Christmas (and Hannukah) in the South

It’s the Christmas season. Even though today is Christmas Day, the season will actually go on until about ten days after the New Year. I live in the South, after all.

One way you know that Christmas season has arrived is through the wild things that sprout from the earth. Not far from where I live, for example, a multitude of lights forming figures, messages, and other decorative forms did exactly that right after Halloween. At night, “God Bless America” twinkles next to two nutcrackers, the American flag and huge praying hands. “Remember Jesus” is not far from a massive, 20-foot angel with a watering can. I am confused by her presence, but there may be time to figure it out before the season is over.

The other way you learn that it is Christmastime occurs when you have any pleasant exchange with other human beings. I recently visited with two nice women in a tiny and overly frigid medical examination room – one, a doctor I had just met, and the other her assistant.

The doctor finished her instructions and got ready to leave. “Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Well, for me that would be “happy Hannukah,” I said brightly, “but if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas to you!”

She smiled and left. The assistant handed me some paperwork to take to take to the checkout desk.

“Merry Christmas!” she said.

“Well, for me that would be “happy Hannukah,” I repeated brightly, “but if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas to you!”

You can guess what occurred at the checkout desk…

I used to find all this southern Christmas excess pretty annoying. I grew up in a relatively urban setting where it was incumbent upon right-thinking individuals to wish each other “happy holidays.”

So, when I first arrived here, almost thirty years ago, Christmas was a tinch challenging. Predictable questions were always being put to my adorable young son at the checkout line. Either folks wanted to know if he had been good so that Santa would bring him lots of presents or, if we were past Christmas Day, he would be asked if Santa had recognized how good a child he was and brought him lots of presents. We would be wished a merry Christmas for walking in the door, we would be wished a merry Christmas for passing along the aisles, and we would be wished a merry Christmas as we left.

Still, it’s all a matter of perspective, right?

I can prove it. Or rather, a colleague of mine, an ordained rabbi and former professor of child development, will.

“I was living in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Steven Silvern told me a while back, “and one Friday morning I went out shopping. After all, what does one do Friday mornings in Jerusalem? Shop for Shabbos!”

The supermarket was right across the street from a convent. While Reb Steven was shopping, one of the nuns came across the street to do her shopping. She was dressed in nun habit.

She was a large-ish woman, wearing an imposing cross hanging on a chain. My colleague demonstrated the size of the cross with his hands. It appears to have checked in at about eight by twelve inches.

He ended up near the nun at the checkout line. The cashier wrapped up all her purchases, she paid, and as she got ready to leave, the cashier turned to the nun.

“Gut Shabbos!” he said cheerfully.

Human beings, God bless us all, are creatures of reflex, not reflection. We are rather inclined to focus on our navels and to presume that all other navels look like ours.

And they do, sort of.

So, that said, I would like to say something to anyone who has read to the end of this post. Happy Hanukkah! (And Merry Christmas, too…).

This post is dedicated to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Steven Silvern, who never fails to help me laugh.

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Love’s Courage: In Memory of Janet Elaine Holland Ayers

Today, on Shabbat, I sang and prayed with the family of McGill Baptist Church in Concord, North Carolina. We remembered together.

We had gathered for the memorial service of Janet Elaine Holland Ayers, librarian, mother of three, grandmother of six, and wife of Pastor Steve Ayers.

Janet was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the record of her last years has been chronicled by Steve’s moving testimony. In one Facebook post after another, we have read of every small and painful progression of the disease, the moments of memory lost and regained. We discovered how Janet learned to live, and we witnessed the way everyone around her lived in the grace of her love.

Steve has, with the courage of Janet’s love, created a chronicle of love. Even when Janet could not remember or use his name, she remembered their love. When she still could, she would tell him how she loved “her Steve.” Nearing the close of her life, if Steve told her he loved her, she would say “I know!” During the service, he told us that after one particularly happy visit, she turned to him and announced happily, “Steve, we ought to get married!” And Steve, who has had the grace to stay in all the holy places Janet inhabited throughout these years, no matter what time or what location he found himself in, agreed. “That’s a great idea!” he said.

There is no one who met Janet who does not carry some lasting memory of her. Of course she was gracious to my little havurah, my small congregation. Of course she wanted to join Steve and the church in welcoming us, making us feel at home. She did that no matter what troubles we went through, how large we were, or what we could do in recompense for the welcome we were given. Of course, she was always warm and kind and welcoming. Janet was that way.

For a couple of years, we moved away from McGill Baptist Church, and though we grew by doing so, my heart broke when we did. McGill had taken us in when finding a place to meet turned out to be a challenge. McGill had refused our donation the year we had to restore our first Torah – to this day, I point out that Baptists helped put letters back on that scroll. McGill had held us, given us love and kindness and friendship, for over a decade.

When we finally returned, I had given up on all those dreams of growth so many of my then congregants had found so important. I had paid a price, and those I came back with had paid it with me. I returned with just six families; we were back where we were at our beginning.

But when I was sure we would still need someplace for us to meet, I called Steve. I asked him if there was still a place for us at McGill.

“Barbara,” he told me, “we would be so glad to have you back.”

“Then we are coming home,” I said.

Janet overheard Steve’s reaction. And then I overheard hers.

She called out quite clearly: “We love you, Barbara. We love you.”

“We love you, too, Janet,” I called back, crying like a child on the other end of the line.

Janet hardly knew the power of the healing she offered me that day.

Janet was a woman not to be underestimated. She possessed an intelligence and a sense of humor that was subversive and delightful.

But above all else, she knew how to love and how to receive love. “She had a love that knew no bounds,” Steve said as we remembered her. To the last, he said, no matter what else she might have seemed to have lost, she knew she was loved and she knew that she was a child of God.

We say in my tradition: May her memory be for a blessing. And all who knew her know: it already is.

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