I have very fond memories of Christmas Day. That may not seem like an especially odd statement. But my family was Jewish, so we didn’t celebrate Christmas, at least not in any conventional sense of the word.
I was born into a Jewish family, as I said, but we were specific kinds of Jews. We were gastronomical Jews. Bagels and lox, of course, but also rugelach, whitefish salad, challah, latkes, hamantashen. If we could eat it then it was Jewish and, by extension, had something to do with God. As far as I was concerned, God resided not in Heaven or the Great Void but in the Frigidaire, somewhere between the cream cheese and the salad dressing. We believed in an edible deity, and that was about the extent of our spiritual life.
I can’t remember us ever observing the Sabbath except, oddly, on Christmas Day. True, ours was a modified Sabbath-we listened to Christmas carols on the radio and made hot chocolate with an electric kettle-but the television remained off, and we very much dwelled in what theologian Abraham Heschel famously called “a sanctuary in time.” In fact, time-usually in such short supply around our house-suddenly felt expansive, infinite.
Why the sudden observance? I suppose we had no choice. The rest of the world was shuttered. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do. So we did nothing, went nowhere.
Well, not exactly nothing. Being gastronomical Jews, we foraged for food, embarking on the traditional, and by now clichéd, pilgrimage to a Chinese restaurant-or, even better, ordered in. I also found myself, not normally a dexterous person by any means, overwhelmed with an urge to use my hands. I’m not sure where this sudden burst of nimbleness came from. Perhaps, as a Christian friend suggested, I was subconsciously channeling all of those parents across the country, wrestling with the latest Lego contraption or electronic gizmo.
In any event, I didn’t fight it. I made wood engravings. I patiently, and skillfully, constructed model airplanes. Later, as an adult, I assembled bookshelves and changed light bulbs that had burnt out six months earlier. Like I said, I don’t know where these skills came from, nor where they went to on December 26th, but I was grateful for their mysterious appearance nonetheless.
This year, I’ve decided to put my hands to even better use. I’ll be volunteering at a homeless shelter, helping prepare a Christmas lunch for the residents. It seems like the perfect activity, combining the Christian notion of brotherly love with my very Jewish love of food. I’m not a very good cook–cooking involves the hands, after all–but I’m counting on that Christmas grace to once again carry the day. It hasn’t let me down yet, and I’m sure it won’t this time either.
Eric Weiner is author, most recently, of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.