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    Holiday crosses boundaries

    Many of the Jewish faith embrace the festive side of Christmas.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2000


    A strong wind blew through the On Top of the World housing complex one day not long ago, knocking two ornaments off a Christmas tree set up in a common area of a building there. They fell to the concrete near the elevator.

    Clara Solomon walked by and noticed they were on the ground.

    She bent down, picked them up and carefully placed them back on the branches.

    As she stood there, she noticed something about the ornaments -- they were ugly.

    "I wouldn't have those horrible ornaments on my tree," she said.

    So she drove to a thrift store and bought 30 ornaments, which she put up on the building tree.

    Solomon, 64, is Jewish. But for her, noticing, rescuing and replacing ugly Christmas ornaments is not out of character.

    As a Jew, she doesn't adhere to Christian beliefs, but she loves the Christmas holiday just the same.

    When Sheila Weinstock was a little girl growing up in a predominantly Jewish suburb in the Boston area, almost all the families in her neighborhood put up menorahs instead of Christmas trees each December.

    Like most of the children on her street, each night during Hanukkah, she would open up a little present. It would be nothing much, just a silver dollar or maybe some doll's clothing.

    But she didn't mind. The focus of the holiday was lighting the candles, playing with dreidels and enjoying time with her family.

    It was a celebration. She never felt left out of the Christian holiday, Christmas, even though the children who celebrated it seemed to get more toys.

    "It was not a question," she said. "I didn't feel bad. I didn't think, "Gee, I wish I could go see Santa Claus' or "Gee, I wish I had a stocking."

    As an adult, Weinstock, secretary of the board of trustees at Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater, doesn't celebrate Christmas, but she doesn't resent it, either.

    "'It's not a bother for me. It doesn't hit me either way," she said. "I have respect for their holiday."

    She said she has only to contend with one small annoyance during this time of year, something she doesn't dwell on, but it's there just the same.

    "I have a little problem with people who say, "Why can't you enjoy the lights? It has nothing to do with Christmas,' because it does."

    Still, she said, she enjoys the holiday's sacred connotations -- even if they are Christian.

    Down the street from her synagogue, a church sign proclaims: Put Christ back in Christmas. It's a message, she said, that does not offend her. In fact, she agrees with its message.

    "I would like to see a little more religion and less shopping," she said.

    For Solomon, the sound of Christmas carols brings back happy memories. When she was a schoolgirl attending P.S. 58 in Brooklyn, she said she remembers "having to sing Christmas carols, and when it came to Jesus, I stopped singing" out of respect for her Jewish faith.

    But at home, her family had a Christmas tree -- a small one.

    "It was a bush, really," she said.

    Maybe that was when her love of holiday decorating -- any holiday, Jewish or Christian -- began.

    It hasn't stopped now that she is retired and living at On Top of the World with her elderly mother, Isabelle Weinberg. She thinks Christmas "is gorgeous. I rode around last night looking at the decorations. It's such a beautiful time."

    Solomon always has loved sparkly things. For a time, she sold gold and diamonds at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market. She said two-thirds of her year's business was generated by the Christmas holiday.

    "Jesus was a Jew. It took a Jew to create the greatest shopping days that produce two-thirds of your year's business in 10 days," Solomon said.

    On her apartment door there is a Star of David. Inside, she has a blue menorah decoration adorned with sequins in the back window, and a blue-and-white Hanukkah throw blanket on the couch. On the glass table in front of the couch, she has a small golden Christmas tree decorated with pearls.

    "I went by and saw this and said, no way is this staying in the store," she said.

    Near the television, she has a Santa figurine. In her bedroom, she has an antique angel.

    She cradles these things in her hands. She said pretty things take many forms.

    Although she bought new Christmas ornaments in her building's tree, she also purchased Hanukkah decorations when she noticed there were no Jewish ornaments.

    She put a string of lighted, colored dreidel up, stringing them just like Christmas lights on a wall of her building. They complement a decorative menorah.

    Although building officials didn't have a problem with the decorations themselves, they said the place Solomon chose for them "interrupted the flow of the building," Solomon said.

    They were moved to a wall next to the Christmas tree downstairs, and Solomon is happy.

    "Everybody should have the same amount of space to celebrate their holiday," Solomon said.

    Lynn Arroyo, who grew up in Brooklyn and works as an office assistant at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, remembers her three children used to beg for lights and a Christmas tree when they were young.

    "They would see all the decorations and Santa Claus. They would ask me, "Can we get this, can we get that?' I'd say, "No, you can't,' " Arroyo said. "I'd tell them we're Jewish. I'd explain to them some people believe in this, and some don't."

    Her children, who now range in age from 18 to 24, received a single gift for each night of Hanukkah. "And when Christmas came, they wanted a Christmas gift," Arroyo said, laughing.

    Things may have been even more confusing for the children because their father, Arroyo's husband, grew up Protestant, but he subscribes to Jewish beliefs.

    Now that they are older, her children "don't feel left out" at Christmastime, she said. They have embraced Judaism, especially her oldest child, David, who recently graduated from Columbia University's Jewish Theological Seminary.

    As for Arroyo, she said she enjoys the Christmas season, especially the lights. When a Christmas commercial comes on TV, she looks for sales.

    She said she even likes a Christian holiday song or two.

    It's the one, she said, with Gloria in excelsis Deo in it -- glory to God in the highest.

    Rabbi Arthur Baseman of Temple B'nai Israel does not see anything wrong with Jews enjoying the Christmas holiday season.

    "I think the basic pride is in the knowledge of the fact that we are responsible for the existance of Christmas," he said. "The Hanukkah experience occurred 165 years before the arrival of Jesus, who we identify as Joshua. Had it not been for the success of Jewish freedom, there would be no Christmas. We recognize our role in the ultimate feeling that resonates during this time of year, the feeling of peace, harmony and good will."

    He went on to say that despite the holiday shopping madness, there is a feeling of friendship and courtesy that is not evident during the rest of the year.

    "There is a sense of identification with each other that we are one," he said. "That's what a Jew enjoys about Christmastime."

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