If you end up at a Christmas party this week, take a good look at the Santa Claus. He might be Jewish.
Playing Santa is how Richard Aptekar has a holly, jolly holiday season. The Jewish resident of Burlingame has been donning the gay apparel — and the white beard, hair and eyebrows — for nearly two decades, showing up at private parties, charity events and corporate functions.
You won’t find him at a mall or department store surrounded by hench-elves and squirmy kids. Such overly commercial settings would cramp his unique Santa Claus style.
“I’m a little more lively, even at [age] 70,” Aptekar says of his approach. “The secret is the ability of Santa to listen, to empathize, be kindly, joyful, and relate to each child or adult in a way that makes them feel special.”
Portraying Kris Kringle can really bring in the gelt. Aptekar, who goes by the professional name of Allan Richards, says he averages more than 40 paid Santa gigs every holiday season, most geared toward children, some toward adults.
The latter can result in the occasional red-nosed awkwardness. For example, a few years ago a San Francisco law firm hired Aptekar for its annual holiday party.
“They wanted Santa to go overboard,” he recalls, “a Santa who would come in drunk, disrupt the party and say outrageous things. I said something about ‘None of you guys are going to make partner.’ I danced with the women a little too tightly, dropped my pants and exposed my Christmas tree shorts.”
For youth parties, he brings along a sack full of musical instruments to get the kids up and singing the carols.
“It’s lovely when the children sing along,” he says, choking back tears. “I have had kids make cards that say not what they want, but how they want to help others.”
When it comes to kids, however, Aptekar isn’t entirely ho-ho-ho. He’s also sho-sho-sho — as in shofar. For many years, especially when his own children were in religious school at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, he has blown the shofar for kids at local synagogues and taught them about it.
A trumpet player since he was 9 years old, he also has blown the shofar at High Holy Day services in the handful of places he has lived, including Washington, D.C., Dallas and the Bay Area.
Aptekar has four children of his own, all grown, and three grandchildren (11-month-old triplets). His own childhood was in Detroit, where he grew up the son of a bandleader who provided orchestral accompaniment for big stars coming through town. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were among the luminaries Aptekar met as a youth.
Raised in a Conservative home, Aptekar enjoyed synagogue life as a youth, joining the choir and eventually becoming a cantorial soloist while still in high school. He also did cantorial work at Jewish summer camps in Michigan. He later did a stint as a cub reporter for the Detroit Jewish News.
He left journalism for a 38-year career in marketing, advertising and corporate PR. But Aptekar never lost his love of performing and singing Jewish music. He once served as a cantor on a Holland America cruise to the Caribbean, leading High Holy Days on the high seas.
Aptekar relocated to the Bay Area some 20 years ago, and soon married his love of performing with playing Santa Claus.
The rest is a Christmas miracle.
As for Chanukah miracles, Aptekar sees no problem with a nice Jewish boy from Detroit dressing up as Santa Claus (although the trim senior does need a fake foam stomach to fit the “bowl full of jelly” description).
“This time of the year can be stressful for Jewish kids,” he says. “The only reason Chanukah became a competitive thing was for Jewish kids to have something they could celebrate.”
Aptekar also plays the Easter Bunny, Elvis, the Phantom of the Opera and Uncle Sam, and he officiates at weddings, where he occasionally will throw in some Jewish liturgical music, as well.
But for this time of year, it’s all about the man in the red flannel suit.
“I bring a little cheer,” Aptekar says. “What’s not to like about Santa Claus and Christmas? To make merry: That’s the key.”