Is Chinese food and a movie simply a way for Jews to insulate ourselves from the larger culture? A way in which to make sure that we have an agreed upon way to occupy ourselves while the majority celebrates "their" holiday? For some, that is almost certainly the case, and perhaps that is enough. But perhaps there is more.
Here at B'nai Israel, we also decided to pick up on this theme, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. We're ordering the Chinese Food in for a congregational meal and a movie at the Temple on Christmas Eve, as a communal event after our Kabbalat Shabbat service (call Lynn in our office at 203-336-1858 to register!). I'd thought about doing this after Christmas fell on Shabbat last year. There are times during the year when I join congregants who are going out for a meal after services. Before I get flamed for doing this as a Rabbi, for me this is my way of doing oneg Shabbat - the pleasure of a meal in the company of friends in the congregation. I don't go shopping on Shabbat, but I will sometimes go out for a meal. Last year, after I'd led Shabbat services, a group of us went over to a local Chinese restaurant. Lo and behold, at least 50% of the restaurant was filled with my congregation! (some who'd been to synagogue first, and some who hadn't). I might have doubled my community that night if I'd just started off the night at the restaurant and led services there! So, this year, I thought we'd bring the food to the synagogue, and do two kinds of Jewish in one evening.
Rabbi Hirschfield is exploring the question of whether, to do this kind of thing, means that Jews are, in some way, 'observing' a religious holiday that isn't ours to observe. But, and I think he is right on the button when he suggests:
Perhaps, this American Jewish custom is also a way of acknowledging that here in America, Christmas is "our" holiday too". I am not suggesting that we buy into a theology of Christmas or even of its traditionally Christian practices. I am simply suggesting that like the vast Christian majority among whom Jews live in America, it is a day which reminds us that we can celebrate the fact that others are celebrating. We need not fear that as we once had good reason to. In fact, we can delight in it, and not simply because it is a "day off".
We can celebrate that for the first time in the entire 2000 year history of the Jewish Diaspora the religious and cultural celebrations of others are safe and comfortable for us. We can choose to honor them in any number of ways. We can volunteer our time so that Christians can more easily take the day off, we can take a moment to consider the remarkable and unique beauty of "someone else's" holiday, etc. The list goes on and on, and when Jews do those things, it really is a very Jewish Christmas.
Several of the comments on Rabbi Hirschfield's blog were from Jews who were clearly turned off by what they perceived to be a Rabbi advocating this Jewish 'observance' of Christmas. I don't think that was what he was doing; rather, simply observing what already is the case for many Jewish families. Many times in the Mishnah - the first collection of rabbinic rulings and discussions where early rabbis were trying to figure out how to apply Torah law to the reality of the Jewish community of their day - the advice was given, 'go out and see what the people are doing'. Often this advice was applied when there wasn't an obvious 'right' or 'wrong' to a question of practice - we aren't talking about morality or ethics here. The advice was sometimes applied in a situation where, pragmatically, the Rabbis were looking to understand what the cultural norm in their community was and, where possible, have Jewish practice fit alongside it rather than be set up in opposition to it.
In the case of Christmas in America, I think there is a sense that Jews being together for a meal (whether Chinese or otherwise) is a way of participating in the feel good, coming togetherness of this season. I know that for many in my community, being Jewish is something they are proud of, but at the same time become uncomfortable when being Jewish comes at the cost of having to block out or guard against participation in the dominant culture of which we are a part. And when we are talking about family time, friends going out to dinner together, we are not talking about taking on a religion or belief system that is not ours - we are talking about something much more sociological.
A case in point... a conversation I overheard at a coffeeshop last week among three young Christian women. Apparently at least one of them was going somewhere nice and hot over Christmas. They were looking forward to a non-denominational service of gratitude that would take place around the pool of the resort on Christmas Day, but apparently one member of their party (perhaps a mother, mother-in-law or friend?) didn't feel like they were really doing Christmas unless they went to Church. The three women were expressing their feelings that the meaning of the holiday for them was about family, friends and celebration - the pool felt like a much better place for this than having to get dressed up to go to a strange Church. As one put it, 'I believe in a God who is everywhere... and I certainly feel God's presence on the beach!'
Now, I'm not here to comment on degrees of religiosity or the deeper meaning of Christmas to Christians. Clearly this group of women didn't have Jesus on their mind. But, whatever we may feel about that, they represent a large number of Americans who see Christmas in a very similar way - family, friends, food, celebration and appreciation. And it is that that so many Jewish families are tuning into and doing in their own, uniquely American Jewish ways on Christmas.
At B'nai Israel, we wish everyone a good holiday season, especially to our Christian staff who work in our offices and our building, and to many of our member families who will be helping the Christian members of their family celebrate the holiday. To all the rest, whether it be a Chinese meal or something else - B'tai Avon - Enjoy your meal!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz