Later today our offices will close early for the Christmas holiday. For the Jewish community this is a moment of some angst, the “December dilemma” as it’s sometimes called: how do we as Jews retain ourselves, our culture, our tradition, even our people with the seemingly perpetual motion machine of Christmas celebration operating all around us? Even as we recognize the importance of Christmas, its symbols remain to many Jews the symbols of assimilation. I thought I would take this moment to reflect on what this conflict means for us as a community, and in particular for the staff at Federation.
The Indian Experience
The December dilemma is a problem for Jews in the West. The particular issues of Western cultural confrontation came home to me 24 years ago when I went to work in India with my friend Leon Morris (not yet a Rabbi) and saw that Christians and Jews there do not suffer from such angst. In the polytheism of the region, gods and statutes of gods were worshiped as active forces in the world. Because of this, Christians and Jews were bound together, both as separated from the Hindu majority by their shared monotheistic core. And there, our communities lived together without evan a hint of the anxiety that we sometimes feel here in the west.
Because there was peaceful coexistence and respect for multiple paths to divinity, the Jewish community of India adopted many cultural practices of Hindus into their own religious rituals.
When we arrived during Simchat Torah we were surprised to see the synagogues decked out in Christmas lights. Those lights were not actually “Christmas lights” but put up to celebrate Divali–the Hindu New Year. The Bene Israel of India were able to recognize the importance of the New Year to those around them and embrace its outward signs, secure in their own Jewish identities. With that spirit, the Jews of India were able to adopt their neighbors’ practices to enhance the most sanctified expressions of the community.
The best example of this was in a series of Hindu rituals used by the Bene Israel to call upon the prophet Elijah to bless the community at “auspicious” moments. (The Bene Israel believed that Eliajah’s chariot of fire touched down near Mumbai on his ascent to heaven.) This “melida” ceremony was magical: liturgy drawn from the Jewish Havdalah service was chanted around a tray of fragrant rice and fruits adorned with flowers. The “offering” was strikingly similar to that which their Hindu neighbors would make to their own familial or regional “god.” (Here’s a great description along with an account of the Melida ceremony by Rabbi Hyim Shaffner of Bais Abraham who, with his wife Sarah, went to India on the same program the year following my own trek.)
Jews in the Christian West
So American Jews feel ambivalent about Christmas (unless they are celebrating it) but Indian Jews warmly adopt cultural practices around them. What explains the difference between our two communities’ responses to their respective dominant culture?
For one thing, as Ellie Wiesel once noted, the Jews of India had never experienced the kind of systematic and persistent anti-Semitism that has been a hallmark of their existence elsewhere. That was abruptly altered by the 2008 Mumbai attacks . But even those attacks were not a reflection of underlying anti-Semitism within India, but an attempt to embroil Jews and the West into an existing regional political conflict. Even today the Jewish community of India uses the swastika as a design feature, adopting a 3000 year-old symbol from the Indus Valley with little self-consciousness or concern about its more pernicious use. (Click here for an earlier post on the nevertheless misguided attempt to “rehabilitate” the Swastika for use in the West.)
Unfortunately, the encounter between Jews and Christians in the West has not been as historically benign as between Jews and Hindus in India. That history of persecution and forced conversion is a significant reason for the anxiety that Jews today feel towards the holiday. The current trends of assimilation pose, for many, other different reasons for concern.
The Christmas tree, the crèche, and the symbols (to say nothing of the holiday music written in the last 70 years, much of it by American Jews) confront members of our community who are seeking to find their own place–as an American, as a Jew. And even as these symbols represent forces of oppression and assimilation for some, at this moment they also represent something more complicated and sociologically interesting. The integration of Jewish and Christian communities within families has lead to the warm embrace of both traditions at once.
There are other concerns as well: that celebrating both of these traditions demonstrates a cheapening of both. Chanukah celebrates the resistance of the Jewish people to political tyranny, and the loss of sovereignty that threatened to forcibly assimilate them into a different political and cultural way of life. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus who Christians believe was the messiah, a view anathema to Jewish belief. Celebrating both would seem to negate the deeper messages of either holiday.
There is clearly a set of complicated issues at the core, and ones that are not easily resolved.
The Dilemma Reconsidered
I understand and respect these symbolic, cultural and substantive concerns. Still, I take my cue from India.
Rather than seeing Christmas as a threat to Jewish identity, I see too much here to celebrate about the power of assimilative responses to differences among us. How do we understand that seminal moment for Christians of Mary and Joseph welcoming three strangers at the birth of Jesus if not as the classic expression of our own tradition of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger, the very parallel to Abraham’s welcoming of his own three messengers that announced the birth of Isaac to him and Sarah? And it is precisely because we live in a culture where Christmas is so important that the holiday has been transformed from a minor celebration into one that embraces and celebrates religious freedom. I share the view of many Christians that we’d all be better off emphasizing the core values for which our holidays stand and minimize the materialism of both. But that’s the point–we have a shared point of contact even against a complicated historical background.
The question thus should not only be, “how do we as Jews keep from assimilating into a dominant culture?” The question we might ask is instead, “how do we recognize what is valuable from each tradition and make it authentically and respectively part of our own?” That puts us at a place of mutual respect and fosters a willingness to engage with others even as we retain our own core commitments to our own identities.
At the Federation, people of all faiths work together furthering our shared mission of preserving and enhancing Jewish life and values throughout our community. Because of this, many of our staff will not be merely taking a day off tomorrow; they will be celebrating the warmth and meaning of Christmas. For them it will be a day filled with the wonder of God’s presence in the world, and the miracles that, in their own understanding, have structured the meaning of good and evil, sin and redemption.
For others—Jews and non-Jews alike—they will be celebrating in magnificently hybrid ways, a merging of families, of intimacies and of cultures.
And for still others—particularly those most active and engaged in Jewish life—we may be at Chinese restaurants or the movies, but nevertheless continuing to struggle to find ourselves within a culture that poses a real and significant dilemma. Those are the realities of the American Jewish existence that create both challenges and opportunities for deepening meaning and purpose in our world.
Whether tonight and tomorrow finds you in worship, next to the warmth of a Christmas tree, or with many of us at YPD’s Lolapajewza, I hope it is a time of peace, wonder and reflection.
I wish you all a restful holiday, holy or not, a great new year, and look forward to seeing you when post-vacation schedules return us to a fuller staff. I am so delighted to be at a place in which difference can be celebrated, recognized and honored.