A Kosher Christmas (And a Merry Little Hanukkah)

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In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth writes: “God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then he gave Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas’… and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both!… He turns Christmas into a holiday about snow— He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely!… If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” At the time of Roth’s childhood, American Jews were still struggling with what Jonathan Sarna has dubbed the “Christmas Problem”, having no choice other than to participate in Christmas or reject it. But today, events like the travelling comedy concert Jewmongous signal a new era in which Christmas plays a secondary role to the interests of a thriving and self-aware Jewish community. Kung Pao Kosher Comedy — a stand up comedy night on Christmas Eve in a Chinese restaurant in San Franscisco — is a riot of dreidel pinatas, inflatable matzo balls and blue and white streamers, at which Jewish comedians tell risque gags: “When I was a kid, my friends thought I was lucky. ‘Wow, Hanukkah’s eight days, you get eight gifts’. Wrong. My parents would give me one gift and rip it into eight pieces”. After an evening of redeeming laughter the master of ceremonies calls out “See you next year; next year in Jerusalem”.

The story begins in Germany, where photographs from 1850 portray large, affluent Jewish families in front of decorated Christmas trees. The custom spread to Vienna where even Theodore Herzl’s home boasted a Christmas tree, to the shock of the Viennese chief rabbi. (Herzl’s diary entry at the time read, “He seemed upset by the ‘Christian’ custom. Well I will not let myself be pressured! But I don’t mind if they call it the Hanukkah tree — or the winter solstice”). Not to be outdone, Gershon Scholem, esteemed scholar of Jewish mysticism, remembers a festive Christmas Eve in his childhood Berlin home with gifts, a roast goose, Stille Nacht played on the piano and, bizarrely, a Christmas tree with a portrait of Herzl underneath. Scholem recalled the Santa figure: “When I visited my uncle at Hanukkah in one of the war years and asked his daughters who had given them all those beautiful presents, they replied, ‘Our Good Father Hanukkah brought them to us.” Later, The “Hanukkah Maennchen” of 1930s Germany anticipated “Hanukkah Harry” who appeared in America in the late 1980s.

In Eastern Europe, by contrast, few Jews embraced Christmas, fearing it a dangerous time when local Christians were fired up by Jew-hating sermons. This historical anxiety finds expression in a lexicon of evasion; as far back as the 12th century, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz forbade mentioning the name of Jesus, so names like Yoshke, Yoyzl, Yosl Pondrik and Taluy (one who was crucified) came into use. Other folk names, according to Jeffrey Shandler, included a range of derogatory euphemisms for Christmas, and specifically Christmas eve, such as Kratzmach (from kratz, to scratch), Yoyzl’s Nacht (Jesus’ Night), Beyz Gebroynish (evil birthing) and Goyim Nacht (Gentile’s night). The most popular name was Nittel Nacht: possibly from the latin Natalis (birth) — but popularly explained by the acronym Nit Iden Tore Lernen (Jews do not study Torah). Traditional Jews believed that Torah study gave spiritual strength to the world and to engage in it on that night would mix the sacred with the idolatrous and risk acting as merit for Jesus’s soul — corresponding to the notion that Torah study gives respite to the souls of the wicked. Instead, they played cards, particularly a game called in Yiddish “ein und tsvansig” (21), an activity that would have been forbidden on any other night of the year because of its association with gambling. Chess was also a popular Nittel Nacht pursuit, as corroborated by a photograph of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, playing chess in 1937 at a spa in Austria (though the historical validity of this photograph is now questioned by the Chabad-Lubavitch community). Through these customs, Eastern European Jews negotiated their relationship to Jesus and Christmas, thereby helping to deflect their own sense of social vulnerability.

The Christmas traditions of German and Eastern European Jews relocated themselves in stark contrast on American soil. German Jews continued to display Christmas trees in their homes, observing a secular Christmas more, in the words of American Israelite, “from custom, no doubt, than to do homage to the anniversary of Jesus Christ”. Families decorated trees, exchanged gifts, hung wreaths and held social balls, which ambiguously celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah. This positive attitude to Christmas extended to some members of the Reform Rabbinate: Dr Solomon Sonneschein of Temple Share Emeth of St. Louis proposed that not only should Jews celebrate Christmas, but that Hanukkah, too, should always be marked on the 25 December, while Dr Emile G. Hirsch of Chicago’s Zion Temple reportedly encouraged his congregants to observe Christmas as a great holiday and Jesus as a great Jew. Rabbi Louis Witt of Dayton, Ohio, was most fulsome, arguing in 1939 that Christians had become more liberal in their teachings, which accentuated the “universal humanness of Jesus’ teaching rather than a specific religious doctrine”. For Witt, celebrating Christmas meant “meeting the Christian on common ground which is both nobly Christian and nobly Jewish” leading him to conclude “I say then as a Rabbi, thank God for Christmas!” The majority of Reform Rabbis, however, opposed the idea of Jews celebrating Christmas.

Many Eastern European immigrants simply could not fathom the approach to Christmas of their German co-religionists. The historian Ruth Gay, writing about the 1920s and 1930s commented that “It was no more possible for us to have asked our parents for a Christmas tree than to have asked for a suckling pig for dinner”. And yet, the idea of avoiding or rejecting Christmas among the Eastern European Jewish population in New York City was not absolute. On December 25,1904, the New York Tribune, profiling the extent to which recent immigrant Jews had embraced Christmas, reported: “Santa Claus visited the East Side last night, and hardly missed a tenement house”. Over the Christmas period, when most commercial establishments were closed, immigrant Jews frequented entertainment houses, especially in New York, such as Yiddish theatres, dance halls, cafes and vaudeville houses. Plays and movies were shown specifically for Christmas, including The Jew’s Christmas, the story of a rabbi who sells his Torah to buy a Christmas tree for a poor girl. She turns out to be the good rabbi’s estranged granddaughter, and the film ends happily with the family reunited around the Christmas tree. A large delegation of rabbis witnessed the projection of the film and was, surprisingly, satisfied with the story and its treatment of Jewish ceremony and custom. More satirical was S.J. Perelman’s Waiting for Santy, a Depression-era parody of Clifford Odet’s political play Waiting for Lefty. Jewish revolutionary elves in Santa’s workshop lead a revolt on Christmas Eve, incensed by poor working conditions and long hours. The gnomes Riskin and Ruskin mirror Jewish involvement on both sides of the picket line. Riskin is the instigator, casting aspersions at Santa: “A parasite, a leech, a bloodsucker— altogether a five-star nogoodnick!” In response, Ruskin calls Riskin a “Karl Marx”. Riskin aspires to be Santa’s heir by wooing Santa’s daughter but realises that, in doing so, he becomes complicit in Santa’s oppressive behaviour. When Santa becomes ill, he offers Riskin both his own position and his daughter, thereby transforming his future Jewish son-in-law into the boss, the Santa Claus, on Christmas Eve.

By the middle of the 20th century, a new coping strategy had evolved altogether: Hanukkah was rebranded into a festival to rival Christmas. The story of the Maccabees became a symbol of victory against tyranny—of the weak against the strong — an impassioned call to strengthen Jewish identity and community. In the words of the Forward newspaper: “When you get slapped, you turn the other cheek — that’s Christmas. If you’re willing to fight for it, you can win your freedom — that’s Hanukkah.” The Americanisation of Hanukkah dates back to the 1880s, when Rabbi Gustav Gottheil took creative license in translating the most popular Hanukkah song “Ma’oz Tzur.” The seven stanza original appealed to God—the “Rock of Salvation” —toprotectthe Jews from the Greeks and other enemies. As Dianne Ashton points out in her seminal study of Hanukkah songs, Gottheil emphasised the universal spirit of Hanukkah rather than a specific historical event. His message lauded the values of heroism and patriotism. Rather than await the Messiah to take the Hebrews back to their homeland, as expressed in the traditional lyrics, Gottheil referred instead to a messianic age in which people of all religions, races, and creeds would be free to practise their religion. The song title “Rock of Ages” reflected a move away from religion to universal brotherhood, dovetailing the theme of Hanukkah with that of Christmas.

As Hanukkah grew in popularity, American merchandisers produced a line of Hanukkah decorations and games to parallel the commercial wares and decorations offered for sale at Christmas. Alongside traditional gifts such as toys, books and cards containing gelt, a 1925 Morgen Journal speaks of a Hanukkah peanut hunt, a Jewish version of scrabble, and Hanukkah bowling. Mordecai Kaplan, in his classic work Judaism as a Civilisation, called for a pragmatic reformulation of the observance of both Purim and Hanukkah. Because Hanukkah falls close to Christmas on the calendar, Rabbi Kaplan deemed itnecessary to shift the gift-giving tradition from Purim to Hanukkah, making gift-giving endemic to the Hanukkah celebration. Kaplan observed that “Hanukkah… must be made as interesting and joyful for the Jewish child as Christmas is made for the Christian child.”

By the 1940s, Zionism had given Hanukkah a vital injection of relevance; the heroic story of the Maccabbees was brought to life, enacted by Jews fighting for the State of Israel. Chocolate wrappers featuring the latter-day Maccabee Moshe Dayan carried the slogan “Valour against Oppression”, and Barton, the chocolate manufacturer, advertised “a map of Israel, miniature Israeli flags, menorahs.” By the 1950s, American Jewish sociologists were proclaiming that Jews had achieved parity with all Americans. In his influential book Protestant — Catholic—Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Will Herberg considered Judaism to have reached mainstream status because it appeared as if America’s Christians welcomed Jews as equal citizens, evidenced by the fact that Hanukkah was recognized by Americans — Christians and Jew alike — as an American national holiday. Marshall Sklare, in his celebrated study of the population of a midwestern suburban town, a quarter of which was Jewish, concurred with this finding when he said that Hanukkah had become the most popular Jewish holiday in America. “Hanukkah,” in short, he said, “was becoming the Jewish Christmas.”

The beginning of the 21st century has seen a range of new Hanukkah fads. One of the most famous is the Major League Dreidel championship, which first took place at the Knitting Factory, a music venue in Williamsburg. Between spinning bouts, Gods of Fire, a heavy metal band, plays such songs as “The Quest for the Latke Oil” and “Taking the Temple.” Competitors, who adopt pseudonyms such as Spindiana Jones, Goy Wonder, Spinona Ryder, Debbie Does Driedel, and Jewbacca, spin the four-sided top on a now patented and mass-produced board called the “spinogogue.” Specialty Hanukkah novelties have also been created for the Christmas season. For example, a chess set, for sale at J. Levine’s Books and Judaica shop in Manhattan, is called the “December Dilemma.” Christmas figurines comprise the set for one team and Hanukkah figurines comprise the opposing team. Danny Levine, current owner of J. Levine’s, defends the groupings: “The set pits the Christmas tree against the dreidel, Santa Claus against the Israeli flag, the ‘bar mitzvah boy’ against the priest…. They’re multicultural, and they’re not fighting, they’re playing.” Also representative of this new merchandise is a set of three-dimensional wrap-around paper eyeglasses for sale at Jewish bookstores around the United States. The cost of the glasses is nominal at $2 per pair. The miracle of these glasses is that when donned at night they transform Christmas lights into those of six-pointed Stars of David.

Songs have continued to be the predominant arena for Jewish responses to Christmas. Earlier generations of Jewish songwriters penned hits that secularised Christmas into something all Americans could celebrate. Following Berlin’s “White Christmas” in 1942, future years saw “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”(i945), “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949), “Silver Bells” and “Sleigh Ride”(i950) “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” (1958) and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963). Contemporary Jewish songwriters, however, are more likely to emphasise the awkwardness of Jewish responses to the holiday season for comic effect. Some are particularly risque, such as “What I Like About Jew” (by the comedic duo of Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum). “Hanukkah with Monica” turns the intern’s sordid affair with President Bill Clinton into a bawdy holiday romp. The key lyrics rhyme with Hanukkah, and scenes depicting Hanukkah paraphernalia are given sexual overtones. The subtext of this plot — and one reason for its success — relied upon the bad publicity generated from Lewinsky’s Jewishness. “And every day she’s in the news is one more bad day for the Jews. How long must we suffer through the blues?” In their “Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer,” Reuben’s “bulbous Semitic beak” typecasts him as a Jew. In one vein he is a nice Jewish boy version of Cinderella who “cooks blintzes for Blitzen, does Santa’s taxes, and cleans his hooves every week.” He’s also the consummate behind-the-scenes guy who makes Santa’s Christmas enterprise run like clockwork: “He checks the oil, rotates the tires, wraps the presents, and packs the sleigh. He checks the road map, rewinds the Streisand tape, he packs a thermos of consomme.” Santa also depends on Reuben’s stereotypically keen shopping skills: “He gets a separate receipt for the milk and the meat, pays wholesale for toys.” According to Sean Altman, “in Reuben’s mind, of course he would keep separate receipts as he’s an anal retentive mensch, the perfect accountant!”

An even more outre number was presented in a 1999 television episode of Comedy Central’s South Park, entitled “A Lonely Jew on Christmas.” Kyle laments, in language laced with expletives, that Santa Claus bypasses his house, that he must eat kosher latkes instead of ham, and that he has to sing a Hanukkah song (whose title is a gibberish paraphrase of Hebrew) instead of “Silent Night.” An anonymous voice soothes Kyle’s apprehension by pointing out that Hanukkah has none of the undesirable elements of Christmas, such as having to sit on a fake Santa’s lap, being around inebriated family members, and feeling obliged to give to charity.

By using parody to comment on the pervasiveness of Christmas in American society, Jews can advantageously communicate a range of attitudes, from assimilation to cultural pride. The Christmas holiday, these parodies point out, masquerades as a holy day but is actually a commercial ruse to make people believe that giving gifts and spreading good cheer can transform a competitive world into a harmonious one.

As a result of the growing rate of intermarriage between Jews and Christians in America, new seasonal celebrations and traditions have been created, combining Christmas and Hanukkah into one festival. As more classes for interfaith families focus on the commonalities between the two religions, fewer questions will be asked about the differences and, when such questions arise, these will be explained away as relics of historical disagreements. This was taken to its logical conclusion in 1997, when Michael Nathanson, as if announcing a corporate takeover, satirically declared that Christmas and Hanukkah had finally merged. The monetary overhead occasioned by the celebration of two separate holidays, one for twelve days, the other for eight, would be substantially reduced. “By combining forces,” he explained, “the world will be able to enjoy consistently high-quality service during the fifteen days of Chrismukkah.” The combination of terms is purposeful; the t in Christmas is deliberately omitted. The Chrismukkah tradition was continued by the 2003 television series the O.C., in which Seth Cohen finds the hybrid festival a substitute for his intermarried parents’ half-hearted attempt to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. The O.C. website merchandised the Chrismukkah logo, offering a “yarmu-claus,” a fusion of the yarmulke and Santa’s hat, a process taken further by Ron Gompertz’s Chrismukkah.org which sold a “bagel menorah-ment” decoration, a ‘”kris kringle’ yarmulke and “Chrismukkah pareve (neither meat nor milk) egg nog.” One could participate in such activities as “spinning the dreidel under the mistletoe,” playing with ” Bible belt gelt melt,” and displaying a “matso bread house”.

Festivus, a made-for-television ceremony that stemmed from a 1997 Seinfeld television episode called “The Strike,” is a celebration touted as “the festival for the rest-of-us”. During that episode, Frank, the father of George Costanza, explains that when George was a boy, the family celebrated Festivus. Frank reminisces about his family’s involvement with this fictional holiday, and explains to Kramer that he conceived of Festivus after an altercation with a fellow shopper with whom he jostled to grab the one remaining doll they had both coveted. A primary feature of Festivus is the “Airing of Grievances” —a ritual that encourages participants to say what annoys them about each other, while recording these complaints. In an attempt to eschew excess, a pole is substituted for the ubiquitous Christmas tree. The pole is to be made out of aluminum, Frank explains, because of its “strength to weight” ratio, and it should not be decorated with tinsel. In December 21,2004, the Chicago Tribune website compared Chrismukkah and Festivus for their respective levels of popularity. Festivus was declared the overall winner because it is devoid of any religious meaning, and is “ACLU-bulletproof.” “Finally,” the author concluded, Festivus is a “holiday party where you can invite atheists and agnostics.”

Going one step further, in 2004 Virgin Mobile introduced an advertising campaign centered on Chrismahanukwanzakah, a completely blended holiday. Based upon the popularity of the campaign, in 2005, Virgin Mobile declared 13 December the official celebration day for the holiday. The campaign featured a cast of characters, including Hasidic Jewish twins, a Hindu sitar-playing Santa, a gay elf, a Latino angel, an Afro-sporting angel, a pagan caveman, and a Scientologist, singing the anthem “We’re All Snowflakes.” “We figured we would acknowledge everything and celebrate the diversity of it in our own way” said Howard Handler, chief marketing officer. “We just wanted to be festive and bring everyone in — pagans and elves and cavemen. It’s a little bit of, can we all get along? Can everybody just relax and lighten up?”

Adapted from A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, foreword by Jonathan D. Sarna, published in October 2012 by Rutgers University Press, www.akosherchristmas.org

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