Ed Rendell says that when he was mayor he used to wear a suit 364 days a year. The only day he didn’t was Christmas.
Rendell didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday. He’s Jewish. But as mayor of Philadelphia he gained a new appreciation for the holiday through his interactions with regular Philly people.
In the 90s, some of the Philadelphia’s top elected officials and appointed appointed staff were Jews: Rendell and his chief of staff, David L. Cohen; Jonathan Saidel, city controller; Lynne Abraham, district attorney; and David Cohen the councilman.
Now the only current Jews with prominent postions in city government are city controller Alan Butkovitz and Allan Domb. Domb will be the first Jew to hold a City Council position since David Cohen.
Here’s what they told Billy Penn about how they’ve spent the holiday.
Butkovitz says he’s never worked on Christmas. Though his family doesn’t celebrate the holiday, they do spend time together. They used to go to movies but in recent years have been taking it easy.
“We sleep in,” Butkovitz said. “Probably watch ‘A Christmas Story.’ That’s usually on for 24 hours, or ‘The Twilight Zone’ marathon.”
Domb often travels to New Jersey to visit his family for Christmas. This year, he’s up in the air.
While Domb doesn’t have set plans for every year, his deli does. He opened Schlesinger’s in 2010, as a nod to a deli his grandfather owned in New Jersey in the 1930s. Every year around Christmas, Schlesinger’s has the “Seven Fishes of Christmas,” in which the restaurant serves its own rendition of the Italian holiday staple.
Midge Rendell’s family celebrates Christmas, so Rendell started spending the day with them when he and Midge married. Once he became Philadelphia’s mayor, he started to add his own traditions.
Throughout the holiday season, Rendell received numerous baskets of fruit, meats and cheeses as gifts. He didn’t know what to do with so much food. Early in his tenure as mayor, he decided he could share it.
A homeless reception center had just opened around Market Street, Rendell remembered. So on Christmas Eve he gathered all of the baskets together and put them in an SUV. He went to the homeless center and gave away all of it. Rendell started doing it every year.
“They just got a big kick out of it,” he said. “It made me feel really into the holidays, into the spirit of the giving.”
In 1994, as Rendell remembers it, he got a letter from a woman who lived in Germantown. At the time he was living nearby in East Falls. She invited him to a party for her father, who was turning 107 years old and would be celebrating at a banquet hall Christmas afternoon. Rendell couldn’t make the party. He had plans to spend Christmas with Midge’s family. But he notified the woman he would stop by Christmas morning for a quick visit.
“I expected to find someone who was barely more than a vegetable,” Rendell said. “I found an African-American man who was lean and thin and straight as an arrow, with all his mental faculties.”
They started talking about politics and then the man had a request for Rendell. Knowing that the mayor was a major sports fan, he asked him to tell the baseball players and owners who were on strike at the time to set aside their differences and try to make the sport affordable for fans like him.
“I guess you would call that work,” Rendell said, “but it turned out to be a wonderful experience.”