Christmas, Salmon, and Jewish Continuity
I’ve been annoyed since Christmas.
Cindy Chupack, the executive producer of “Sex in the City”, is Jewish. And last Christmas, in an article in the New York Times, she declared that she was celebrating Christmas.
Chupack blames the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for her heterodoxy. Overwhelmed by a desire for Christmas Decorations, Stocking Stuffers and Gingerbread Houses, Chupack surrendered to the temptations of kitsch.
Now, I have nothing against gingerbread houses. What disturbed me deeply about the article was the assumption that being Jewish was about having fun.
Chupack repeats the mantra of her childhood: “eight nights is better than one.” Child after child was urged to observe Chanukah instead of Christmas, because Chanukah has more nights, and more gifts. In other words, Chanukah, and Judaism, is more fun.
Actually, the “fun theory” of Judaism is quite widespread. It can be found in multiple books, touting Jewish practice as a multi-purpose tonic, useful for family dysfunction, financial success, and even sexual prowess.
The “fun theory” of Judaism also has deep roots. Maimonides explains the kosher laws as health regulations, topping off his discussion by noting that that Jews don’t eat pigs, because they are unhealthy, dirty animals.
But Maimonides and the “fun theory” are wrong. In fact, Chupack’s article unintentionally unravels the fun theory of Judaism. What if pig is healthy? What if Christmas is more fun? Isn’t Judaism about the fun?
No, it isn’t. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Jewish History knows that Jews didn’t always have fun being Jewish. Yet we remained Jews because it was, and is, the right thing to do. Indeed, the Torah explains that God chose Abraham in order “that he may command his children…after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, and do righteousness and justice”.
Too often, we employ “fun theory” types of projects in the service of Jewish continuity. A fashionable and fun event for young Jews is organized without a shred of authentic Judaic content. As laudable as the intent behind these projects is, we need to realize that good fashion will not sustain Judaism. No matter how fashionable a Jewish project may be, there’s always a Pottery Barn catalogue about to arrive with even more fashionable Christmas decorations.
With materialism eroding our spiritual values, and assimilation pressuring a minority community like ours, fun theory is futile. I believe that the answer to Jewish continuity is found in the salmon.
Yes, I said salmon. Why? Because salmon instinctively swim upstream. We need to learn from the salmon that continuity is a difficult, upstream battle. And we need recognize that only an authentic Jewish instinct for justice and spirituality will sustain the Jewish people.
We don’t need better Chanukah decorations to ensure Jewish continuity. Rather, what our community really needs is a greater emphasis on Jewish content and practice, and a few good salmon, willing to swim upstream.