I was raised Jewish in a suburb outside Atlanta. Being Jewish in the South during the 1980s and ’90s was such a difficult task. It left me sympathetic to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and how he must have felt while being ostracized and excluded from all the “reindeer games.” I myself was never invited to any of the “games” in my neighborhood, and I am prone to believe that this, too, had something to do with my nose (although mine did not glow).
In Marietta, Ga., most of my friends, neighbors and teachers were Christian; even my synagogue’s rabbi was a Protestant. Well, one of his ex-wives was, at least. Back then, the most difficult time to be a Jew awash in a sea of gentiles was around the holiday season. The majority of Georgians celebrated Christmas, and Christmas was amazing — especially to a child, regardless of denomination. Everyone knows Hanukkah doesn’t hold a candle to Christmas. Well, actually, the Hanukkah menorah holds nine candles, but to a small child, it still stinks in comparison. While we have dreidels, potato latkes and Hanukkah gelt, they have Christmas lights, Christmas trees and the most amazing part: Santa Claus.
I remember when I was 6 years old, my mom took me to the mall the week before Christmas, and there he was. He had rosy cheeks and a big beard; I was in awe as I asked my mom if I could sit on Santa’s lap. My mom looked down at me and said, “Honey, we’re Jewish; we don’t believe in Santa.” I said, “Mom, everyone else gets to sit on his lap — Chris, Mark and Scott.” It must have been a convincing tantrum, because my mom shrugged her shoulders and said, “What’s the harm?”
So we waited in line, and when I finally got to Santa’s lap, he asked me if I’d been a good boy. I said, “Yes.” He asked me my name, and I said, “Danny.” He said, “Okay, Danny, what do you want for Christmas?” I said, “I don’t want anything for Christmas, Santa.” He replied, “What do you mean you don’t want anything for Christmas?” I said, “Well, Santa, I am Jewish.”
This is no lie. Santa Claus pulled me close and whispered in my ear, “Me too, kid.”
That’s when I found out Santa was a Jew. I went to school the next day, bragging to all my friends. I was like: “Santa’s Jewish, Jesus is Jewish, Sammy Davis Jr. is Jewish…. You guys have no one.”
That was years ago, but cut to the other day in Brooklyn. I was on the subway, and I saw a little boy about the same age as I was when I met Santa. He sat with his mother, and across from them was a large, old Hasidic man. The little boy said, “Mama, why is that man so fat?” The embarrassed mom tried to quiet him, albeit unsuccessfully. Then the boy said: “Mama, why does he have such a long beard? Why is he so old?” The Hasidic man leaned over to the little boy and said, in an accent rivaling the Borsch Belt comedian Jackie Mason: “Oy vey! What, you’ve never seen Santa Claus in person before?”
So apparently, Santa is systematically touring the world, telling one little boy at a time that he is a Jew. It appears he is much more serious about the religion now than when I was a child. Now he is a Hasid.
Daniel Berman is a freelance writer, producer, animator and actor in New York.