Being Jewish on Christmas
by Esther D. Kustanowitz
(published December 2011 at JewishBoston.com, as part of their Brief Guide To Christmas For The Perplexed)
The revelry, the songbook, the lights, the presents, lying to children about where presents come from…it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Some people love it, and Jews living in multifaith families feel the compulsion to include both Chanukah and Christmas. But many American Jews feel assaulted by the tropes, tones and expectations of Christmas. So here are a few ideas – strategies, suggestions and evasion techniques – that you can implement when it’s beginning to look a lot like, well, you know.
Allow the indignation to run through you. Isn’t there separation of church and state in the US? Then why do I have to listen to Christmas at the mall? Why is the Target lady so annoying and why do we have to be so materialistic anyway? What’s up with the emotional manipulation on TV and in movies? I have a good mind to go political on Christmas, penning articles about the “December Dilemma,” bemoaning the lack of Hanukkah songs! Bah, humbug.
Reclaim the holiday in the name of Jews. The May family, founders of Macy’s, creators of the iconic parade and setting for “Miracle on 34th Street”: Jews. Irving Berlin: Jew. Jesus: Jew. Try a strong defense with “Don’t you just love ‘White Christmas’? Irving Berlin was Jewish, you know…” “You know, Jesus was Jewish, too, and you wouldn’t even have Christmas without him…” (On second thought, maybe stick to Macy’s and Irving Berlin.) This strategy is best used in major cities with low incidences of anti-Jewish sentiment and graffiti.
Adopt a convert. Jews-by-choice, especially those without Jewish families of their own, often feel alone on Christmas, a holiday which – even if of little religious significance to them – often comes along with a Samsonite size set of emotional baggage, sentimentality and regret over leaving behind one’s born family for one’s spiritual people. Bring a convert into your home, or invite them to dinner or a party, or fry them a latke or twelve – it’s a “bring-them-into-the-manger-mitzvah” that even Mother Mary would have endorsed.
Write a “home-for-Hanukkah” movie. With all due respect to “Four Christmases,” there’s no reason that family agita can’t happen around a stack of potato latkes rather than a Christmas ham. And think of the comedy potential of a Hanukkah dinner scene devolving into a soofganiyah (traditional Hanukkah donut, filled with viscous red jelly) massacre. But don’t just write a script – ask your friends to perform and critique the darned thing - discussion points can include some of the following questions: Is “The Hebrew Hammer” good for the Jews? Where do stereotypes come from? Could Barbra Streisand movies reverse the trend of assimilation? Tawk amongst yourselves. And don’t get upset if your screenplay is deemed “too New York” (Hollywood code for “too Jewy”). You’ll have made your point.