Marilyn Heiss is a regular volunteer in Glide Memorial Church's meal program — which is where she'll be on Christmas.
Marilyn Heiss is a regular volunteer in Glide Memorial Church's meal program — which is where she'll be on Christmas.

Even Christmas is different for Jews this pandemic year

What’s a Jew to do? The Jewish Christmas tradition of going out for Chinese food and a movie is off the table this year. But Jews are nothing if not resilient, and in the Bay Area they’re figuring out how to spend the red-and-green holiday the best way they can, from watching comedy to taking family walks to serving free meals.

“While Santa is going to all the Christian girls’ and boys’ houses, helped by Hanukkah Harry, of course, I am going to be waiting by the pager, sleeping with the pager, waiting for any calls that come in,” said hospital chaplain Rabbi Jeremy Sher, who will be spending the night of the 24th and morning of the 25th on call at a San Francisco hospital.

Rabbi Jeremy Sher
Rabbi Jeremy Sher

Sher often takes the Christmas shift to let his fellow chaplains celebrate the holiday; they do the same for him for Jewish holidays, he said. That means that if you’re asking for spiritual counseling on Christmas, he said, “You might be getting a Jewish chaplain, or a Buddhist chaplain or a Muslim chaplain.”

The main thing patients need is an ear to listen to them and a metaphorical shoulder to lean on, Sher said, and he’s there to provide both as needed. On Christmas, particularly, a lot of patients in the hospital who aren’t religious are still sad not to be participating in traditions and festivities.

“I think the same thing is true of our Christian patients,” he said. “They’re really bummed out.”

Bummed out” is pretty much how Mary Weinberg described how it feels to face a holiday season without her highly anticipated Hanukkah party, which she’s hosted for 25 years.

Mary and Bill Weinberg and their son Danny at last year's Hanukkah party.
Mary and Bill Weinberg and their son Danny at last year’s Hanukkah party.

She and her husband, Bill, are famous in their San Rafael neighborhood for their holiday decorations and for the party’s annual latke-frying extravaganza, which “you can smell three blocks away,” Weinberg said.

“Our house is called the ‘Hanukkah House’,” she added. “We have a gigantic menorah on the roof and tons of decorations inside and out.”

But this year neighbors might catch a glimpse of Christmas ornaments through the Weinbergs’ large picture windows, underneath the large, lit-up menorah on the roof. Without a Hanukkah party in the works, Weinberg felt herself wanting to bring something festive into the house. “We haven’t had a Christmas tree for 30 years, but we need to have a Christmas tree!” she said.

Mary Weinberg with her Christmas tree — the first one she's had in years.
Mary Weinberg with her Christmas tree — the first one she’s had in years.

But she wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. The couple are active in their synagogue, Congregation Rodef Sholom, and Weinberg, who was raised Christian and has not converted, has always been very aware of the value of the “Hanukkah House” to the Jewish kids in the neighborhood. She was conflicted, and she didn’t want to make anyone feel bad.

“Do I have to hide the tree?” Weinberg wondered. “Do I have to put it in the kitchen?”

She said she got sticker shock over how much the prices had gone up since she last got a tree. “I was like, Jesus Christ, they are so expensive! You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Weinberg is still sad about not having her Hanukkah party this year, but at least she’s able to bring a bit of festive cheer to a desultory holiday season.

“It was kind of comforting to me to go back to my Christian roots and put up a Christmas tree,” she said.

For Lorianna Seidlitz-Smith, a Christmas tree is part of her childhood, too — or, at least, a Hanukkah bush, which is what she called it growing up in Berkeley.

“Even though I’m Jewish, growing up my parents gave us our presents on Christmas,” she said.

Lorianna Seidlitz-Smith and her family.
Lorianna Seidlitz-Smith and her family.

The Berkeley resident, a member of Congregation Beth El, is raising her own children to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas as part of what she described as an “interfaith, multiracial” family. It means a month of celebrations and presents that her children look forward to each year.

“A lot of people do celebrate both, especially in our group of friends and family,” the Berkeley resident said. “So it doesn’t seem so surprising to them.”

This year, though, because of social distancing rules, they are having to forgo brunch with family and won’t see Seidlitz-Smith’s 98-year-old grandfather.

“We normally would be with him on Christmas, but that won’t happen this year,” she said.

Instead, it’ll be family time at home, focusing on gratitude, she said.

“This year we’re going to do something, just the four of us, and have a day of family togetherness, with movies and sweet treats,” she said.

The biggest problem may be choosing the movie. Seidlitz-Smith’s kids are 6 and 10, so it’s hard to find something they both like. So far, the live-action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” has been a successful compromise.

“Probably we’ll watch that,” she said with a sigh. “Again!”

Sarah Levitt, 25, also will be spending time with family on Christmas Day. But before that, the San Mateo resident will take a virtual trip to San Francisco on Dec. 23 to join Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in an online event for people in their 20s and 30s called “Chinese Food + Jewish Christmas with Reb Syd” — a twist on the synagogue’s usual Torah study that encourages people to order takeout and celebrate together.

Levitt, who normally attends Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, said she was looking forward to socializing with other people her age and “just having the ability to connect and learn about Torah and learn something new.”

She needs that right now, as she’s currently living with her parents and sister. But she’s happy to be spending Christmas with her family. It’ll be a traditional Christmas for them.

Sarah Levitt (second from right) with her parents and sister. 
Sarah Levitt (second from right) with her parents and sister.

“Typically we go on a family walk or a hike somewhere,” she said. “We spend time together as a family.”

Chinese takeout is also on the menu for Mark Friedlander, who is having to adapt his usual Christmas plans for a pandemic world. He’s a regular at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, the long-running holiday comedy show started in 1993 by Lisa Geduldig and held every year in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Friedlander is still going to attend, even though the show is streaming online this year.

“I’m a loyalist,” he said. “And there’s lots of loyalists.”

With Covid restrictions, some things will be missing. There’s no gathering at big round tables, no eating a multi-course meal off the Lazy Susan. But Friedlander, executive director of the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, sees it as an opportunity to expand the audience, and is getting tickets for some residents of the senior home who wouldn’t be able to go to a comedy show in person.

The SFCJL is also getting into the Jewish Christmas spirit with a special menu. “We’ve asked our chef to create a Chinese meal,” he said.

For Friedlander, an event like Kung Pao is more than just the jokes — although he insists the jokes are amazing.

“My husband and I, we talk about the jokes for days after,” he said.

It’s also a nod to the way Jews navigate the season.

“As a Jewish man in a Christian land like America, the only thing we could go to on Christmas Day was movies and Chinese food,” he said.

On Christmas Day, San Francisco resident Marilyn Heiss will be one of the volunteers handing out free, prepackaged meals outside Glide Memorial Church. “The Christmas meal is awesome, and at Glide it’s very special,” she said.

On Christmas Eve, Heiss and other Jewish volunteers from The Kitchen, an indie Jewish community in San Francisco, were going to be up to their elbows in dough to bake 1,800 rolls for Glide’s Christmas day meal. Heiss and other Kitchen members regularly make mini challahs for staff meals. But with tighter lockdown restrictions, the plan was called off. Still Heiss, a regular volunteer at the Tenderloin church for years, will still be there to distribute food on the 25th.

“People need to eat,” she said. “People need to eat no matter what.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.