Professor Joe Goldblatt
Upon the night before Christmas, the branches of our dry Christmas tree were set on fire by the eight flickering Chanukah candles. Smoke soon engulfed the living room and set off the smoke alarm that beeped loudly. My mother shouted for my father to put out the fire and he soon bravely arrived with a large bucket of water that he poured upon the flaming Christmas tree. With great exasperation Papa announced “It is a miracle. Our very own burning bush!”
Our Jewish family, when this incident occurred in the 1950’s, annually celebrated all holidays. My mother’s Christmas tree was huge and ornately decorated. Our decor spread to the exterior of the house as well. We always thought this was normal. It was only later in life that I learned that some American Jewish families refrained from celebrating Christmas.
Recently, while attending the service of Thanksgiving for the beloved and highly respected founder of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association a local Methodist minister shook my hand after the service and said “It warms my heart to hear you sing our hymns with such gusto!” I explained that my mother, although Jewish by birth, was raised as a Roman Catholic, and therefore, my singing of Christian hymns was both natural and normal. I then added that “The music is so inspiring and even if I do not believe all the words I can always hum the beautiful melodies.”
My blended faith background made it easy for me, along with others, to establish the first ever Jewish Students Organisation on the campus of my undergraduate college. This Texas based university was affiliated with the Catholic Holy Cross Brothers. I was elected president of the organisation and needed to find a faculty sponsor to endorse our club so we could apply for funding from the University Student Union. Fortunately, a Methodist lecturer came to my aid and the Campus Priest even agreed to help us light the candles at the first Chanukah celebration in the history of the small institution.
Many years later my father decided to run for a seat on the local city council. It was traditional for the candidates to visit local churches and ask for their support. Papa invited my sister, myself and our mother to join him at the local Baptist church. After welcoming our family, the gregarious minister announced that there would be a special collection to save the Jews. When the collection plate came to our family, my father who was notoriously frugal, placed a five dollar bill inside the the shiny brass bowl. Mama then whispered to Papa “Max, I believe that to save the Jews means to convert us!” Papa quickly removed th fiver.
Our family always respected and often admired all other faiths. However, once during our Passover dinner our patience was tested. It is traditional at passover for one of the children to open the door for the prophet Elijah who may usher in a time of future peace. As I walked to the door hoping to meet Elijah we were all startled with the loud clanging sound of the doorbell. My Aunt Gert shrieked and my Uncle Irving almost fainted. When I opened the door I was shocked to see a tall man with a long black beard carrying a stack of bibles. He looked like a prophet to me!
Before I could speak, Papa said “Joe, invite him in.” I followed Papa’s command and the man walked into our dining room where Papa offered him the traditional empty seat that is always reserved for Elijah. We soon discovered this man was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was visiting us to share his theology with us. Papa invited him to join us for dinner and the man quickly rose, thanked our family for our hospitality, and then departed to visit the next home.
Therefore, I suppose that I embrace the philosophy of Scotand’s national bard who said “We should measure our society by how we treat our fellow human beings.” In my view, respect, compassion, and love for one another should be the foundations of all theologies.
As I have now reached the stage where I still enjoy our tiny Christmas tree (or as some Jews cheekily call it, the ‘Chanukah bush’) I always make sure that it is across the room from the Chanukah candles. This way we may enjoy both traditions, safely and securely, and appreciate that in our family both are most welcome traditions and symbols of hope and love in our home.
I also wonder how lovely it would be throughout the world if people of different beliefs could silently respect one another and live in harmony as does my Christmas tree and Chanukah candles. We might just be inspired to look for opportunities to explore, celebrate, understand and sometimes appreciate different beliefs. Our appreciation does not necessarily mean that we agree with every view, however, as mama taught me long ago, even if we disagree with the words, we may always hum along with the universally beautiful melodies.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Chair of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association and Professor Emeritus of Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot