and that he makes now, Rabbi Fine said, is that “as Jews, we live in Jewish culture, and we also live in Western culture, and Western culture basically is Christian culture. We live in it, too.

“There are some high schools that will not allow any Christian music, and others that feel if they add in one ‘Mi Yimalel,’ they’ve taken care of it. But when it comes to it, Chanukah music cannot compete with Bach.

“So I came to understand that if we are going to learn to appreciate music without sacred music, we are basically going to try to learn just the music of the Middle Ages that was sung in bars.” That, clearly, would be a losing proposition.

There is a range of ways to deal with the fact that we live in a Christian culture, Rabbi Fine said. “You can say ‘I refuse to be a minority,’ and then either move to Israel, where you will be part of the majority, or you can assimilate. Those are the extremes. In the middle, we can find a way to compromise and find a way to appreciate the culture in which we live.

“We can find a way to stand within it and outside it at the same time.”

Churches can be beautiful, Rabbi Fine said. “Two of the most extraordinary churches are right here — St. John the Divine and St. Patrick,” both in Manhattan. “We” — that’s Rabbi Fine, his wife, Alla, and their twin sons — “spend a lot of time in Europe.

“For some in the Jewish world, you are not supposed to walk into a church. I understand and accept that. But the joke in my family is that ‘my father can’t pass a church without going into it.’”

That’s because a church often is the highest expression of a culture, and so if you are visiting somewhere and want to learn about it, that’s where you would go. “Can you really visit Rome without seeing the Vatican?

“In ancient times, when people visited Jerusalem, they would go to the Temple.” Non-Jews, like most Jews, could go only so far into the complex, but they were awed by what they could see. “The visitors respected our Temple,” Rabbi Fine said.

“To visit churches doesn’t have to be threatening to us. It can be an appreciation. When we visit another country, it doesn’t mean that we are planning on living there.

“It is when Americans visit other countries that they feel most American. When we go abroad, we understand where we come from, and the understanding doesn’t have to be threatening. On the other hand, it can support us in understanding who we are.”

He quoted one of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most famous insights, that for Jews, Shabbat is a sanctuary in time. That’s very true, Rabbi Fine said, “but it only makes sense if you have been to a cathedral.” Otherwise, you would have no visceral feeling for what Rabbi Heschel was talking about.

Ridgewood is a community that stresses interfaith activities, he said; there is a wide diversity of faith groups there. He remembers an interfaith Martin Luther King Day service in the Methodist church in town when his sons were small. “There is a huge wooden cross that hangs over the altar,” he said. “Our kids were really little. They asked us, ‘Why is there a big giant T in the front?’”

In other words, they were both inside and outside the culture.

Chanukah can’t compete with Christmas, Rabbi Fine said. But there is one thing that both holidays share. They fall soon after winter begins, the days are at their shortest, and night falls early. “We compensate by bringing lights,” he said. “That’s warm and beautiful and goes beyond Christianity.”

“Our religious beliefs really need to be taught in the home — and in the synagogue or church or mosque — because we have to be able to tell our kids that this is what we believe,” Rev. Palsma said. Because Christmas now appears to be far broader than it is deep, at least in the public square, “we have to teach them at home, so they are not confused by it.”

Much of the Christmas symbolism that we see, and as it has been handed down over the centuries, is not particularly Christian, he suggested. “Back in the 1600s, maybe even a little further back, when the Germanic people wanted to have some light in their lives,” they created the imagery that we know now. “We have sort of baptized certain societal practices, like Christmas trees, so that we could decorate our holy day,” Rev. Palsma said. “It is a pagan symbol, but we put the Christmas label on it because it brings light to the world, and we believe that Jesus brought light to the world.

“And Chanukah brings light to the world as well.”

While “Bring Christ back to Christmas” might be a facile way of putting it, in fact, “to be completely honest, society does not care about the religious significance of it,” he continued. “Society is mainly concerned about retail and commerce. That’s why Macy’s Thanksgiving parade ends with Santa.”

But the main lesson for him, Rev. Palsma said, “as I tell my confirmation class every week, is that we have to remember who we are and Whose we are.

“I love being in Ridgewood, because there are so many ethnicities.” One benefit of it, he said, is culinary, but it goes far beyond that easy if wonderful advantage. “We have to understand that it’s not that one of us is better than the other, but that we support each other. We have a lot to offer each other.”

For example, as a parent, Rev. Palsma echoed a commonly heard plaint. “We have frustrations about holidays, and how sports play such a role. It can keep us from practicing and celebrating our faith.

“We have a lot of things that pull us away from who we really are.”

Who: Rabbi Dr. David Fine and the Reverend Nolan Palsma

What: Talk about the Christmas dilemma as part of Temple Israel Talks

When: On Sunday, November 20, at 12:30 p.m., after free lunch at noon

Where: At Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood

How: In person

For more information: Go to or call (201) 444-9320

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