On December 14, 2012, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, shot 20 children, all under the age of 7, six school staff members and himself, after he shot his mother at her home. 

Where was God?

Last night, I was up until 1:00 a.m. listening to "Hanukkah Lights," a series of fantastic, newly commissioned Hanukkah stories on NPR.  I've been talking about Hanukkah more with my Jewish friends this year than I ever have before.  A few days ago, Aunt Norma posted on her Facebook page a video of a flash mob singing Christmas carols in a mall.  A lot like the video of a flash mob singing the Hallelujah chorus that made the rounds last year, this medley wasn't executed with quite as much technical flair as the Hallelujah chorus was, but I liked it better because they were songs that everybody knew, so there was a lot more audience participation. But someone commented that they wondered if the same enthusiastic audience response would have happened, had someone standing at Orange Julius in the food court "suddenly started singing The Dreidl Song or if an imam started singing from the mezzanine?"

Well first of all, an imam calling people to prayer is not equivalent to singing Christmas carols in the mall, not at all, but I take the point. 

Within a few days of that posted question, the country was called to prayer by an imam, a very young boy, singing verses from the Quran.

I don't think of myself as Christian, not having been brought up in any church, not looking to Christian tradition to tell me where I stand with God. But I supposed I absorbed a WASP-ishness--in the sense of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant--by default, mostly at school and in playing with my friends who belonged to churches. I sang in "Christmas" concerts when I was in elementary school, not  "Holiday" concerts. We had Easter break and Spring break. I was always jealous when the Catholic kids in my class got the morning of Good Friday off school and came back after lunch with ash smudges on their foreheads. I went to stake parties with my Mormon friends and did everything wrong--I wore makeup to the dance and asked for a Coke at the refreshment stand. I was a religious embarrassment at nearly every house of worship in town.

I have eaten my share of latkes and sung The Dreidl Song at friends' holiday parties, but neither do I feel connected to Hanukkah or Judaism in a way that I might use to define myself.  My memories and traditions aren't Jewish.  They are more influenced by the great American consumerism that I grew up with in the 1970s.  I admit, I don't know any Hannukah songs besides The Dreidl Song, but I am willing to learn any holiday music out there and sing the alto parts with gusto, especially if plied with more latkes and other traditional home cooking. I like music, I like learning about other cultures, I love a little nosh . . . What could there possibly be to object to?

Talking with my Jewish friends and listening to stories about Hanukkah got me thinking about the best holiday concert I ever saw and specifically why it was so much better than any other holiday offering I'd seen.  For a while, the community orchestra in Casper, Wyoming, was conducted by Jonathan Shames, who happens to be Jewish.  For his first holiday concert in Casper, he invited his dad, an accomplished cantor in demand at many synagogues up and down the east coast, to come to Wyoming from New York City, sing some Jewish holiday music and tell us a bit about Hanukkah. The Casper Civic Chorale was performing Christmas music with the orchestra, and the stage in the John F. Welsh auditorium was packed with orchestra and chorus members. The piano had to be placed on a platform on the main floor, and Maestro Shames conducted from the audience. So it seemed a little strange that there was a large, though beautiful, menorah front and center in that very crowded space.

Once the chorale finished their numbers, Maestro Shames introduced his dad.  Out from the wings walked this sturdy little man just as merry as he could be, with a big smile, ruddy cheeks, waving broadly to the audience as the stage lights flashed off of his glasses.  I have always wanted a bubbe, a Jewish grandma, but I didn't until that moment realize that I also need a zaide, a Jewish grandpa.  Oh, what a lovely and loveable man!  Together, Mr. Shames and the orchestra performed some traditional Jewish songs, and then he began to tell us about Hanukkah and the tradition of the menorah. 

On December 16, 2012, most of Newtown, Connecticut, many neighboring communities, officials, and even President Obama, gathered for a memorial for those who died in the attack. Leaders of every faith in Newtown spoke and offered prayers.  When it was his turn, Rabbi Shaul Praver stepped forward and said that he would sing the Hebrew memorial prayer. He took a moment to prepare. He seemed to draw from a well inside himself, reluctantly tapping into an emotion that he knew not only in his heart but in his genetic code.  He drew a gathering breath, as though listening for the right moment to add his voice to a song already in progress and never ending. Then he began to sing.  It was a wail. I was startled, both at the beauty of this grief and also that I understood what he sang. I don't speak Hebrew, nor have I suffered a loss comparable to what those people suffered, but I understood what he sang in my bones. I heard it clearer than if I'd comprehended the words. The purest anguish. An elemental, core lament, the cry of generations of parents grieving for massacred children.

When it came time to light the candles, Mr. Shames the elder turned to his son, whom everybody in town knew as "Maestro" or "Dr. Shames." "Jonathan," he said, "Will you light the candle?"  We held our breath as Jonathan lit the match and held the tiny flame to the wick. As the candle started to glow, I think lots of us were a bit surprised to feel renewed faith in the continuation of life that the candle represented. We were touched by the familiar intimacy of that moment between father and son.  All of us in the mostly Christian audience found ourselves bound in that moment, unified in a common family. Our throats thickened and our eyes sparkled with tears as we recognized the significance of this ceremony, even if we weren't versed in Jewish tradition. Something greater than any differences moved us, amplified the sacred already present in each spirit and made us more humble and more beautiful than we'd been a moment before.  It showed us our potential for true grace and gave us a glimpse of the possibility of peace among nations. 

A young boy, not much older than the children who were killed, Muadh Bhavnagarwala, stepped forward to sing some verses from the Quran. When he finished, Jason Graves, a representative of the Al Hedaya Islamic Center, tearfully prayed.  He said, "It is in such times of almost unbearable loss that we seek comfort with our Creator and that artificial divisions of faith fall away to reveal a nation of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, all united in a desire to bring healing and renewed hope."

And when we could breathe again, we had a sing-along of Christmas songs that everybody knows, led with great joy and enthusiasm by Cantor Shames. Then it was over. We left the concert hall, hearts overflowing with the meaning of the Christmas season illustrated so beautifully for us by a Jewish man and his son.

                Shalom           As-salamu alaykum             Peace