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.
In Germany, 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 andTaluy (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”, 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.
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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