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It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like a Jew on Christmas

December 3, 2009 – 12:09 am22 Comments
Street in Liliw, Philippines. Photo by Sibella Stern.

Street in Liliw, Philippines. Photo by Sibella Stern.

by Sibella Stern

I beat John Safran to the Filipino punch. I just want everyone to know that. (And I didn’t need a Spielberg-style budget or cast of thousands to get my kicks at the cost of someone else’s religious practice.) Yes. That’s right, John. I’m more hardcore than you, and I’m a Jewish girl.

I arrived in Manila bang smack in the middle of Christmas. In November. You heard correctly. Christmas, in the land colonialism sadly didn’t forget, begins in the “ber” months, and ends in late January. (At which point, all of the kris-kringle-krud merch is replaced by Valentine’s Day cards of dubious quality.) In the spirit of festivity, even evil corporations had rolled out a plethora of Santa inspired attempts to sell their wares.

a)    Coca-cola: It’s Christmas lunch, and dad (divorced) arrives to pick up his daughter. Mum, however, has the perfect idea to re-unite the family at this cheery time. She pours dad a glass of Coca-Cola, he announces “sarap!” (delicious) and sits down at the family table, gazing at mum meaningfully.

b)    Nescafe: A lonely girl sits gazing at a snowy landscape. (In Manila? Where it’s 35 degrees in the shade?) Soon she is joined by her friends, who smile and celebrate their reunion, flashing pearly whites that must have enjoyed American orthodontic work. But she notices another sad soul, alone on his balcony…not for long! In a moment she and her beautiful friends are beside him, sharing his cup of coffee and smiling even harder. Cue the lyrics: “A cup in hand makes me feel so right! Let’s sit, let’s talk…one moment, one nescafe…”

c)    Chow-King: This is my favourite! A young boy forlornly decorates his Christmas tree, while singing a Filipino Christmas carol about his lost love. Dad touches down on an airplane, all the way from Saudi (very topical), but he knows not to come home empty handed… It is a bag of Chow-King delights (a crappy Chinese take-out chain) that will really make the night special!

I’d travelled to the Catholic heart of the South China Sea, to work with street children, and it somehow fell to me (a Moriah graduate, no less) to provide them with the festive spirit of family on Christmas Eve. Being a balabusta in training, I was, of course, at pains to offer the kind of merriment that could only be described as the mongrel child of Succot dinner at the Stern Household and A Very Brady Christmas.

Finally we get to midnight mass. At 10pm.Throughout the mass I coolly pretend to know exactly what’s going on. I even attempt to sing along to the only carol I know, and find myself excelling in the accompanying hand actions. Toward the end, the adults line up for Holy Communion, and the kids take turns pushing me out toward the front. There’s no use explaining that I’m more likely to be accused of desecrating the host than of eating it, or calmly asserting that if I ate the body of Jesus tonight my parents would need immediate cardiac surgery. So I step forward.

As I suck the wafer – and thank the lord I’ve recently watched a movie in which I’ve learnt that etiquette dictates sucking, rather than chewing the host – there passes a moment in which I think, “Why do I feel compelled to fit in with this dominant religion? Why can’t I be comfortable to openly and honestly declare myself a proud member of Christ’s original faith?” (Here I share with you something creepy: some Filipinos, on hearing of my religion, ask me to bless them. Eventually I learn to offer them some bread and invite them to say ha’motzi with me.) And here I share with you that I’m not sure of the answer. Maybe we all feel eager to keep our friends in the dominant religious culture comfortable that we Jews pose no threat. Maybe I just really like having a long weekend at Easter.

In any case, the test is not over. When the parishioners begin handing around a box for donations, I grow very red indeed. I’ve left my room with only my door key, ala a shabbos trip to shule, so I have nothing to put in the box. By the look on Sister Bernadette’s face, I can see I’ve fallen from grace.

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