Our November-December Dilemma

As the weather turns colder, American Jews are surrounded by conflicting reminders that we are both part of and separate from American society as a whole.

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Although this article was written a decade ago, its themes still resonate, with the "holiday season" provoking for many American Jews questions about their religious and cultural values and how these fit into the broader society in which they live.

Reprinted with permission from the December 11, 1992, issue of Sh'ma magazine.

My 9-year-old daughter doesn't know "Silent Night," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," or any of the other Christmas carols that were standard December fare in my elementary school years. She attends the local Solomon Schechter Day School, where these songs are naturally omitted from the music program.

jews and christmasI take this to be a good thing, something symbolic of the Jewish identity she has forged. Some day, in another part of her life, perhaps she'll learn them. Perhaps not. But if she does learn them, the baggage attached to their acquisition--if there is any at all--will be different from mine. At age 9, her Jewish identity is her dominant cultural and religious identity.

Yet, when she was younger, she asked more than once about Christmas trees and Santa Claus. While at a mall she sat on Santa's lap. Once she wondered aloud, confused and a bit wistfully, why all her favorite television shows featured Christmas themes in December. And she has mused if she would be happier as a Christian, though I suspect--I hope--this was more experimental than representative of anything substantial. And, not uncommon in our current situation, she has two uncles who married Catholic women and whose children are being raised either as Catholics or who appear to have virtually no religious identity.

Despite a strong Jewish identity, Christmas--and its reminder of a world that we live in the midst of, yet do not entirely belong to--is an inescapably confusing and, I believe, an ines­capably interesting and perhaps compelling reality to her as it is to most American Jews.

Thanksgiving Inclusion

Late autumn and early winter inevitably toss us Jews between the poles of a dialectic, yielding perhaps the strongest contrast found in our American social existence. On the one hand, there's Thanksgiving, with its message of America as a land based on fundamental principles of religious freedom. True, the Pilgrims were Christians who probably would not have approved of a strong Jewish or any other wildly divergent ethnic presence in America. Religious freedom meant religious freedom for them.

But if the Pilgrims were a bit self-centered, it is irrelevant. For the Pilgrims helped lay the groundwork for a society based on democracy and cultural diversity. Or at least so goes our popular myth about them.

When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are observing a moment of high American civil religion that Jews therefore share in common with all Americans. On the fourth Thursday of November we Jews are Americans together with all other Americans. With everyone else, we observe the uniqueness and greatness of our nation against the backdrop of an essentially religious festival that was, after all, roughly patterned on Sukkot [the early-autumn Festival of Booths]. 

At the same time as we are celebrating together, we Americans--particularly those among us who attend the increasingly popular Thanksgiving ecumenical services--use that moment to reflect somberly upon whatever social ills confront us as a nation. In other words, we share in America to the degree that we are able to constructively criticize her in the presence of other Americans who may not share our religious proclivities for the sake of what we do have in common. On this American day of national celebration we might take pause to observe that we celebrate this day under the aegis of the God who has made a covenant with this nation as a whole. My experience of this holiday is always profound, indisputably the equivalent of many other moments in my annual calendar.

Christmas Alienation

Well and good. But no sooner are the turkey bones headed for trash then we are tossed to the opposite end of the dialectic. The green and red lights go up around the neighborhood, across the main streets and at the malls, and the variegated forces of the mass media remind us ad nauseam that we have a moral obligation to spend lots of money in the next month in order to mark the upcoming holiday season properly.

Christmas music starts pouring over the airwaves sending a message of love and joy to all of us. The subliminal message we receive as non­-Christians, I believe, is clear: This glitzy, faintly religious extravaganza of celebration, lights, and fellowship is theirs and not ours.

Yes, it's true we have Hanukkah, whose fortunate arrival as a winter solstice holiday has blessed us with the "American-Jewish Christmas," one of the great acts of psychological self-defense in the annals of world history.

Of course it's not the "Jewish Christ­mas" in any substantive sense. It's a minor holiday in the Jewish pantheon, a nothing yontiff [the Yiddish word for Jewish festival] really, bolstered historically by rabbinic appropriation. In Israel they don't celebrate it as opulently as we do here. Nor did great-great bubbe and zayde back in the shtetl, who may have given some gelt played a bit of dreidel, and lit the menorah, but probably not much more. I know. I myself tell this to people every year.

Hanukkah: Not the Jewish Christmas

But let's face it: In the American open society--that is, in the cultural place in which all Jews live some of the time and in which most Jews live all of the time--Hanukkahsymbolically is exactly what it isn't in reality: The Jewish Christmas, a substitute for what our kids can't have. How many moms and dads have gone into school with dreidlach and latkes, prepared to tell the tale of that tiny cruse of oil? How come we don't typically feel the urge to volunteer this kind of cultural information for our children's non-Jewish schoolmates when Purim or Shavuot are around the corner?

How many of us put up signs, send Hanukkah cards, buy excessive numbers of presents for our kids? Why else would we have multiple parties, give chocolate gelt until it's a gooey mess running down the kids' hands? Last year for this minor festival, I, myself, had no less than seven Hanukka hcelebrations to attend, and I'm not that popular.

And yet, eight nights of presents, gooey chocolate, parties galore, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), etc., even when coupled with a strong, self­-respecting Jewish identity, cannot obscure the fact that at Christmastime we are effectively not active participants in the goings-on. We may have office parties to go to, receive dinner invitations from Gentile friends; we may go to soup kitchens as a (highly) symbolic gesture of support; we may even have a tree and stockings in our homes. Neverthe­less, as much a part of things as we naturally and rightfully felt ourselves to be at Thanksgiving, that's how remote we feel from the center of America when Christmas rolls around.

And that's the dialectic: That this time of year draws us into, then apart from, the center of our society.

Given Thanksgiving, perhaps our psyches can survive intact and healthy the other extreme to which we are tossed one month later.

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Rabbi Philip Cohen holds a PhD from Brandeis University.