It might seem odd, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn celebrating Christmas Spirit, but believe me, getting to this point has been a lifelong journey. It was not until after I was transplanted to California and entered junior high school, when I took my first step. I was now living in a place where I represented a religious minority, and for me, the Christmas season was a very lonely time. The 1950s was a period where children played outside and during Christmas my friends stayed indoors with their families.
Yet television was becoming filled with interesting programming and even with 13 channels, three special Christmas movies were aired nonstop throughout the month of December. As I watched “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and “Miracle on 34th Street” many times, their stories shaped my early impressions of Christmas. Yet, I did not fully understand their messages until years later.
Then as a young man in the early 1960s, I met and fell in love with my future bride Pam, and we were looking to get married. Finding a clergy member to marry us was a challenge, as Pam was brought up Catholic and I am Jewish. Finally, we were introduced to a unique person, Rabbi Hershberg, who had also earned a doctorate in religion from UCLA. He was conducting services for a Jewish congregation in the San Fernando Valley, and as the nearby Methodist Church was lacking a pastor, he helped by conducting Sunday services for them as well. He counselled Pam and I before our wedding date, and I remember asking him if he found it difficult conducting services at both the temple and the church? I remember he answered me in a typical Jewish philosophical way, by using a question in return, when he asked: Is it not true that God is everywhere?
Then, just a few years later, Pam and I moved our young family to the Santa Clarita Valley, and were soon followed by Pam’s younger brother Pat and his wife Phyllis, who purchased a house just down the street. I do not recall what initiated our discussions, but we spent many an evening talking about the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism, realizing both were derived from a single philosophy of life and belief in the almighty.
Yet another shoe was going to drop, expanding my knowledge of the world. Fast forward to 2014, I was engaged in a City Council campaign when I was introduced to another candidate, Moazzem Choudhury. We immediately struck up a friendship and learned a great deal from each other. He took the time to introduce me to members of the American-Bangladesh community and invited me to their yearly gathering in Los Angeles. Moazzem is a member of the Islamic faith and made me aware of the “Unity Center,” his Mosque in Newhall. When he suggested I attend an open house, I will admit, at first, I was apprehensive. The only thing I knew about Islam was from watching Shia and Sunni at war with each other on the evening news. Since then, I have been invited to the mosque several times, to participate in breaking of the Ramadan fast. I have always been greeted with smiling faces and have gained the understanding: We share common values.
But a major epiphany waited for an additional two years. It was at a City Council candidate debate, held at the Islamic Community Center on Sierra Highway, when a candidate for office started his talk by announcing to the audience, “Shalom Aleichem” (peace be upon you), and that got my undivided attention. When the debate concluded, I approached an individual I knew to be knowledgeable about the Islamic faith and asked him: Does Shalom Aleichem mean the same thing in Arabic as it does in Hebrew? His answer came in the same philosophical way I heard so many years before, by asking me questions in return: “Why does that surprise you?” he replied. Didn’t both our faiths originate in the Middle East?
All of which brought me to understand, we are all more alike than different, and while those three old and wonderful movies may have been set in a Christian setting, they are sending a message to us all. In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens is telling us to review our lives, admit to ourselves where we had faulted, and realize it is never too late to change. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” main character George Bailey was highly successful in helping others live in Bedford Falls. But, like most successful people, he wanted more, because that is what makes successful people successful in the first place. When a financial problem caused George to think about giving up, “Clarence” helps him realize just how his life helped shape the lives of others, and how everyone would suffer without him. Lastly, “Miracle on 34th Street” teaches us having faith will help us traverse any speed bump that may block our path, because, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
Remembering these important lessons is the Christmas Spirit I celebrate every year. You may never buy a house and find a cane leaning against the fireplace or be visited by three spirits to help you reorganize your life, but I bet you will smile every time a bell rings, when you remember another angel just earned their wings.
So along with “Tiny Tim,” I wish you a merry Christmas and happy holidays. “God bless us, everyone.”
Alan Ferdman is a Santa Clarita resident and a member of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee board.