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A Suburban Jewish Kid Looks At Christmas

by Isaac Israel

I'll let you in on a little secret:

As a Jewish kid growing up in the suburbs I thought Christmas was the most beautiful time of year. I never felt offended by manger scenes in the town square, although I couldn't understand why those ceramic Jews were standing around a stable full of animals.

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And why was that Jewish baby in the barn with the animals?

Jewish people aren't crazy about farm animals. They were forbidden to own land in the Middle Ages, so they got into the mercantile trades: buying, selling, lending. Then they made their kids become doctors or lawyers or accountants. Did you ever see an accountant milking a cow?

My mother was always telling me that animals were dirty and you kept them away from the baby. We had dogs, but we shampooed them.

So I found those manger scenes difficult to understand. Two Jewish people named Miryam and Yossef in a stable with their baby because there was no room at the inn? It didn't make sense. When there's no room at the Holiday Inn, you try to find something cheap at a motel. As long as they have clean towels. I mean, this was hard for a suburban Jewish kid to understand.

But I was never offended by it.

If Christians were so obviously delighted with this ceramic Jewish family, what could be the harm in that? I wasn't going to be the one to tell them that there were too many animals in the house. Maybe they liked animals. And if they wanted to imagine that Jewish people felt comfortable with cattle, what was the harm in it?

I don't recall a single Jew ever saying to me, "Aren't you offended by that manger scene?" Nobody ever said that. The only comment I remember hearing from a Jewish person regarding Christmas was when Bernie Jacobs said, "Business is good. I can't complain." What Jewish person would complain about a holiday during which gentiles line up in front of department stores waiting to spend money? Think about it! (In fact, I've always suspected that Santa Claus had actually been some Jewish toy manufacturer back in the Middle Ages. Santa Bloomberg?)

All that anti-Christmas stuff was created by atheists. I liked Christmas. Bernie Jacobs owned the local music store, and I remember buying records like "Do You Hear What I Hear" and "Little Drummer Boy". Didn't Bing Crosby sing that?

I loved that music!

"Silent Night" was one of my favorite songs. I didn't have a clue what it was about, but something about it was deeply spiritual and it spoke to me.

What was all this fuss about a baby named Jesus, born the King of the Jews? And what kind of a name was "Jesus?" Jewish kids had names like Bernie and Solly and Irv. It was a mystery to me. But what a beautiful mystery. All those sparkling colored lights reflecting off the snow. Why didn't Jewish people make a fuss like that over our holidays? A fifty-foot menorah with sparklers for Hanukkah, a sukkah the size of Mammoth Mart for "Tabernacles", or a giant, fuchsia chicken or something. I thought it was wonderful that Christians displayed their religious faith in such a handsome fashion, and with so much chutzpah. I still do.

Jews are not demonstrative. Centuries of persecution, topped off by the Holocaust, can dampen a community's enthusiasm to advertise its presence with a fifty-foot chicken in the public square. But now Christians are being persecuted by secular powers who want to outlaw any public display of Christmas. I think that's a crime. (It's unconstitutional, too.)

Christmas is offensive to no one but a hater of G-d.

I remember standing in the snow, snowflakes falling in my hair and tickling my eyelashes, gazing for long minutes into one of those manger displays, at the infant in the manger, the three kings with their gifts, and those Jewish people with the animals. And I remember pondering that scene and its implications.

Who was this Child?

And why was he so special to those Jewish people?

What was going on in that barn, anyway?

In the silence of those winter evenings, that rustic tableau touched me in a special way I can't describe. Hashem (G-d) was speaking to me through those ceramic actors as they stood frozen in time, frozen in the most miraculous moment in human history, the moment the Torah and the Nevi'im (the Law and the Prophets) had promised, the moment when G-d came to earth in human flesh! When the Ben haM'vorach, the Son of the Blessed One -- Whose Name, Yeshua, means "Salvation" in Hebrew -- came down from Heaven and allowed Himself to be sacrificed for the sins of mankind!

"For unto us a Child is born.

Unto us a Son is given. . . ."

Born to haAlmah (the virgin) in Bet Lechem (or Bethlehem, which means "House of bread"), killed before the destruction of the Temple (Daniel 9:26), as the substitute for our sins (Isaiah 53:8), bringing in the Brit Chadashah (the New Testament, or Renewed Covenant) as promised in Jeremiah 31, the promise that saved my soul.

And so I say, with all the love in my heart, with gratitude to every Christian who so patiently endured my cynicism, who so consistently prayed for my soul, and to every Christian reading these words:

Have a very merry Christmas,

and a happy New Year.

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A Suburban Jewish Kid Looks At Passover

by Isaac Israel

As a Jewish kid growing up in the suburbs, I found Pesach (Passover) a bit weird.

At first it sounded great! A Festival where G-d actually commanded me to eat! Baruch haShem! Praise the L-rd and pass the gravy! That was one mitzvah I'd have no trouble observing. In fact, more holidays like Pesach and I might decide to become a rabbi. Talent for eating was something I had in abundance, and I couldn't wait to show HaShem (G-d) what a potential yeshiva bocher (Talmudic student) I was!

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But then I saw the food! Oy, vey is mir! (Oh, woe is me!)

Everything a kid can't stand sat on that decorative plate before me: Bitter herbs, like scallions and horseradish and stuff; a roasted egg, still in the shell, burned brown and inedible; a leg of lamb with no meat on it; and couple of square pieces of matzah. Unleavened bread. There would be no products made with leaven, or that had even the potential of leavening, for eight whole, terrible days! All bread was out. All cookies and cake were out. Pasta was definitely out. And commercial snacks and candies were out. You name it, it was out. Out, out, out!

OK. So this was a G-d with a sense of humor, right?

Had He given us this holiday in order to make us wish we were gentiles? If so, He was succeeding. I mean, not only did we get two thousand years of persecution and the Holocaust and all that, but we had to eat stuff like this! When the goyim had holidays, they got Christmas cookies and chocolate Easter eggs and stuff.

But I only saw one egg. And it was burned almost beyond recognition.

This was a holiday designed to destroy anyone's appetite. Except the Romans, that is. No one can destroy an Italian's appetite. Back in the days of Herod and Pontius Pilate, when the Roman legions discovered (with horror, I'm sure) that the only bread served in Judea for eight days would be flat, round, crispy wafer-like things, they didn't despair. They just poured tomato sauce and cheese on top of it and called it pizza. You have to hand it to them; they crucified a lot of people but they knew what to do with food. Now that they've invented stuffed crust I forgive them for everything.

There was a long, stultifying service, which Dad chanted in Hebrew from the Haggada. And then, since I was the youngest boy, I had to chant the "Four Questions": "Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh..." Why is this night different from all other nights?" It always gave me stage-fright.

But then Mom brought out the chicken soup with kneidlach (matzah-balls), and a delicious roast chicken dinner, and it turned out okay after all. G-d had been kidding all along.

Between all those cups of kosher wine and hot chicken soup I'd become a little drowsy and head off to bed, wondering what in the world it was all about. A lot had been said in the Haggadah about Mitzrayim (Egypt), and how the L-rd had delivered us from that place of pyramids and led us through the wilderness to the Promised Land. I'd seen pictures of the Egyptians in history books. They were all skinny and wore wigs and funny eye makeup and walked around with their wrists bent and their legs akimbo. If I'd lived in a place where people walked around like that I'd pray to be delivered too!

But that was all I got out of Pesach. That and a little tipsy from the Mogen David.

Decades later, after accepting Yeshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ) as my L-rd and Savior, and after having walked with Him for over thirty years, I have the full understanding of what HaShem was showing me in that Passover service. The rabbis who compiled the Talmud over the centuries limited its meaning to our deliverance from bondage in Mitzrayim. But Mitzrayim was merely a symbol of a greater bondage, the bondage to sin.

G-d had painted us a picture of our deliverance from the bondage of sin, through the sacrifice of Yeshua, and the shedding of His precious Blood. And He had painted this picture with food! When you think of it, though, what could be more intimate and impactful than something we put into our mouths? When HaShem communicated to Shimon Kefa (Simon Peter) that the rabbinic Oral Law that Jews should never enter the houses of gentiles (Mishnah Ohalot 18:7B) was being overturned, didn't He use a vision of food? (Acts 10:9-29)? The food on our table told the entire story of our redemption from sin. Redemption comes not by scrupulous observance of Torah, although that is commendable; it comes only through the shed blood of Yeshua (Jesus), Whose Name means "Salvation" in Hebrew.

The maror, karpas, and chazeret (the bitter herbs) were not only a reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Mitzrayim, but of the bitterness of life in a sinful world, a world where innocent babies starve to death if they're not slaughtered in their mothers' wombs; where men fight senseless wars, drunk with hatred and greed; where teenage runaways become prostitutes and drug-lords rule the streets; where the threat of nuclear desolation looms over our heads; where scientists play G-d with monkeys and sheep; and where people's hearts fail them for fear. When Adam fell, G-d said,

"Cursed is the ground for your sake,

In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.

Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.

And thou shalt eat the herb of the field." (Genesis 3:17,18)

The bitter herb.

But there is more on the plate, Baruch HaShem (praise the L-rd)!

There is the charoset, which was made to resemble the bricks we were forced to make under the crack of the whip.

And yet charoset is sweet.

Why sweet?

To remind us that there is yet hope in the midst of our bondage.

Hope of salvation!

That's where the zeroa (the roasted shank-bone of a lamb) comes in. For the Hagaddah clearly tells us how the blood of a lamb, placed on the doorposts of every Hebrew dwelling, caused the Death Angel to "pass over" them. Not gemillut hasadim, not good deeds, which the prophet Isaiah said are filthy rags in the sight of G-d (Isaiah 64:6).

Only the Blood of the Lamb.

When I see the zeroa I'm reminded of Yochanan haMatbil (John the Immerser), when he pointed to Yeshua by the banks of the Yarden (the Jordan River), shouting,

"Behold the Lamb of G-d, which taketh away the sin of the world." (John 1:29)

And when I take the unleavened bread and the third cup of wine, the Cup of Redemption, I'm reminded of how Yeshua, at his last Pesach meal with His talmidim (disciples), took the matzah, broke it, and said,

"Take, eat; this is My Body."

Of course it would have to be unleavened, since leaven is a symbol of sin, and Yeshua was sinless. The matzah reminds me that He was born in Bet Lechem (or Bethlehem), which means "house of bread" (Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:1), and that He proclaimed,

"I am the Bread of Life....

I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.

If anyone eats of this Bread, he shall live forever.

And the Bread that I will give is My Flesh,

Which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:35 and 51)

So I must eat this matzah, this symbol of Yeshua's Body, worthily (I Corinthians 11:27), understanding fully what it symbolizes.

And when I take the third cup of wine, not coincidentally called the "Cup of Redemption, I'm reminded of how Yeshua took that same third cup, recited the b'rochah (blessing) over it, and said,

"Drink from it, all of you.

For this is My Blood of the renewed covenant,

Which is shed for many

For the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:27-28)

This is the Brit Chadashah, the Renewed Covenant, which G-d promised to Israel through the prophet Yiremyahu (Jeremiah 31); and a renewed Ketubah (marriage contract) which the Groom signified by sharing the cup of wine with His Bride.

Pesach, therefore, was the model for the Christian practice of Communion.

Yeshua commanded us to do this in memory of Him (Luke 22:19), and so I take my communion at the Passover Seder.

As an adult, it's a great blessing to understand what G-d is saying to me each year through the food on the Passover table. He's telling me (and the rest of the nation of Israel) that there is a way to eternal life. The beytsah (the roasted egg) symbolizes this newness of life, the resurrection of the body to eternal life with our Messiah Yeshua.

But this comes only through the Blood of the Lamb.

Shalom

Next year in Jerusalem!

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