Every year I’ve lived in New York, I’ve routinely spent my last December night in the city in the same way—in front of the Big Tree. The Rockefeller Christmas Tree serves as a holiday magnet to millions from all over the world and I am unashamedly one of them. The idea of this tree and what it symbolizes has taken up space in so many of our heads since we were young but for my generation, the idea of the Big Tree means something very specific: it’s where Kevin and his mom find one another in Home Alone 2. It’s a moment of perfect cinematic Christmas magic—an empty Rockefeller Plaza, Kevin standing alone in front of its lights, John Williams’ sweeping music filling the air and the loving embrace of a mother and her son—it’s iconic for us 90s kids. I will go so far as to say for many of us, it singlehandedly shaped our perceptions of what it is to be in New York at Christmas.
So like Kevin, I’ve found my way to the Big Tree every year on the night before I leave for the holiday. It’s become a part of my personal tradition and once I’m there, I stand alone for a few minutes, the music from Home Alone 2 playing in my ears and a prayer being written in my heart. I thank God for the year that’s been, for the people I love, and for the fact that I get to stand in front of the Big Tree in a city I love so much. Of course, I’m never actually alone there—I stand in the crowd with thousands—but the moment is only mine, and it’s something I look forward to every December.
This year, however, was different.
My flight to Dallas crept up on me and halfway through my workday yesterday, I realized my to-do list was far longer than it should’ve been. Something inside of me was shouting that I needed to get home so I wouldn’t leave the city feeling like Kevin’s mom in Home Alone—like I’ve forgotten something. Getting to my subway station, every train was extremely delayed and I grew impatient with the wait. Usually I’d just bury myself in whatever book I’m reading but today, I had no time for literature. I had things to do. Making the decision to throw some money at the problem, I started walking up Broadway with the intention of hopping into a cab. I walked a few blocks and stopped, waiting on the curb for an available taxi to drive by but that cab never materialized. So I kept walking and tried again a few blocks later. No luck.
There’s very little I love more than wandering through New York when the weather is cold. It’s clarifying and calming and with each step, I leave a little more of my day behind. I wound up walking all the way to Lincoln Center, no cabs in sight, when I heard music from some loud speakers over the sound of the Christmas music playing in my earbuds. Ever curious, I walked toward the sound and discovered an outdoor service for Hanukkah was about to start.
It was the seventh night of Hanukkah—a holiday I’ve never celebrated since I’m not Jewish—and people were gathered to light a large menorah in the square. Standing off to the side, I turned off my headphones and realized the music being played was a techno remix of “The Dreidel Song.” Clearly this service wasn’t going to be like anything I’d seen in Fiddler on the Roof and as such, I needed to stick around.
When I was young, I perceived Jewishness to be about as opposite to the Christianity I knew as anything could be. Truth be told, I never even met a Jewish person until I moved to New York. But since then, I’ve been to friends’ Seder dinner and I’ve learned so much about their culture and the beauty of their faith. Still, I’d never to an actual Hanukkah service. As the rabbi took the microphone, he welcomed those who were members of their community as well as those of us who were not and began to speak about how thankful he was to also live in a country where he could openly practice Judaism. He encouraged us to not take for granted our ability to gather publicly and celebrate together. He went on to say how thankful he was to also live in a city that not only allows them to meet in public spaces but that actively encourages them to do so. His words were reminiscent of the gratitude I’d heard from the pulpit in my Bible Belt church when I was young. We may have been of different faiths but the gratitude was the same.
Interestingly, on three separate occasions this week, someone—either in-person or on television—has said to me, “Jesus was Jewish.” Each time I heard it, it resonated loudly inside of me like the thud of a book dropping on an empty cathedral floor. Each time, it landed with a thud in my spirit. It’s not like this was brand new information, of course I knew Jesus was Jewish, but this week, it’s been coming at me with a repetition that isn’t coincidental. I don’t believe in coincidences anyway.
In much of Christianity, Jesus’ Jewishness is merely a part of his backstory, a plot point in the Passover denouement of his human story arch, but the truth of the matter is that Jesus was as identifiably Jewish and I was identifiably Pentecostal. His heritage and the traditions of his upbringing were as pronounced as mine are. Today’s religious establishments have Jesus and Jewishness separated by a deep chasm, but standing in the square tonight listening to the rabbi speak, I couldn’t help but feel a connection that bridged that divide. As a matter of fact, it’s not the first time I’ve felt that bridge.
To date, I only have one tattoo. It’s not that I regret doing it or that my decision was impulsive, therefore I only have the one. No, I’d actually wanted this particular tattoo for more than a decade. It was my go-to answer to the “If you ever got a tattoo, what would it be?” question and one day, sitting at my desk at work, I decided to make an appointment to finally get it. The tattoo is of the word “Shabach,” written in Hebrew, and it’s on the inside of my right wrist.
Me and this word go back to the seventh grade. The first drama I ever directed as a part of the fine arts program at my church had to do with the seven ways to praise God, one of which was shabach, which means to shout or to praise. In the drama with music, we outlined the seven ways to praise God and illustrated them. It was fairly amateur but it was the start of what would be a decade creating art with my friends at church, writing and dancing and singing. Through it all, the concept of shabach never left me. It popped up in dramas, in sermons, our youth choir even sang a song about it. To quote Plus One, the gospel boy band we Super-Christian kids danced along to around the turn of the millennium, it became written on my heart. As such, once I was older, I knew I wanted it imprinted on my wrist as well.
You see, the real reason I only have the one tattoo is because it’s the only thing thus far that’s had the sort of forever meaning in my life. It keeps coming up in one way or another. That it happens to be a Hebrew word from long before Jesus came onto the scene was coincidental, but again, I don’t believe in coincidences. (It also stands to be mentioned I checked with four websites and one Hebrew scholar before sending it to the tattoo artist because the last thing I wanted was to wind up with the Hebrew word for cow or diarrhea tattooed on me by mistake.)
As the rabbi continued to speak, he said, “The real meaning of Hanukkah is to say that a little bit of light can expel the darkness.” I felt that thud in my spirit again. The message of this holiday wasn’t all the different from the message of Jesus at Christmas—that the light will expel the darkness. I was transported back into my earliest memories from church singing, “This Little Light of Mine.” It’s a song so engrained into my spirit, I’m sure it was sung to me long before I was coherent enough to sing along and there’s a very real chance it was the first song I ever learned in my life.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Looking at the menorah in the square, it felt like that song was coming to life in front of my eyes. The rabbi continued, “There’s always darkness in our world and while we may feel like there’s far more of it today, it’s always there. But we have the light to expel that darkness.”
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.
He said we should shine our light brightly and boldly in a dark world which made me think about the word tattooed on my wrist. I was reminded that when you’re shouting, you’re putting everything you have into that moment. You’re fully in it and fully feeling it. Shouting is a bold verbal release of feeling. In My Fair Lady, my favorite part is at the Ascot games when Eliza shouts, “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!” She completely lets go of who she’s trying to be and is, for a moment, free. With all the feeling she can muster, she shouts at that horse to pick up the pace and by doing so, she changes the atmosphere around her.
Similarly, שָׁבַח—shabach—stands as a promise to myself to do the same. Today, I will praise and today, I will put everything I have into this moment to shine brightly. Tomorrow, same story. I will live my life full of the umph God gave me to fling out into the world. In our school song at Baylor, “The Baylor Line,” we say we will “fling our green and gold afar.” That’s always been my favorite line. Besides painting the mental image of slinging green and gold fireworks out of our hands like Jubilee from the X-Men, it means boldly proclaiming the spirit of our university wherever I go. Just like what we do when we shabach.
I’m often asked on the subway if I’m Jewish when someone sees the Hebrew text on my wrist and I tend to respond by saying, “No, I’m not, but the word shabach has meant a lot to me since I was young.” Sometimes they ask the follow-up about that meaning, sometimes they don’t, but I love when they do. Then, I get to tell them about living life boldly, authentically and with feeling. I’ve found that in that moment, our differences are bridged—we become people connected like two strands from the same braid—and I’ve been told on more than one occasion, “Well, Jesus was Jewish so I think that’s cool.” That same feeling of connectedness despite our different systems of belief seemed to extend to everyone present in Lincoln Square last night as well.
As the rabbi began to light the candles on the menorah, another member of their community offered up traditional Jewish blessings over the microphone. He sang in Hebrew, his voice echoing out through the square, and all those who’d gathered sang along. Once the candles were lit, the techno remixes of traditional Jewish songs began again and I watched as dozens of New Yorkers danced together. Not only did they sing and dance, but they shared trays of baked goods with both each other and anyone who passed by. “Happy Hanukkah!” they shouted, handing out donuts and latkes and inviting every passerby to join with them in celebrating the light that has the power to expel the darkness. I’m not sure it gets any more beautiful than that.
So this year, I didn’t find my way to the Big Tree on my last night in the city before Christmas. Rather, I found myself a part of something even more beautiful. Standing in the crowd, in a moment that was only mine, I thanked God for the year that’s been, for the people I love, and for the fact that I can still be surprised and profoundly moved when I least expect it. As I made my way through the crowd to leave, a cab pulled up as if it were waiting just for me. It may not have been eight nights of oil, but it was nonetheless a Hanukkah miracle.