When Santa at the Mall Is Jewish

Red Suit, White Beard, No Yarmulke for Father Christmas

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published December 13, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
Video: Nate Lavey


Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah, Dana Friedman was dressed in his Santa Claus costume for a promotion in New York City’s Times Square, when a group of men in yarmulkes approached him and asked to have their photo taken with him. “Shana tova!” he told them. And then, registering the look of surprise on their faces, he added, “They couldn’t get a goy to play this part.”

Friedman, a 53-year-old Jewish civil attorney from Queens, has been playing Santa for 11 years. It all began after the September 11 attacks, when Friedman, whose law office is located just blocks from the World Trade Center site, wanted to find a way to give back to first responders. Instead of donating money, his secretary suggested that he don a Santa suit and make Christmastime visits to the families of firefighters and police officers affected by the attacks. What began as an act of “tzedakah,” in Friedman’s words, soon turned into a seasonal side job.

Today, with his gray hair bleached to a chalky white, and his beard groomed in kingly curls, he suits up in nine layers of red-and-white regalia and spends the month of December in malls and hospitals, hoisting children onto his knee for keepsake photographs. Only rarely does he divulge his own religious background, and usually just when the family in question is Jewish. But he always gets the same tickled response. “It’s something people don’t expect,” he said.

Friedman isn’t the only Jewish man to make the December transformation into Father Christmas. “The phenomenon is more widespread than one realizes,” said Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, author of “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish.” “You don’t know who is Jewish and who isn’t.”

Tim Connaghan, who runs a training course for aspiring commercial Santas, says he has worked with some 20 Jews over his years of coaching and outfitting Santas. At the behest of the Forward, Connaghan put out a call for Jews on his Kringle Group listserv of 2,200 real-bearded Santas. Around a half-dozen responded. Like Friedman, most of them took on the role after friends or family members asked them to play Santa in what they thought would be a one-off event — a Christmas party at an elementary school, or a fundraiser for disabled children — and became enamored of Santa’s magnanimous persona. But others came down with Santa fever at a young age.



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