A Hanukkah tale of lights, trees—and surprising gifts

RABBI BOB ALPER is a standup comedian who is famous for touring the country with interfaith comedy shows, often performing with a Christian and a Muslim comedian. You might have heard him on satellite radio, where his standup routines are part of the clean comedy channel. Most importantly, Bob’s work is unique because he also is an ordained and active clergyman. His humor is warmed with a deep commitment to faith. This story appears in Bob’s book, “Thanks. I Need That.

Mrs. Steinberg’s Christmas Tree

By Rabbi Bob Alper

Question: Which Jewish holiday most closely parallels Christmas?
Answer: Not Hanukkah.

Sure, Hanukkah and Christmas have a few elements in common: both are winter solstice events, successors to the pagan rites of lighting bonfires in an effort to rekindle the increasingly absent sun (it works, by the way; on December 22, the days start to lengthen). Both make use of plenty of candles, or candle-shaped lightbulbs. Both involve gift exchanges, though Hanukkah is a latecomer to this tradition.

But it’s Passover, not Hanukkah that offers the most similarities to Christmas. Passover: a holiday of special food, of remarkable smells, of family centered traditions, of memories heaped upon memories. Passover is the Jewish homecoming, the ingathering, based on an historical and theological event upon which the religion was constructed.

Like Christmas.

Always an adaptable, creative people, Jews of the last two generations have invigorated little, rather unimportant Hanukkah (it’s not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible) until it’s become nearly competitive with cousin Christmas. What has always been a minor Jewish holiday has been injected with steroids.

And in the myth department, Jews have gone even one step further: while Christian children realize by age six or so (earlier, if they have a cynical older sibling) that Santa is a fable, many Jews actually go through their entire lives thinking that the so-called “miracle” of the oil lamp was an historical and theological event. (It wasn’t. The story was simply a cute legend, added hundreds of years after the Maccabbean revolt. Sorry if your fantasy has been crushed.)

For Jewish kids, especially Jewish kids like me in the early 1950s, December was a tough month, our feeble little holiday contrasting flimsily against our Christian friends’ major joyfest. I even have a vague memory of making a modified advent wreath of paper rings in one public school classroom. Every day for several weeks, each of us pulled off one paper ring, watching the object grow smaller and smaller, until, at the very end, it would be CHRISTMAS! Hooray!! (Oh, except for you, Bobby.)

Back then our family rented a second floor flat on Luzon Avenue in Providence, RI, just across the street from the John Howland Elementary School. I was in the first grade, my sister in the third. The flat below was occupied by the landlord and landlady, Mr. and Mrs. Steinberg.

My mother was what we now call a “stay-at-home mom,” only in the early fifties, she and her ilk were called housewives. Friendly and gregarious, she always had a full social life and a huge number of friends. Except for Mrs. Steinberg. Mom and the landlady didn’t hit it off very well, possibly because, from the day we moved in, the woman downstairs repeatedly slammed a broomstick into her ceiling every time my sister or I dared walk down our uncarpeted hallway wearing anything more than socks.

Some neighbor.

Within a few months, we moved to another home, but before we could depart, Mrs. Steinberg launched one more missile at our family.

Friday, December 22, 1950. Hanukkah had ended, and Christmas was now right around the corner. School vacation began mid-day, soon after the traditional morning Christmas assembly. Hundreds of excited children bearing holiday artwork streamed through John Howland’s doors, followed shortly afterward by their grateful teachers.

My mother had a weekly appointment at the beauty parlor every Friday afternoon. Hair and nails had to be just right, in preparation for the approaching Sabbath. Our teenage babysitter, also beginning vacation, was enlisted to watch us for the two hours. A typical gloomy New England winter day, we played indoors.

The boredom was broken when, shortly after my mother departed, an unexpected peal of the door chimes summoned the three of us down the stairs and into the front hallway. Through the glass, we could see our neighbor, Mrs. Steinberg, patiently awaiting. A benign half smile across her lips, she juggled a small box and…my heart began to beat faster…a three foot tall, green…Christmas tree!

“A special treat for Margie and Bobby,” she explained. Mrs. Steinberg worked as a teacher at an elementary school across town, and the small tree had decorated her room. Her own children were adults, no longer living at home, and, well, she knew how much the Alper children must want a Christmas tree. “And since this perfectly good tree would only have been thrown away, I thought you’d like to have it.”

If MasterCards had been around then, they could have produced this ad: A desk-size Douglas fir Christmas tree: $5.50. A small box of ornaments: $2.75. The chance to wreak havoc with the religious identity of the children of your despised neighbor: Priceless.

We accepted the items with thanks and raced up the stairs. But rather than let us set up the tree and begin decorating it, the babysitter, a smart teen, insisted that we first receive parental permission. We dialed the beauty salon and caught my mother with wet hair and wet nails. “Guess what! We got a Christmas tree! We got a Christmas tree! Mrs. Steinberg gave it to us! We can keep it, right mommy? Just this year, OK? This once?”

Mom was non-committal on the phone while she furiously rummaged through her pocketbook in a frantic search for Chooz, the antacid gum she favored.

“Don’t do anything yet. We’ll talk about it when I get home.” Mom had bought an hour’s reprieve.

We waited impatiently, staring longingly at the naked tree and imagining how enchanting it would look, set on the coffee table in the center of our living room, adorned with decorations. It didn’t even occur to us that there were no electric lights. We just wanted a Christmas tree.

During those same moments, as she sat under the sacred privacy of the salon’s hair dryer, my mother began to picture what would occur later that evening at our synagogue when she, president of the Sisterhood, and my father, past-president of the Brotherhood, entered services with their children excitedly blabbing the news about their lovely little Christmas tree.

She devised a plan.

A major commotion erupted when Mom returned, with the word “Pleeeeeze” repeated with urgent frequency. Kids’ body language appears similar when they want something really badly or when they require an immediate trip to the bathroom: a kind of low jumping, up and down, in place. And my sister and I were jumping. “Please? Can we keep it? Just this once?”

My mother seemed to be considering our request, then launched her counter-offensive. No question about it: she blindsided us with an absolutely perfect, even delicious, solution.

“It is a lovely little tree,” she began, “and it was so nice of Mrs. Steinberg to bring it to us.” (I now realize that, had my mother been of an earlier, more superstitious background, after saying that sentence she would have automatically spit three times and recited a Yiddish curse. But, third generation American that she was, all she could muster was a veiled, ironic tone, which my sister and I, in our excitement, missed.)

“But you know,” she continued, “Christmas isn’t our holiday. We have Hanukkah and Passover and Purim. And I read in yesterday’s Providence Journal that there are some children, Christian children here in Providence, who are so poor that they won’t even have a Christmas tree for their holiday.

“So, why don’t we do this: let’s decorate this tree, make it look especially nice, and then, let’s phone the police department and ask if they’ll give it to some poor children who don’t have a tree of their own?”

Touchdown. Bullseye. And grand slam. Mom scored a big one. With her clever proposition, she not only distracted us from begging to keep the tree, but diverted our focus to the point where we simply couldn’t wait to get it out of our house and on its way to other children.

Mom placed a call, while my sister and I went to work hanging Mrs. Steinberg’s ornaments on the tree, adding some of our own small objects, and gathering toys and books and games to accompany the donation. About an hour later, two very large Providence policemen, wearing their black leather jackets, with guns and nightsticks and handcuffs hanging from their belts, lumbered up the stairs. They spoke briefly with my mother and her wide-eyed children, offered some kind words of gratitude, and then departed, carrying one large bag of stuffed toys, some boxes of other gifts. And a three-foot tall, artfully decorated Douglas fir Christmas tree.

That scene remains one of the happiest memories of my childhood.

If you’re already hooked on Rabbi Bob Alper’s work … Visit his website and find out about booking one of his comedy shows in your part of the country. His new book for ReadTheSpirit is coming—God willing—in 2013. But his earlier book—Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas—is available from Amazon now.

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