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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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.

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Rabbi Philip Cohen holds a PhD from Brandeis University.