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Ho, Ho, Ho! This Santa Claus is an Orthodox Jew

Rick Rosenthal, a professional, year-round Santa who is Jewish,  in the traditional outfit. Photo courtesy of Rosenthal.

By BEN SALES
NEW YORK CITY (JTA) – Just like any other Santa Claus, Santa Rick will spend much of the next couple of weeks sitting children on his knee, asking whether they’ve been good and listening to their Christmas wishes. But, if it’s a Saturday, he may have slept overnight in the building. And he’ll only accept payment after nightfall.

For Santa Rick’s last name is Rosenthal, and he’s an Orthodox Jew who does not drive or handle money on Shabbat. But that doesn’t stop him from doing his job.

Sees No Contradiction
“I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t help a child,” said Rosenthal, 66, who lives in Atlanta and attends Young Israel of Toco Hills. “If you look at the world as children do, that’s a better feeling. I’m a better person and a better Jew because I’m Santa.”

Rosenthal—a full-time, professional Santa—sees no contradiction between serving as the symbol of Christmas and living as an observant Jew. To him, Santa is a nonreligious spiritual figure who provides trust, reassurance and comfort to the young and old.

A Mitzvah
He says that anyone who is inclined to criticize him for working as a Santa should consider ways they help non-Jews observe holidays—like working a shift on Christmas when Christians take the day off.

“As a Jew, we are to be a light unto the world,” Rosenthal said, paraphrasing a famous Jewish aphorism from the Bible. “That’s one of our jobs. If we can help make people’s lives better, we should do that. It’s a mitzvah. If we can ease tensions between Jews and non-Jews, we can do that.”

Rosenthal began playing Santa at age 16 as a gag. He would dress up and hang mini bagels on his non-Jewish friends’ Christmas trees. He occasionally played the part in subsequent decades.

Full-time Gig
But he became a full-time Santa seven years ago when two things happened: First, his parents passed away within two weeks of each other, which led him to grow out his beard, a custom of the traditional Jewish 30-day mourning period after a parent’s death. Soon after he was shopping at Home Depot when he noticed that a boy was staring at him transfixed, sure that he was Santa Claus.

“I knew what he was thinking and I said, ‘Don’t tell anyone you saw Santa buying tools for the elves at Home Depot,’” he said.

Since then, Rosenthal has become Santa year-round. He and his wife, Tracy, run a Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, that hosts three-day weekend seminars on how to be Santa. The school covers everything from fashioning a good costume to making sure you have legal and insurance protection.

The couple also runs the National Santa Agency, which books a network of 100 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves for private parties and events. Rosenthal is a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

While his busy season obviously is Christmastime, Rosenthal says there’s business all 12 months. He’ll go to schools, birthday parties, senior homes and trade shows. He did a gig this year in Hong Kong.

Rosenthal looks the part. He has a bushy beard, oblong glasses and several Santa suits—including a golf suit (he says his game is unbeatable) and a red-and-white, full-body Santa swimsuit. He curls his mustache every day and uses three kinds of conditioner on his hair and beard. His demeanor, for lack of a better word, is jolly.

Recognition
Part of what he loves about being Santa, Rosenthal says, is that Santa has been called the second-most recognizable figure in the world—after Jesus. He said that sometimes patients with Alzheimer’s will recognize him even when they can’t recognize their own spouses.

“It is incredibly humbling because people are in awe of you,” he said. “They’re intimate with you, they tell you really funny stuff, they tell you horrible stuff, and they do that because you’ve known them since they were born. You’ve known their parents since they were born.”

His wife says that even when he’s not in the suit, Rosenthal will wear a red shirt—and frequently be mobbed by kids. Because she doesn’t dress the part of Santa’s wife, Tracy says she will usually keep her distance so kids don’t “think Santa’s stepping out on Mrs. Claus.”

“From a personal perspective, we never are able to go out anywhere in public where he is not recognized as Santa,” she said.

Rosenthal says the job can be taxing sbecause he must be open to all human emotions. He says he cries often after talking with people, and recalls a painful time when a little boy sat on his lap and asked for a small trampoline for Christmas for his dead brother. “I have to be jolly; I have to get rid of it,” he said of the job’s emotional burdens.

“But one thing that has not been a challenge, he says, is being a Jew playing Santa. He makes it clear that he’s not a Christian minister or even St. Nicholas.  “Santa is an American cultural thing,” he said. “When I’m Santa, I’m Santa. I’m a spiritual guy who believes in the world being a better place.”

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