Jonathan Sale & Charlotte Cohn in HANDLE WITH CARE �doug denoff

Christmas miracles are an end-of-December entertainment staple. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life has been jerking tears since 1946, and similar fare is available from perennial animated specials to well-roasted theatrical holiday chestnuts. It’s not just about the winter solstice or snow, nor is it simply about the birth of Jesus. (As devout Christians will tell you, Christmas is a minor holiday – Easter is the real deal for miracles.) The Christmas miracle is about feeling miserable until some seemingly supernatural event makes you run out into the street and the snow shouting “I want to live!”

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to come from a non-Christian tradition during this time of year, especially one that has had little exposure to the madness of “the Holidays.” What does a person who grew up in East or South Asia and immigrated to the U.S. think as they stroll through the thronged holiday markets watching men and women, adults and children buying up more and less expensive trinkets? Do they feel left out? It seems likely that all of humanity might enjoy an expansion of the Christmas miracle franchise, but can it be done without the Christmas?

OK, that was a transparently rhetorical question. Of course it can be done without the Christmas; that’s why I said Jesus wasn’t necessary in the paragraph above! And so Handle With Care takes the holiday premise and expands it to those Jews most likely to think Christmas miracles are crazy: Israelis.

Because Judaism in the Middle East has had less exposure to Western Christmas traditions derived from a pagan winter solstice “festival of lights,” a born and bred Israeli, whose canon of major holidays may not include Hanukkah, might think American Christmases with Santa and Bing Crosby and fake snow in all the department store display windows strange the same way someone might in Jakarta or Delhi. The average temperature in Jerusalem in January (barring a recent, rare blizzard) is nearly 60 degrees. With weather like that why bother obsessing over a little light in the darkness?

Bearing this premise in mind, prepare to laugh as cultural lines are crossed. Ayalet (Charlotte Cohn), an Israeli woman in her late twenties or early thirties, is distraught when her safta Edna (Carol Lawrence) dies while they are touring backwoods Virginia on Christmas Eve. To make matters worse the parcel delivery guy (who works for “DHX”) lost the coffin holding safta’s earthly remains postmarked for Jerusalem. The DHX driver Terry (Sheffield Chastain) is also pretty distraught. He left the keys to his van in the ignition when he stopped to get gas and load up on coffee and snacks, and some ne’re-do-well stole it with the coffin in the back.

Terry calls his friend Josh (Jonathan Sale) to come translate for him because — you guessed it — Josh is the only Jew Terry knows. Josh is recovering from the untimely death of his wife, and when he discovers he’s been called on Christmas Eve to translate Hebrew just as a blizzard is bearing down on Virginia, he goes ballistic. The roads become impassable, one thing leads to another, and Ayelet and Josh are forced to spend the night together in Ayelet’s hotel room.

If that weren’t coincidental enough, it turns out Edna planned her and her granddaughter’s first trip to the US because an American man she met as a teenager lives in Virginia. They fell in love when he visited Israel after World War II, and though their love was quashed by her father, they stayed in touch. After Edna’s husband (Ayelet’s grandfather) died, Edna resolved to find her first love. Sadly, this man passed to the great hereafter three months prior to their visit. How do we know this? Because that man is Josh’s grandfather!

Exodus 34: 7 tells us the Lord visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” Does the Lord also mend broken hearts of mothers and grandmothers to the third and fourth generations? If He does, the most appropriate vehicle for such a miracle would be on Christmas Eve, in a blizzard, in exurban Virginia.

The story, told in flashbacks, is heartwarming. Ayelet speaks mostly in Hebrew when she’s around American characters, which drew laughter from much of the audience at the Westside Theatre, and Sheffield Chastain’s Terry is a rustic rube right out of a Terence comedy. Ayelet’s scenes with Josh are genuinely funny in the style typical of romantic comedy. Edna’s scenes with Ayelet are sweet and sentimental without being too treacly. All in all, Handle With Care is very enjoyable Festivus (for the rest of us!) entertainment.

Handle With Care

at The Westside Theatre Downstairs

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