Friday, December 23, 2022

The True Meaning of Christmas, for Jews


Christmas and Chanukah decorations in Berlin

(Photo credit: Leonhard Lenz December 11, 2020

What is the true meaning of Christmas?

This question is the topic of numerous holiday sermons around the world. To sincere Christians, the materialism of the shopping season undermines Christmas, so the devout shift their focus to the spiritual message of the holiday. But for American Jews, Christmas has a very different meaning, complicated by history and demographics.

In medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing for Jews. During the rest of the year, the Jews were an embattled minority; on Christmas, they were absolute pariahs. The Chaumont Christmas play of the 1200s depicts Jews as true devils, and antisemitic attacks often occurred in and around Christmas. For example, blood libels took place on or around Christmas in Fulda, Germany in 1235, in Judenberg, Austria in 1312, and in Le Puy, France in 1321, and a steady stream of Christmas related riots and pogroms continued through the Middle Ages.

Jews responded to this outpouring of hatred with bitterness. In Yiddish, Christmas Eve is known as “Nittel Nacht,” which is derived from the medieval Latin "Natale Domini." On Nittel Nacht, many Jews would play cards instead of studying Torah. This custom is intended as a spiritual boycott of Christmas, a way of preventing one’s Torah study on that day from inadvertently being considered a spiritual merit for the founder of Christianity in the divine court above.

The United States is the polar opposite of medieval Europe and has by and large been a true refuge from antisemitism. But Jews found that being accepted into a largely Christian society created new tensions. The public celebrations of Christmas, which were commonplace in schools and town halls until the 40s and 50s, challenged Jews to find inventive new ways to fit in. Janice L. Booker recalls the customs of Jewish public-school students in 1930’s Philadelphia: “Anunwritten, unspoken agreement among the Jewish kids was that when we sang the carols, lustily and with pleasure, we kept our lips sealed when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned. To my knowledge, no parent ever asked for this, and no one discussed it; it just was.” How can you be Jewish and sing a Christmas carol? Just cut out part of the lyrics.

This “solution,” which is neither here nor there, epitomizes the uneasiness and uncertainty many Jews have felt about Christmas. In 1958, the United Synagogue Commission on Education published a pamphlet entitled "Our December Dilemma," about the social pressure that Jewish children feel during the holidays. Written by Rabbi Abraham Karp, a leading Conservative rabbi, it included a set of scenarios that Jewish children in public schools might confront during the holiday season and advised the students how to politely avoid being drawn into school Christmas celebrations.

Karp’s answers are rooted in a discomfort with Christmas that has profound theological roots. Medieval rabbis debated whether or not Christianity is considered to be idolatry; if it were categorized as such, it would, among other things, forbid Jews from selling holiday supplies to Christians before Christmas. And while a consensus later emerged to consider Christianity as monotheistic, many held certain restrictions in place. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that schools should not close on Christmas or even for the following week, because that would acknowledge Christmas as a holiday. He even advised people to avoid making weddings and Bar Mitzvahs on Christmas Eve. (Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling has changed the school schedule of many day schools, which now have a “Yeshiva break” in the winter.)

For most American Jews, the December Dilemma is not just about theology. Jews at Christmas feel like an uninvited guest at a party, the man stuck outside in the cold pressing his face against the window. Hanukkah has become the Jewish Christmas with plentiful presents; and, many Jews embraced the Hanukkah Bush, essentially a Christmas tree repackaged with a Hebrew wrapper. (The Maccabees, warriors against Hellenism, would not have been amused). In 1895, even after publishing The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl had a Christmas tree in his home. In his diary, he records that a prominent rabbi, Moritz Gudemann, came to visit, and expressed criticism of the tree. Herzl responded, “I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when Gudemann arrived. 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 Hanukah tree— or the winter solstice.”

The “Hanukkah Bush” became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century among assimilated Jews. But even more traditional Jews still find the siren song of Christmas too difficult to resist. Cindy Chupack proclaimed in a 2006 article in The New York Times that she decided to celebrate Christmas because she was overwhelmed by a desire for Christmas Decorations and Stocking Stuffers, mainstays of a holiday virtually every other American celebrates. Chupack reminds us that the December dilemma is actually a year-round dilemma: How will Jews maintain their identity in the face of a seductive and embracing culture? Ironically, a religious tradition that has heroically triumphed over persecution and oppression is finding it ever more difficult to overcome acceptance and tolerance.

The “December Dilemma” belongs most to Jews who take the middle road. Deeply Orthodox Jews find no need to concern themselves with someone else’s holiday; some even continue the custom of “Nittel Nacht,” treating 21st century America like medieval Europe. More liberal Jews increasingly accommodate Christmas; a 2013 survey found that 32% of American Jews have a Christmas tree. It is those, who, to use the words of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, are “a part of the world, while at the same time standing apart from the world,” who must consider how they will respond to Christmas, and what direction they will give their children during this time. I believe that there are two lessons that Jews need to remember over Christmas. The first is darkei shalom, ways of peace. This is a Talmudic principle that Jews are required to embrace their responsibility to the larger community, and to treat everyone with kindness and friendship; one can even put aside certain halakhic prescriptions to do so. I believe that the obligation of darkei shalom is even more significant today, in 21st century America.

American Jews must be grateful that we live in an era like no other in Jewish history, where they are fully embraced as citizens, and have taken leading roles in this country. And we should share that gratitude with others. In an article in the New York Times several years ago, several Jewish professionals explained that they cover extra shifts on Christmas and New Year’s to enable their colleagues to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who was at the time director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that“although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off…. he always works. 'That just infuses good will,' he said.”

Good will, or darkei shalom, is something precious. And for Jews who live in peace in countries that practice the ways of peace, good will is certainly part of “the true meaning of Christmas.” The second lesson, which takes the concept of darkei shalom a step further, is Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name. As Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, living in the Diaspora offers Jews daily opportunities to be a light unto the nations. Each day, Jews can sanctify God’s name with acts of kindness. And there’s no better time for this than Christmas.

Rabbi Berel Wein tells a powerful story he heard from an editor at the Detroit Free Press. During the Great Depression, the editor’s mother, a recently arrived Irish woman, got her first job as a housekeeper with a prominent Orthodox Jewish family. The family went away on vacation, leaving behind their new housekeeper; they were due to return on December 24th. The housekeeper, who had never met any Jews before, decided to make sure that her employer’s home was set up properly for Christmas, so she went out and bought a Christmas tree and decorated the home from top to bottom. Arriving home, the family was stunned by what they saw. What would their friends think? The father, however, responded differently. He took the new housekeeper aside, and in a gentle voice said to her: "In my whole life, no one has ever done such a beautiful thing for me as you did." He then took out a $100 bill, a remarkable sum at the time, and gave it to the housekeeper. Only later did he sit down and explain to her that Jews do not observe Christmas. The Jewish man’s dignity and kindness made such an impression, that the housekeeper’s son continued to tell the story forty years later.

This is what Christmas can teach us about being Jewish. During the holiday season, Jews can dedicate themselves to helping others, like the elderly Holocaust survivor I knew who each Christmas would distribute blankets to the homeless. We can do small acts of kindness and charity for those in need. And maybe, if Jews rediscover their mission of being a light unto the nations, Christmas lights will not be a challenge, but rather an opportunity.

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