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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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  • TheSadducee says:

    This could be considered extremely offensive to Catholics.  It is not acceptable for Jews to participate in the communion part of the Catholic service and this should have been avoided by the author and certainly should not be advertised in a public forum. 

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Reminds me of the Woody Allen film where he, yet again, is in search for the meaning of life, decides to convert to Catholicism. After informing his parents of this, and with his mother running of screaming in the background, he askes his father, ” ….don’t you want to know why … why the Holocaust happened?”  his father replies, “I doesn’t even know how a can opener works.”

    You see, Woody Allen has cornered the market in this sort of humour. Safran is definitely not funny and it escapes me why the ABC gave him a gig,  maybe because of his self-deprivating Jewish routine. And Sibella, don’t quit your day job. 

  • TheSadducee says:


    Are you using your example to try to suggest that the Catholic church was responsible for the Holocaust?  Otherwise I’m not sure what the relevance of it is to this comment piece?

  • Chaim says:

    TheSadducee : I have to agree. I understand the point made and maybe the concept of finding out what Judaism means to you via  a search for other religions (been there done that) but it was disrespectful and mocking of another persons belief.

  • frosh says:

    I think I have read this article differently to those who have commented so far.


    I got the impression that the author took part in the Communion ceremony because she felt it would be too rude or awkward to decline.  I’m not suggesting that I would have done the same, only that it appeared to me that her motivation was specifically to NOT offend her Catholic hosts.


    Furthermore, Catholicism (unlike Judaism) is a proselytizing religion, and so I doubt it would be contrary to their ethos for non-Catholics to participate in their rituals.  


    No, I think the people who will be most offended upon reading this will be the Sibella’s parents who will “need immediate cardiac surgery” once they discover that their daughter took Holy Communion.

  • TheSadducee says:


    There is no problem with people attending Catholic rituals however the Catholic Church certainly has a problem with non-believers receiving their Communion.  (It even has problems with its believers under certain circumstances eg. the current scandal with Rep. Kennedy in the US)  Participation in this particular aspect of the ritual is limited by certain conditions i.e. it is a restricted activity. 

    It is certainly disrepectful and harmful to participate under any circumstance less than direct duress.  The author should have known better to have declined politely – no one is forced to accept Communion and indeed many people who attend the Mass don’t take it.

    I understand where your coming from but in this instance it was plain wrong and its certainly wrong to highlight it on a blog. 

  • nadine says:

    hi sibella, this is a great snipit of your cultural experience.
    <yawn> to the rest of you commenting  here!

  • frosh says:

    Hi Sadducee,

    With regard to “Holy Communion”, I stand corrected. 

    Be that as it may, I’m assuming Sibella was probably not aware of this, and her motivations were as I described.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    No Sadducee, I wasn’t trying to say the that the Catholics are responsible for the Holocaust, although if we really look deep, deep down through history, well, one could argue they had something to do with it. One thing  for sure the then current Pope didn’t go too far out of his way to stop the slaughter.

    But I think it’s you, Sadtucee who have missed the point of the article; Sibella was .. ah, don’t worry about it.

    PS Sibella, I did find your article funny, keep up the good work, but don’t quit your day job; I mean to get a gig, you may have to get burnt at the stake.

  • TheSadducee says:


    I’m not surprised that you wheel out the cliched criticism of Pius XII etc – you seem to me to harbour a deep anti-Catholic prejudice which is both ill-informed and ignorant. 

    I’ve objected to the article because I think its insensitive towards the faith of another group of humanity (regardless of whether its an attempt at humour or not).  Your free to disagree – there is after all no accounting for taste.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    It’s Mr. Herzog to you Saddas, and you are quite right, since my father’s whole family was wiped out in the Holocaust, I do indeed habour some hostility towards the Catholic Church, particularly that even recently Cardinal Pell was promoting Mal Gibson’s (you know how he feels about Jews) provocative Passion of the Christ film.

    Anyhow, I am ending any further communication with you on this one. 

  • TheSadducee says:


    My family suffered in the Holocaust as well – you certainly don’t have a premium on that issue.  Ironically enough, both Catholic and Jewish members of  my family suffered.

    Its best that you end the conversation now – your only confirming your bigotry for everyone to read (i.e. as if Pell speaks for the Catholic church with its 1 billion + adherents…)

  • Sam says:

    It is not likely that readers of this forum will have a lot of sympathy with the revelation that Catholic members of your family also suffered in the holocaust.
    Without meaning to be offensive to any of your family, (past or present), all Jewish holocaust survivors (including my own parents), that I have spoken to,  have made the following point. In Poland after the Nazi invasion, German soldiers were often incapable of determining who was Jewish and therefore enlisted the help of the local Poles who were usually quite eager to point them out.

  • TheSadducee says:


    Thanks for that anecdote although I’m not sure what the point of it was? 

    I guess all the people you met forgot about the Righteous Poles (almost all Catholic) who helped Jews as well at their own personal risk (after 1941 it was a death sentence to assist Jews).  I can only refer you to Yad Vashem for further information.

  • Chaim says:

    I think it is clear that the church failed miserably during the Holocaust in any moral determination but there where clearly a few righteous human beings who despite their ingrained antisemitism or anti-Judaism from being Catholic or European rose up to task and did beautiful and wonderful things.
    A few months ago I met a priest from the Eastern Orthodox church in Ukraine who’s family hid a Jewish family and the father was sent to a concentration camp for this but he miraculously escaped when the train was bombed by the allies. Interestingly the daughter of the Jewish family “coincidentally” met a granddaughter of the non-Jewish family and was able to repay the kindness in some small way 40 years later in the USA in her time of need.

  • TheSadducee says:

    “…there where clearly a few righteous human beings who despite their ingrained antisemitism or anti-Judaism from being Catholic or European…”

    – wow.  That is incredibly offensive and racist to boot. 

    I also can’t necessarily agree with your assertion that the Church failed miserably because it is innaccurate.  They saved hundreds of thousands (more than any other religious group in Europe) and they certainly could have done more, but that is also a charge that can be levelled at the Allied nations as well.

  • Chaim says:

    Totally disagree.  Not racist. Truth can be offensive to those that deceive themselves. Do you not believe there was ingrained antisemitism or anti-Judaism in the Church and in Europe? Have you learnt history?
    Plenty of books on the the church and the Nazis…
    The Catholic Church and the Holocaust
    It helped Jews only to the extent that his efforts did not jeopardize two priorities in their foreign policy: First, judging that the Church’s primary enemy was not Nazism but Communism, the Pope wanted to maintain good ties with Germans and their government so that he could work with them to resist the spread of Communism into Europe. Second, concerned to protect Rome from destruction during the war, he did not want to say anything that might bring down the Luftwaffe‘s bombs upon Vatican City“.
    Pretty much – too little too late and a complete failure of their moral code.
    Again there were righteous Christians from all denominations who saved many Jews.

  • TheSadducee says:

    The moderators can make a call on whether what you said was ok or not. 

    Anyways, I’m out of here before I get sued.

  • Chaim says:

    No problem.
    P.S The allies also failed miserably, particularly the USA.
    What other religious groups where there in Europe around WWII? Catholics made up 50-75% of the population depending on the country and excluding Russia.

  • Zoe says:

    It sometimes hurts to hear what other people think of one’s background, or country of origin (or family’s country of origin) or religion.  Being English born and bred myself, I find criticism of that country sometimes difficult to take.  Being Jewish, I also find criticism of my religion/race/tribal group (however you want to define it) and Israel, at times frustrating and hurtful.  However, there are documented facts that cannot be disputed – Britain has a ‘genteel’ antisemitism and prior and during WWII was, despite taking in some Jewish refugees, unhelpful to say the least and although they knew about the death camps, wouldn’t take action because damaging train tracks, etc would have damaged their war effort. During and post WWII Britain’s behavior in blocking immigration by Jewish refugees to Israel and imprisoning many in Cyprus, was deplorable.  These  are historical facts.  What happened in Poland and the attitude of the mainly Catholic Poles is also well documented.  Pogroms against returning Jews after the end of the war also occurred.  My father-in-law has many anecdotes of growing up in Warsaw and the behavior of Poles to him as a ‘Zhid’ (not sure I’ve spelt that correctly).
    Sometimes we need to take a step back and not take things so personally as usually, they are not meant as personal attacks.  I also have non-Jewish members in my family (Anglican, not Catholic) as my mother converted.  I have an aunt who is antisemitic (she would always make sly comments out of hearing of my father which, as a child, I didn’t really understand).  The nature of people will come out in the end.  The fact that Sadduccee’s family and friends protected Jews at risk of their own lives is highly commendable and extremely brave.  Many Jews here in Melbourne are here only because of that sort of bravery from Polish Catholics.    It doesn’t diminish,  however, the history of the Polish attitude generally to the Jews.

  • Sam says:

    Your points are very well articulated and in my view very accurate as well.
    You say ” The nature of people will come out in the end.”  Absolutely so, and this almost always overides which religious tribe an individual was born into.
    Therefore no group has a monopoly on evil or good, Jews included.
    PS maybe the word you are not sure of sounds like : “Zjid”

  • Zoe says:

    :) I agree with you too in your point(s) above and thanks for the correction on the Polish – my language skills lean more towards latin based languages (failed Russian miserably at school :( ).  Behaving respectfully and considerately towards others (in a good way), of any religion or race etc, gender group is to me the most important thing.
    Have a good one.

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