Santa Was a Mensch

This was a short piece my wife, Melissa Crabbe, and I co-authored back in early 2008, just a few months after our newly adopted kids had arrived.


It’s based on actual events. A version of this story appeared that year in Jewish Currents magazine. Melissa and I wrote the piece together even though it is in first person singular in my voice. 

*  *  *

I remember the first time I was in the mall in early December with our newly adopted children, Hunter and Clarice, ages 5 and 7. After years in foster care, they had come to us eight months earlier. Overnight they went from never having known any Jews to becoming a rabbi’s kids. And though they had already come to think of our synagogue as a second home, there were still things from their former life that they found comforting, things my wife and I hadn’t quite decided how to handle. Like mall Santa.

The kids spotted him as we walked past the cinema. Suddenly I was a rabbi whose kids wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.

We had already talked to them about how we don’t celebrate Christmas, and they had seemingly accepted that. They were intrigued by “Hanukkah Harry” who, we said, brought Jewish kids Hanukkah gifts and belonged to the same union as Santa.

“How does he get the presents to all the kids at Hanukkah?” my daughter had asked.

“How does he get them the presents?” I replied, not understanding the thrust of the question at first.

“Yeah daddy. Santa has a flying sleigh. What does Hanukkah Harry use?”

“Yes, Dad,” my beloved spouse added a bit archly. I don’t know that she ever was entirely down with my Hanukkah Harry gambit. Maybe at first, but I kept adding elements to an ever more vivid portrait of Harry. He’d become an unshaven, working-class retired Brooklyn native with thick glasses. He drank instant coffee out of a thermos and wore plaid pants. And his secret base of operations and gift distribution was in Boca Raton. “Tell the kids how Hanukkah Harry gets all those gifts to Jewish children around the world.”

“He, uh, he has a magical old Buick,” I said. “He drives it around everywhere and I can’t explain how that works exactly because I don’t understand the magic.”

Back in present time at the mall, Hanukkah Harry was of no help to me. The kids faces were lit up with hope and anticipation as the line for Santa grew. They clearly wanted Santa.

As a rabbi in a smallish community, I was worried that some random congregants might spot me ushering my children up to Santa, and then I’d have endless explaining to do. I hesitated for several moments, weighing my options and scanning the atrium for any familiar faces. “God help me,” I thought, and I pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt and got all of us in line.

At last it was their turn. “What would you two like for Christmas?” Santa asked, as he took them on his lap.

“Well, actually, we’re Jewish,” Clarice said. “We don’t celebrate Christmas.”

I didn’t see that coming, and Santa seemed to be at a loss.

“Happy Hanukkah,” he finally said.

“We were just adopted, and our forever family is Jewish. My dad’s a rabbi. He says you know Hanukkah Harry,” Clarice continued.

“Dat dad ober dere,” Hunter said, pointing to me.

“Well,” Santa said slowly. “Actually, I am friends with Hanukkah Harry.” Hunter raised his eyebrows in amazement, and I quickly wished I could somehow slip Santa a twenty and a thank you note. But then Santa drew the kids closer. “You know, I’m so glad you’ve been adopted and are learning about new traditions and holidays with your new family. And just so you know, if you ever need to, you can always come back and talk to me. And meanwhile, I’ll tell Hanukkah Harry you said hello.”

And then my two kids got off Santa’s lap, smiling, having asked for nothing.


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