Monday, December 20, 2010

Have a Jewish Christmas?

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, at, wrote a fascinating blog piece last week entitled, 'What's a Jewish Christmas?'  Actually, I found myself mostly fascinated by some of the comments it elicited; I found myself largely in tune with the questions and observations raised by the article itself.  It begins by noting that a restaurant in Philadelphia is promoting 'A Very Jewish Christmas' on December 25th, with two evening sittings for an Asian-inspired meal while movies are playing on their flat-screen TVs.  Rabbi Hirschfield asks the question:
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


  1. I have heard Brad speak about making a motzi over food eaten in a non-Kosher restaurant (that is, one without official, rabbinic certification), and have discussed this matter with my own children on various occasions when we have found ourselves eating a tuna sandwich in a venue that they call "not-K." Brad often suggests a fresh perspective on the issue of living Jewishly in the world, and I am grateful for his insights. I had missed his blog post, so thanks for commenting on it and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Great article! You probably knew I'd want to put my 2 cents in on this one.
    We call Dec. 25th "Our Day" in our family. Why? Because it's like a sci fi movie where the world has stopped. We could run down the streets in our bathing suits and no one would notice!
    As I child, it was easy to feel left out. As an adult, I absolutely love it. I especially love it when there is nothing planned. No telemarketers calling, I could soak in a bath all day and delight in seeing a movie.
    In a Pavlov reflex type of way, I almost crave chinese food and a movie on Dec. 24 and 25th. I saw one of my favorite movies of all time on a Dec 24th one year way back when my brother took me to see Superman 1 (the original). My brother was old enough to drive by then but he spent many years feeling left out.
    And then when I met my husband we enjoyed trying to see the latest Woody Allen if there was one out at the time that year. We saw Bullets over Broadway one year together...such a nice time. Everyone in line was pretty much Heeb. Easy taxi's and parking everywhere though!
    But, as a parent the 25th has evolved. I have certain rules left over from a childhood of having siblings that felt "left out" of the whole 2 days.
    1. Always have a full tank of gas. (Even if the gas stations are opened...why risk it and why bring up how hard it is to get gas and drive around aimlessly?)
    2. Always have a plan...again many people I've talked to who have issues with everything being closed when they were kids remember their parents fighting in the car over nowhere to go. Have a plan.
    3. Hotels: Everyone seems to forget that hotels and their restaurants are OPENED. It's not just chinese food and movies. Some resorts have indoor play areas and many restaurants to choose from. Just make sure you call ahead. We will be going to the local indoor Waterpark for the day!
    (continued on next post)

  3. Continued:

    4. My own personal rule is not to go to someone's house only Christmas celebration. This is something that our parents sometime did. The house we went to was a great family much like the old TV show Eight Is Enough or The Brady Bunch...BUT it most certainly made my sibs and I feel left out when they ripped into millions of presents left by Santa.
    Why do I have all these rules? I'm the only one in my family (siblings) without a Christmas tree. None of them go to church, their spouses all celebrated but it all seemed cultural. I really feel like they all felt left out. We all had Christmas Tree Envy.

    I ended up a little different and have often wondered why and then it came to me. It happened year after my siblings had all left the house (they're all much older than me).

    My mother who had been a widow was dating a man who was not jewish. He was kind of gloomy on Christmas day one year and drinking a little too much. I ran out into our yard with joy, gathered a large pine tree branch and decorated it with cat toys and popcorn string and paper chains. I put it in a pot and brought it to him.

    We didn't have a very good relationship and I know that I did this for myself and not for him. He kind of liked it but after it was over I didn't feel left out anymore. I saw someone who was sad at Christmas time which I hadn't seen when we went to the "Eight is Enough" house.

    It was out of my system (not so for my 3 older siblings).

    And now I like to donate and volunteer during this time.

    5. We always donate for Christmas and our kids send a letter to Santa letting him know that they don't need his presents. This way instead of just telling them that Santa won't come to their house because they are jewish, they are in power of making the decision not to celebrate Christmas just because Santa will come to their house.

  4. (Continued)
    Also, when they are jewish adults (around the time or right after their bar/bat mitzvahs I plan on taking them to a Church during Christmas so we can all see what the holiday is really about.

    Americans celebrate Thanksgiving together and Independance day...

    The cultural aspects of the day (Dec. 25th) have always bothered me a little because we are jewish and we celebrate Halloween, Valentines Day and even St. Patricks day for the kids and culture of being American. I don't believe in Halloween or ghosts and goblins but we want to feel part of the culture of America.

    Christmas is the one holiday I just won't participate in. But, there are other ways to feel american on this holiday. Volunteering and also pointing out ALL of the other Americans who do not celebrate it are great ways.

    There is Eid, Kwanzza and Ramadan among so many of the holidays that are not Christmas. All of these holidays is what makes America great!

    6. I always point out that New Years Eve is a holiday that all of America celebrates. And we get two New Years as jews as bonus! ;)

    When we have holiday parties at school, I like to do a count down with bubble wrap. The kids get noise makers and count down from 10. When we hit O we yell Happy New Year and stomp on the bubble wrap!

    On Saturday Night LIve there a hilarious cartoon music video called "Christmas time for the jews" They "own" NYC for the night and have a blast going to movies and eating chinese food.

    There's another song (I'll see if I can find it) that was on the Shalom TV Network about a guy who is jewish so he goes to movies and chinese restaurants on Dec. 24-5th.

    Rabbie Rachel-if we weren't doing this event at the temple we would be going to another movie and eating chinese. We're looking forward to celebrating Shabbat with a great community of people. THANK YOU. You are making great memories for jewish youth who will never feel left out or un-american. They will remember a night of Shabbat, that's a great memory for a day in late December!

    Heidi Gassel

  5. As a non-observant Christian in a very happy interfaith marriage, my own feeling about this topic is there is much hand wringing and fretting about Christmas. I can understand some of it, but some of it I can't. I think it'd be great if everyone was a little more relaxed about it. For example, why not say "Merry Christmas" to someone you know who celebrates? I say "Happy Chanukah" to those I know who celebrate that holiday and I think it's ok to acknowledge other faith's celebrations without impinging on one's own faith. For me, it's ok to participate in other holidays if I am invited to someone's home. Simplistic? Maybe. I just think less division and more inclusion is a good thing.

  6. Regarding "Anonymous", I think the "hand wringing" and fretting (what there is of it) we're talking about here has nothing to do with how we respond to others... just how we ourselves respond to the Christmas holiday. When I say "Happy Holidays" it's because I don't know the faith of the recipient of my greeting, and I don't want to inadvertently offend. That's just being polite. I don't have a problem at all saying "Merry Christmas" to someone that I happen to know is Christian, and it's certainly not impinging on *my* faith.

  7. I am so glad to see such interesting discussion about this - I wrote about our own families journey here:

    I will be posting again soon on the intersection between Jewish concerns about assimilation and why Christmas pushes our buttons much more than Thanksgiving or Chanukah.

    Happy holidays everyone!

  8. Great article and I agree wholeheartedly. But I do want to take you for task for your comment that those women "didn't have Jesus on their mind." I don;t think any of us are in a position to comment on any other person's understanding of their religion, its practice, rituals, observance, faith, dogma, etc. Just as you are suggesting we can do with Judaism, so can these women do with Christianity. From what I have learned about Jesus (and remember I'm a Jew who has a theology degree from a nominally Xtian Divinity School) I think he wouldn't have any issue with the interpretation of these women on how to celebrate his birthday.

  9. To Heidi, I empathise; I, too, used to have a bathing suit like that!

    I was brought up in an orthodox community in Scotland. But my aunt had a fruit shop just a short distance away and for a few years we had a Xmas tree with tinsel on it. The cat made good use of it.

    When I married and we had children we brought them up in an orthodox community. We did not have Xmas trees but we did let out children participate in the ritual of presents by letting them hang their stockings over the bed and we filled them with small items (they only had small feet) like a Clementine, a carrot, sweets, etc. They did not believe in Santa, they believed in their parents. So they had to make-believe in Santa.

    We all had a lot of fun.

    What harm did it do?
    Well, my daughter became a Rabbi.
    You be the judge.

  10. How about a “Tree of Lights”?

    I apologize for the long blog comment. I didn’t realize that I had so much to say until I started writing.

    This is the first year I brought a holiday tree into my Jewish home. It’s a small, living pine about a foot high with small pinecones and white lights dotting its branches. If it survives the winter, I can plant it in the ground and add more life to the universe. For full enjoyment, it’s prominently placed on top of the entertainment armoire in our family room. Did I “wimp out” - giving into some secular, commercial indulgence - or revisit and tap into joy and connection?

    I grew up in a garden apartment outside of NYC. Being a secular Jew on the Catholic side of town was both a blessing and a curse. My family was adamantly, culturally Jewish – which basically meant : we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Passover with the obligatory foods (pot roast, matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish and kugel) and fasted on Yom Kippur. We did not eat milk and meat together (passed down from generation to generation of Ashkenazi mothers) nor did we have Christmas trees in our home. As a child (and well into my twenties), I shared Christmas with my Catholic and Christian friends in their homes.

    Our apartment was next door to the Harolds - Edie, Dicky, Jimmy & Richie. From the time I could walk, my holiday memories (as well as many others) were sharing this season with the Harolds. Jimmy and Richie were a year off in age from my younger sister Jill and me, and very much like brothers to us. During Chanukah, they came to our apartment to light candles, eat my mom’s unrivaled latkes and matzoh ball soup, and exchange presents. On Christmas Eve, my sister and I would wait for the Harolds to return from midnight mass. Too excited to sleep, we were sure we heard Santa’s sleighbells and reindeer. Even when I was too old to truly believe in Santa, I still listened for the bells and waited until 6:00 a.m. Christmas morning to rush over to Jimmy and Richie’s apartment to open presents. I have a photo of my mom and Edie in robes with eyes and bodies hunched over a cup of coffee watching the four of us in pajamas by their tree.

    When I was 8 years old, my father remarried a Protestant woman and we spent every other Christmas with my dad and his wife’s family. My sister and I were put to work stringing popcorn and cranberries for the tree and unwrapping delicate ornaments of angels and bells. On Christmas morning we drove to the house of my father’s wife’s parents. Stockings (including ones for me and Jill) lined the roaring fire and piles of presents were placed before each of us. It may have been excessive to celebrate Chanukah and Christmas but truly they were some of my happiest childhood memories.

  11. By the time I became a teenager, Christian friends would come to my house for Chanukah and mom’s latkes. For Christmas, I would hop from friend’s house to friend’s house to bake cookies, decorate trees and visit with their families on Christmas day. Nowadays my Catholic and Christian friends are busy with their own children and extended families. There’s hardly any room for “extra” company so in recent years I’ve found that “Christmas envy” is more than just my children’s longing.

    I still bake holiday cookies with my thirteen year old son but my husband and I have always been clear that our home is a Jewish home. And a Jewish home doesn’t have trees or strings of lights. So, for a couple of decades I’ve been deprived of the Christmas pleasures that filled my childhood. I (like many American Jews) felt that bringing Christmas decorations into my own home would be “anti-Jewish”- maybe even sacrilegious.

    To console myself (or maybe to find some “excuses” to celebrate), I started to ponder the origins of Christmas – both religious and secular - and came up with the following conclusions: 1) Trees and lights predate Christianity and Judaism when pagans celebrated the winter solstice and movement towards longer days; 2) I can celebrate the birth of Jesus as a great Jewish teacher and spiritual peacemaker (in my opinion); 3) I can celebrate the music and season as a free-thinking, carefree American and Jew with the mindset: “Never instead of, always in addition to”; 5) A small tree and lights inside my house does not represent my religious affiliation or practices; and 6) Honoring someone else’s tradition or holiday seems like a beautiful gesture of community, love and appreciation.

    I’m in the middle of reading Ariel Sabar’s book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. Sabar gives an account of his father’s childhood home in Kurdish Iraq where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived as neighbors and “friends” in an isolated mountain region.

    “Seclusion bred fraternity…In important ways, they were Kurds first and Muslims, Christians, or Jews second. Muslims sent Jews bread and milk as gifts after Passover. They ate matzoh, which they called “holiday bread,” as a delicacy. They sent their Jewish neighbors hot tea during the Sabbath, when Jews were forbidden to light fires. Some Muslims even asked the synagogue keeper to wake them early in the days before Yom Kippur: They viewed early rising on Jewish days of penitence as bringing good luck. And the Jews paid back the respect, forgoing cigarettes, for instance, during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims may not smoke.”

    So I “rationalized” and celebrated this year with music, cookies and a small, glowing tree that I’ve been calling either a “Tree of Light” (in honor of Chanukah, “the Festival of Lights”) or a “Solstice Sapling” (in honor of the Solstice and earth). Maybe if I had waited until Tu B’shevat it would be more “kosher” to buy a tree. But one of my New Year’s resolutions is to bring more joy into my life and the lives of others so why put it off for another day or season? With my little tree, I feel like I’m bringing some light (literally and figuratively) into the darkest days of winter and certainly into the heart of the little girl in me. Whether I spend Christmas with my Jewish or Christian friends, I still appreciate the beauty and warmth, joy and connection many of us feel at this time of year.

    Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season and New Year!