HOLIDAYS DECEMBER 19, 2013
As December came around this year, I received an email from a Jewish organization. “Some of us may be bracing for a month full of Christmas envy,” it cautioned, “and it’s easy to understand why. Christmas is everywhere, from the aisles of our local drugstores to the playlists of our favorite radio stations.” The email warned against a “plan to spend the next month staring longingly through neighbors’ windows at their tinsel-decked trees."
I was befuddled. Christmas envy? Christians should envy me. December 25 is one of my favorite days of the year. I don’t have to work. I eat a fun ethnic meal (the cliché is true: It’s sometimes Chinese). I see a movie. And I celebrate my own heritage: Being Jewish on Christmas is like having one’s Jewishness traced in bright, red-and-green ink.
Part of my love for Christmas is based on the same aesthetics that everyone else likes about the holiday. The seasonal/pagan elements are undeniably beguiling: I cherish the culmination of fall, the smell of pine, and the snow; and even I cannot help but associate them with Christmas. I love the songs—many of which, anyway, were composed by Jews. I enjoy glad tidings as much as the next person, whatever their theological origin. On Christmas Day, the streets are pretty, and empty, and when I find myself in the suburbs, parking is a breeze. (Closed businesses are only a minor inconvenience, I’ve found, and anyway Starbucks tend to be open until 4 p.m.)
Christmas is, in other words, a fête for the Jews, too. This seems obvious when you think about it. But in recent years all the hoopla over Christmas’ actual meaning—and the concomitant hoopla over the coastal elites’ alleged top-secret crusade to drain Christmas of said meaning—masks the fact that Christmas is also a holiday for the coastal elites. In other words: Jews like me! In fact, it’s more: to borrow from the liturgy of Passover, this day off is different from all other days off. Unlike Thanksgiving, there is no exhausting obligation to spend time with family. Unlike the three-day weekends, it is unlikely to be annexed by a wedding. And unlike New Year’s Eve, there’s no feeling of obligatory raucousness. You can just not work or go to school, and instead hang out with your friends. And if it happens not to turn out the way you want? Unlike a Christian, you probably won’t spend the next month in agony over whether or not you’re a loser from a dysfunctional family.
It’s the holiday equivalent of found money. And since you will likely be around only other Jews, you can do things like compare Jewish Christmas to “found money.”
In recent years, young Jews have taken it to the next level. We do not just gather on Christmas Eve; we have singles nights, which in a given city will typically be known as—should I tell you this?—The Matzo Ball. In terms of food, we have grown more adventurous. Brooklyn’s Mile End deli will be making its own Chinese food for the fourth year running. Many Jews move beyond the Szechuan beef our parents fed us to Thai, Indian, and Korean dishes. For the past two Christmases, I’ve enjoyed lamb-fat skewers and lagman, staples of Central Asian Jewry, at a kosher place on Bukharian Broadway in Queens. I would bet it is superior to the yuletide lo mein my mother ate in the New Jersey of her childhood.
Am I treating the question of Jewish Christmas with insufficient gravity? Those in the Jewish community who worry about buzzwords like “assimilation” and “continuity” would certainly say so. A landmark Pew Research survey released this past October showed that the 90 percent of American Jewry which isn’t Orthodox is, in a sense, less Jewish than ever before. Just 19 percent say “observing Jewish law” is an “essential” part of being Jewish. Some 34 percent of American Jews feel that one may be Jewish even if one believes that Jesus is the Messiah. No surprise, then, that, according to the survey, 32 percent have a Christmas tree. American Jewry is in crisis, worried Jews would say, and Christmas is a crucial inflection point. (The “Christmas envy” email I received recommended celebrating the Sabbath as a palliative.) To the anxious, treating Christmas merrily is another brick on the path to erasing the distinction between secular Jew and secular Gentile.
I think that logic is wrong. There’s one country with a substantial Jewish population where Christmas is something much more banal: Israel. The organization that sent me that “Christmas envy” email is related to Birthright, a program that every year ferries tens of thousands of Jews on free trips throughout the Jewish state. From an Israeli perspective—the perspective of a state designed to give Jews the ability to be like everyone else—it is a triumph that December 25 is just another Wednesday. But is taking that approach to December 25 in New York, Montreal, or Buenos Aires the best way to feel Jewish? Spoiler alert: I am not Israeli, and so I don’t think so.
My most memorable Christmas was when I was 15 and my family was vacationing in Italy. On Christmas Eve, we dutifully trotted over to one of the few open restaurants in Rome. Da Giggetto serves local fare, but it was open on Christmas, a fact likely related to its being located in what used to be the ghetto.
The symbolism of our Roman Christmas dinner was nearly as troubling as it is obvious. Unlike the Easter story, Christmas has never been used as theological justification for anti-Semitism. But doctrinal details did not get in the way of, say, the 1881 Warsaw Pogrom, which began on Christmas. Rabbis of old even fashioned a minor Christmas Eve holiday called Nittel Nacht, on which one was to do practically anything but study Torah, partly for fear of attracting violence. Meanwhile, ghettos like the one my family was dining in had been official mechanisms of anti-Semitic discrimination and violence. They were crimes against the Jewish people, and they presaged even worse crimes. There is something disturbing about my fetishizing the indelible satisfaction of feeling separated from society on Christmas. And yet it was a marvelous night.
Persecution and the ghetto are a part of what made Jews Jewish. They are part of why our religion became portable, why our rabbis became wise, why our thinkers became radical, why our people developed wonderful values. And those values have stuck. That same Pew survey found 94 percent of American Jews professing pride in their Jewishness, and sizable proportions associating Jewishness with “leading an ethical life,” “being intellectually curious,” “having a good sense of humor,” and “working for justice/equality.”
So what I’m dreaming of is a truly Jewish Christmas, a day on which most American Jews never feel more Jewish, and never understand more clearly why their Jewishness is important to them. A day on which we derive more enjoyment—schep more naches, if you will—from standing apart than from blending in; from being unconventional, not conventional. Helpfully, unlike living in ghettos, Christmas is voluntary and, as the saying goes, only comes once a year.
For American Jews, Christmas is a day to wallow in difference without being threatened. At its worst, such an identity-holiday can be a theme-park ride, a shallow and consumerist experience—which, ironically, is exactly what many devout Christians fear the day has become. But with a little work, it can be much more meaningful. As American Jews recline in their seats at the cinema, awaiting the previews, mourning their decision to eat those extra two egg rolls, they can find themselves reflecting not just on the fact of their difference, but on the substance of it, and what about it they treasure. It’s almost religious.