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Interfaith Holidays at the Office

By Lyssa Friedman

I unlocked my office door and slammed my keys on the desk. It was a Monday morning in early December a few years ago, and I was in no mood for Steven's quizzical look as he peeked in from his room next door.

"Um, bad commute?"

"Nope." I flipped on my computer.

"Run in your stockings?"

"Nope again." I tossed my coat over the chair.

"Something happen this weekend?"

I wheeled around to face him.

"Damn right. It's the first week in December and I'm already sick of Christmas."

"Ah."

Steven ducked out and returned with two steaming cups of coffee. We sat down to review our week's agenda. Though Steven adores Christmas, he seemed unfazed by my complaint. He arranges evergreen on his home mantle, fills stockings for his nieces. His tree varies from year to year. That year's white-on-white theme included silver ornaments and miniature monochromatic lights. If there were an award for creating a fairy tale Christmas, Steven would win first place.

As deep as Steven's love of Christmas was his ignorance of why the holiday worked me into such a lather. Yes, Steven realized that though I participated in the politically correct office "holiday" gift exchange, I wrapped my trinkets in non-sectarian blue rather than red and green. He'd nodded at my lectures that Hanukkah is neither a substitute nor a consolation prize for Christmas.

"December renders me an invisible minority," I'd told him, seething.

A few days later, Steven plopped a gift on my desk. Usually we exchanged presents on December 24, gifts appropriate for an office friendship, like oversized coffee mugs and collectable mouse pads. Our cards were secular winter scenes, engraved with messages about peace on earth.

"What's this?" I asked.

"According to the calendar, Hanukkah starts today," Steven said.

"You're right," I said. He checked the calendar? "Actually," I added, "Jewish holidays begin and end at sundown. Today is the first day, but the holiday started yesterday evening, which is when I lit the first candle."

Steven always wrapped my baubles in tasteful tartan plaids. But this gift shimmered in blue paper studded with six-pointed stars, paper I knew had been purchased by the sheet from a stationery boutique. After all, Steven had no use for a whole roll of Jewish holiday wrap. Inside I found a pewter menorah, like the one I'd described to him from a window-shopping expedition.

"Is it too late?" Steven worried. "Should I have given this to you yesterday?"

"It's perfect," I answered, hugging him. "Perfect."

During the next few months, our friendship blossomed. Mostly we supported each other at work, but sometimes we met on Sunday for coffee or on Saturday for a double date. As Passover approached, I told Steven about matzah ball soup and the seder (ritual meal) plate.

In June, I planned a day off after an all-night study session for Shavuot. When he learned that this is a holiday for blintzes and creamy desserts, he surprised me with a miniature chocolate cheesecake, bundled in a tiny bow.

That summer, Steven told me of his autumn vacation plans. We covered for each other and alternated our time off. Steven pulled out his calendar.

"I need to book my flight. I know Rosh Hashanah will be over. When is Yom Kippur?"

I appreciated Steven's willingness to learn about my religious practices. His actions helped me feel part of the crowd rather than outsider. And I congratulated myself for my patience with this guy who, until he met me, didn't know Manishewitz from Mogen David.

The days shortened. Stores hung wreaths from their doors and piped carols from their speakers. My annoyance flared, like every December. I searched the mall for a birthday gift, muttering that Christmas is a Christian holiday, not an American one. And one Monday morning, I rushed into my office and slammed my keys on the desk. Steven poked his head in.

"Something wrong?"

"Yup. It's the first week in December and I'm already sick of Christmas."

Steven's face turned pink, and he stepped back as if I'd struck him. Again, he scooted into his office, but instead of grabbing matching mugs, he closed his door. We worked separately through lunch, ate at our desks. Late that afternoon, we ran into each other at the copier. Steven faced me.

"Christmas is my favorite holiday," he said. "When you say negative things about my celebration, I feel judged."

I had been judging my friend? My criticism was of society, not of him. But I had to admit that while I'd praised Steven for learning what my holidays mean, locked in my identity as a minority victim, I hadn't realized that I owed Steven what he'd given me: a willingness to set aside assumptions and listen.

The next morning I laid a small box on Steven's desk, wrapped in red foil and tied with green string. He turned the package over in his hand and began to unwrap it. I'd bought him a clear blown-glass ornament.

"It's an early present," I told him. "I don't know this year's color scheme, but clear glass goes with everything."

"It's perfect," he said.

"I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. What are you doing for Christmas this year?"

Steven smiled and interrupted me with an embrace.

"Perfect."

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Lyssa Friedman

Lyssa Friedman lives in Mill Valley, California and worships at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco.

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