Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmas-time is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus. In a limited sense, this title is bestowed on Jewish volunteers who act generously, very much like Santa Claus would. More commonly, this description refers to Jews who volunteer to wear Santa garb and act in character. A Massachusetts Needham Times newspaper article refers to the performance of these two aspects of Santa’s persona: “Santa takes on different forms. For the needy in Needham this year, as with every other year, Santa is more than one person.”
The Patriot Ledger newspaper of Quincy, Massachusetts, portrays the Lamb family as acting Santa-like when volunteering: “The Lamb family has no experience playing Santa Claus,” the Ledger writes. “But it doesn’t take long for the Jewish foursome to spread Christmas cheer. In little more than an hour, Susan, Paul, and their two daughters completed what has become their personal holiday tradition, delivering hot dinners and warm wishes to elderly people alone in their homes.”
Beginning in 1969 and ending in 1996, Albert Rosen of Milwaukee volunteered annually to replace workers on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. After a chance encounter with a man who bemoaned that he had to work on Christmas, Rosen called a local radio station and asked the disc jockey to announce that “a Jewish man wanted to work for a Christian on Christmas.” Rosen, substituting for Christian strangers at work, performed their duties on Christmas. He volunteered as a police dispatcher, bellman, switchboard operator, television reporter, chef, convenience store clerk, radio disc jockey, and gas station attendant. To be most productive, he trained for each position in advance of Christmas. While not directly referred to as Santa, an Associated Press story dubbed Albert Rosen a “Jewish elf,” as if he were one of Santa’s helpers.
Albert Rosen was eulogized on December 2, 1998, as acting “Christ-like” because of what he did for others. His story served as inspiration because Wesley Davis, an African American friend of Rosen’s, took his place several weeks later to fulfill a promise Al had made to answer telephones at a home for the blind on Christmas Day. “Al would have wanted that,” said Davis.
A celebrated case of acting like Santa Claus was the response of Aaron Feuerstein, the Jewish owner of the large textile factory Malden Mills in Methuen, Massachusetts. His factory burned to the ground in 1995, two weeks before Christmas. Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue to pay salaries to and health benefits for his twenty-five hundred employees until partial production resumed at the mill. He also gave them Christmas bonuses. When asked where he obtained strength and inspiration after the devastation, Feuerstein cited an ancient Jewish quotation that served as his motto: “When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch.”
For his exemplary efforts, Feuerstein was labeled by the news media as the “Mensch who saved Christmas” for his employees.
In addition to Jews acting generously like Santa, some have donned Santa outfits and played the role of Santa at retail businesses, hospitals, shelters, and private homes. Beginning with the middle decades of the twentieth century, the Jewish-owned Brickman’s Department Store in the small community of Vineyard Haven on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts began to invite people to serve as Santa during the Christmas season. At that time, Brickman’s was the only store on the island to sport a Santa Claus for children to visit during the month of December. Dorothy Brickman, the daughter of the store’s founders, explained that her family felt it a civic duty to have a Santa represented in town.
One year, Bernie Issokson, a friend of the Brickman family and a Jewish resident of the island, dressed up as Santa Claus. According to Dorothy, Bernie agreed to dress up as Santa on the very same day that his wife and daughter were attending a Hanukkah party at the only synagogue on Martha’s Vineyard. Upon reaching his home, the Jewish Santa Claus discovered that he had forgotten his key and was locked out of his house. He knocked on the door of an elderly neighbor who had made it clear on previous occasions that he did not like living next to a Jewish family.
Having answered the knock at his door, the neighbor did not recognize Bernie dressed up as Santa Claus until he identified himself. From that moment on, the two neighbors were on friendly terms. In this small way, a small town Jew dressed as Santa helped to promote good Christian-Jewish relationships.
The main motivations for playing the role of Santa are to make children happy and to spread holiday cheer and goodwill. Harvey Katz, a Glastonbury, Connecticut, lawyer enjoyed dressing up as Santa Claus. In the early 1900s, Harvey’s parents were the first Jewish residents to settle in Glastonbury, a town historically identified with New England farmers. Harvey’s parents opened Katz’s Hardware Store on Main Street. Eventually, Harvey became a lawyer with a wellrespected legal practice in town. He became the first Jewish member of a local bank’s board of trustees. As a gesture of goodwill, every year during the 1970s and 1980s, Harvey dressed up as Santa Claus for one afternoon and spread good cheer throughout the bank because of, as he explained, “his love for kids and creating a joyous mood during the holiday season.”
Toward the end of his life, comedian Alan King satirically described his encounter with a Yiddish-speaking Santa Claus at the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justifies to Alan King his “ho-ho-ho” get-up by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn” – a man has to make a living. A paycheck, however, is not the main reason Jews volunteer to dress up as Santa. Jews who act out the part of Santa do so for altruistic reasons, some for evoking pleasure and others because Christmas was part of their holiday celebration growing up. For people raised from childhood with a Santa tradition, the transition to playing Santa Claus in public may be a natural progression. A 1978 Los Angeles Times article “Memoirs of a Jewish Santa” reported the story of a man named Jay Frankston who dressed up as Santa Claus in New York for twelve years, from 1960 to 1972. His decision to put on Santa’s clothing came after an experience in 1958 of decorating a Christmas tree with his family. For two successive years he played Santa for his Jewish children. The Santa outfit gave Frankston a joyous persona. Wearing a mask, complete with whiskers and flowing white hair, the Santa outfit, buttressed by inflatable pillows, transformed him into “a child’s dream of Saint Nick.” “My posture changed,” he admitted. “I leaned back and pushed out my false stomach, my head tilted to the side, and my voice got deeper and richer: ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE.’”
Jay so enjoyed dressing up as Santa that he volunteered to answer letters sent to Santa Claus that were deposited at the main post office in New York City. He discovered that its third floor was swamped with letters addressed to Santa Claus at the North Pole. He responded to eight of the letters he had read and spent $150 of his own money to send telegrams to each of the eight children. The telegrams announced that Santa was answering their wishes and would deliver the gifts personally. And so he did. By 1972, Jay was reading ten thousand letters and bringing gifts to 150 children each Christmas. Publicity about Frankston’s good deeds attracted donations, which he then passed on to charitable organizations to use at Christmastime. Echoing the sentiments of many Jews who have become involved in bringing cheer to others on Christmas, Frankston admitted that Christmas belonged to him and had brought him much happiness through his charity.
This article is excerpted from Joshua Eli Plaut’s new book A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press. $22.95).