Jews and Christmas have a long and storied history. Notably documented by “Saturday Night Live” in a 2005 TV Funhouse cartoon, “Christmastime for the Jews,” Dec. 25 is an annual period of possibility for many Jewish people.
While savory Chinese spreads, trips to the theater and cozy activities are traditional markings of the Yuletide day, for several Steel City Jewish residents Navidad is another night, or day, of labor.
Avital Isenberg, an occupational therapist at Forbes Hospital, habitually spends the holiday at work. “I’ve been at my job for six years and have always done it,” said the Squirrel Hill native.
Mylynda Massart, a family practitioner with UPMC, said that she “of course” will be working this Christmas. “I want the Jewish holidays off so it seems only natural that I would cover my partners’ holidays that are important to them.”
It is a sentiment shared by Brian Goldwasser, medical director of Pittsburgh’s Lung Institute.
“There are times when I need to be off and we want someone to cover for us; it’s sort of payback,” he said.
But apart from the desire to reciprocate religious kindnesses between faith-based individuals, treating Christmas like any other day offers something more for many Jews.
With so many people away from work, “it’s the best time to get to know all of your other Jewish colleagues in the hospital,” said Benjamin Zussman, a neurosurgery resident and endovascular fellow at UPMC.
For the past five years, while others have rightfully retreated, Zussman has gladly ambled the hospital floors. Yet, even as a medical student — when the school calendar granted him days away — Zussman eagerly arrived each Christmas Day.
“It was a perfect time to scrub in on cases,” he said. “If the residents were off, you got to do more because it was less crowded in the OR.”
Along with Christmas, the days before and after are similarly spent in service, said several Jewish workers.
Eisenberg, like her husband who is a pharmacist at Allegheny General Hospital, more than willingly tacks on extra tasks during the holiday season. “We’re happy to help out,” she said.
But with many individuals deservedly departing during the latter half of the last month, staffs are sometimes stretched, said the professionals.
Goldwasser, a Sabbath-observant individual, recalls the seasonal span during his residency.
The holidays were split into 10 days with residents given either five-day blocks off for Christmas or five-day slots for New Year’s, he said. “We would work the whole 10 days straight. It was sort of the deal with being shomer Shabbos.”
Although he may not need to this year, Eisenberg’s husband has taken double shifts during Christmas or around the holidays to ease the workload, the occupational therapist said.
“I have covered for non-Jews in the past,” said Rob Davis, medical director of Wesley Family Services. “I respect their holiday.”
Lest anyone praise Davis for his selflessness or sacrifice, the western Pennsylvanian psychiatrist was quite clear that providing coverage on Christmas was far from burdensome. “I do it with pleasure, it’s not a hardship at all. The worst thing it will do for me is interrupt a movie.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz