Monday, December 22, 2008

My Devil's Advocate made me do it.

I am just about the least Christmas-y oriented person in my family. As I discovered and explored more and more about Judaism in my teens, I found myself increasingly more alienated from my family's (fairly mild) celebrations of the holiday. Keep in mind, these have been tame by plenty of people's standards- stockings over the fireplace, presents on the floor, and Hanukkah decorations around the house. To be fair, we do have a strange obsession with buying ever-more ornaments, but since Abbot Yid will never consent to having a tree in his house, we hang them from ugly chandeliers. (Of course the chandeliers never increase, so I'm unclear why we keep buying more every year.)

For the curious, BTW, we are not "Jewies come-lately" to finding some compromise with Christmas. My American-born great-grandmother, raised in a Litvak Orthodox home in Brownsville (her parents were from Vilna), got the idea for her kids back in the 30s when they were feeling a little left out. So she put up stockings. [Edit: I recently found out that her mother, the Orthodox Litvak balebusta from Vilna, should actually get the credit. Torah U'Mad indeed!] It's pretty simple. You get a little bit of the holiday without it taking over. No Jesus, not even necessarily "Santa" if you don't want- it's some damn socks. Not such a big deal. I've come to terms with it over the years- if it was good enough for my Orthodox alter-[alter]-bubbe, it's good enough for me.

Unfortunately, not all agree with this. DB posted this screed from Lawrence Kelemen, a writer over at a particularly dumb website I've discussed previously.

Kelemen, of course, cannot discuss anything about Christmas without going on a Crusade against it, and because his arguments are just too bad, and too dumb, I find myself, the usual family Scrooge, forced to defend, of all things, Jews celebrating Christmas.

This is going to be hilarious.

The first problem with Kelemen's essay is that he has not bothered to think about the emotional reasons some Jews celebrate or observe Christmas (many of whom are intermarried, apparently Kelemen's personal lepers). He therefore can't understand how to approach those issues. Instead he is reduced to pointing to his list of bulletpoints and shrilly yelling, "Don't you care?" No, Larry, they don't. If you approached the issue from a perspective of someone who is already observing the holiday in some fashion, rather than someone that has never thought about it, you might get a better sense as to why very few of your facts or arguments are likely to change their minds.

For starters, no Jews care when Jesus was born. I'm not sure why Kelemen bothers with a comparison of historical sources demonstrating the lack of consensus for JC's birth- that's all interesting but irrelevant. (I also find it amusing that he probably would balk at using some of those same academic/historical tools and applying them to the Torah.) Ditto for the Saturnalia background- why is he giving us info about the intricacies of the Catholic church? Come on, Larry, we aren't Christian converts, we've just decided to stick a tree in our living room (in my parents' case, it's a plastic tree that was re-gifted to my mother five years ago by a colleague which remains untouched gathering dust in our basement). Try to separate the two a little.

One of things I find most infuriating about Kelemen's piece are all his broad-brush statements:

Christmas has always been a holiday celebrated carelessly. For millennia, pagans, Christians, and even Jews have been swept away in the season’s festivities, and very few people ever pause to consider the celebration’s intrinsic meaning, history, or origins.

Yeah, not at all the paragon of intellectual honesty that Hanukkah is, right? Incidentally Larry, how would you know? You don't cite a single source in your essay.

Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christian god who came to rescue mankind from the “curse of the Torah.” It is a 24-hour declaration that Judaism is no longer valid.

Larry, according to your website, my Judaism isn't valid in the first place, and neither will any home I start with SG be, so I'm not sure how much secular-oriented Jews should care about this. In your eyes, we're already beyond the pale. So be it.

BTW, I find it pretty funny that Kelemen, supposedly so secure in his Jewish identity, seems so threatened by my hanging an oversized sock with a gift certificate in it.

Still not convinced? Don't worry, Larry has one last trick up his sleeve... a swastika!

Imagine that between 1933-45, the Nazi regime celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday – April 20 – as a holiday. Imagine that they named the day, “Hitlerday,” and observed the day with feasting, drunkenness, gift-giving, and various pagan practices. Imagine that on that day, Jews were historically subject to perverse tortures and abuse, and that this continued for centuries.

Now, imagine that your great-great-great-grandchildren were about to celebrate Hitlerday. April 20th arrived. They had long forgotten about Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. They had never heard of gas chambers or death marches. They had purchased champagne and caviar, and were about to begin the party, when someone reminded them of the day’s real history and their ancestors’ agony. Imagine that they initially objected, “We aren’t celebrating the Holocaust; we’re just having a little Hitlerday party.” If you could travel forward in time and meet them; if you could say a few words to them, what would you advise them to do on Hitlerday?

Needless to say, this is beyond stupid. As much as I have my issues with Christianity, there is nothing in early Christian celebrations of the holiday which is inherently antisemitic, and certainly very little in the holiday's present-day incarnation. No one contests that horrible things were done to Jews on that day during the centuries, but to compare it to the Nazi movement whose raison-d'etre was to murder every Jew they could get their hands on shows just how low (and dumb) Kelemen is willing to go in an attempt to shock his audience into conceding him a point. No dice, Larry, and you're a schmuck for trying.

But wait, there are even more Nazi connections to Christmas!

On December 25, 1941, Julius Streicher, one of the most vicious of Hitler’s assistants, celebrated Christmas by penning the following editorial in his rabidly Antisemitic newspaper, Der Stuermer:

What difference does it make if Streicher "celebrated" Christmas by writing something antisemitic? He was the editor of a daily paper. Presumably he did that every other day, too.

While I find the point about Christmas traditionally being a very bad one for Jews well taken, the Devil's Advocate (Maggid?) in me feels the need to point out that plenty of horrible things in Jewish history happened on Jewish holidays or Sabbaths. No one's going around claiming we should spend Rosh Hashanah sitting in sackcloth because the Nazis or the Cossacks or the Inquisition or whomever may have done something particularly awful to us on that day.

Lastly, the date of Christmas is indeed an estimate but calling it a "lie" as Keleman does is an unnecessary polemic. One could apply the same standard to plenty of other religious/traditional/superstitious practices or folk beliefs (Authorship of the Zohar? Hasidic miracle tales? The reason for 2-day yontiff? No Nun verse in the Ashrei?) As I said, most Jews are not celebrating Christmas because they're such passionate believers that it's JC's birthday. And Kelemen would have a much stronger leg to stand on if his whole catalog wasn't singularly devoted to uncritical Orthodox apologetics.

For a bad time, check out Larry's other brilliant pearls of crap: Besides Christmas he's also not a fan of New Year's, TV, or the Internet.


Tzipporah said...


scazon said...

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur weren't created for sitting around being miserable because Bad Things happened to our people on those days in history? Haven't you ever heard the story of how the Unetaneh Tokef was written? In early medieval Europe, the bishop of Mainz ordered Rabbi Amnon of Mainz's hands and feet to be chopped off one by one, after which he spoke the Unetaneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah and died, and then three days later (!) appeared in a dream to a disciple, taugh him the text of the prayer, and told him to spread it through Judaismdom in order to make people stand miserably through it—and much other boring crap—on the High Holidays.

And many other such stories. Point being, there's plenty of crap in our own tradition that needs to be questioned, as you rightly point out, and that if the tools used for prosecuting this War On Jews Celebrating A Few Aspects Of Christmas (American consumerism, anyone?) were applied to Judaism itself, Kelemen might be surprised—and even a little shocked—at the results.

Antigonos said...

My father was an agnostic from the Bible Belt [his parents were mildly Protestant], my mother Russian Jewish but very ignorant about Judaism. Christmas in our house had no religious context at all; it was rather like Thanksgiving -- an American holiday celebrated by waking up to presents under a decorated tree. Buying and decorating the tree was our Family Togetherness Ritual; Mom and Dad would argue over which tree to buy, argue over where to put the lights and arguments, but we argued Together. Presents from Dad's relatives [those few who still spoke to Mom] were opened on Christmas Day; those from Mom's family were opened on Hanukah. After I began Hebrew school we would light [or I would; I was the only one who knew the brachot] a hanukiyah, if we remembered. It was all very secular; Jesus never got mentioned at all. But, he is there, lurking in the background, alas.

My guess is that fully 80% of Americans keep Christmas in a non-religious way -- it's a family way of condoning retail and gastronomical excess. I think it's sad that Jews, who have so many other opportunities to overeat, need another, but if you're that committed to the need to make a big tzimmis over a local insurrection that happened in Palestine about 2300 years ago, then come live here in Israel. Hanukah was meant -- and is celebrated in Israel -- in such a modest way you'd not dream of comparing it with Christmas if the American advertising industry hadn't made such a big thing out of it. Last time I was in the US a holiday I'd never heard of, Kwanzaa, was being pushed. I think it's all rather silly, frankly. YOu want to have a party? Call it a Winter Wonderland or Ice Party or something and be, at least, original!

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Seems to me that while Thanksgiving could be adopted as a general religion-agnostic holiday, Christmas and Easter cannot be secularized due to their inherent religious nature.

That said, in Canada, hardly any Jews celebrate Thanksgiving, as its known in Canada to be a specifically Christian holiday...

Happy Chanuka! :-)

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...


Thanksgiving has indeed been very easily absorbed into mass cultural consumption, though there is an ongoing cultural tension because some people want to claim the Puritans at Plymouth (as well as the Jamestown colonists) as models of Christian virtue that we should all take to be our country's faith models *wink wink*.

Easter, I think, is a much harder one to claim as ecumenical because the secular spin of an Easter bunny remains just a tad too bizarre for people to promote quite as much as Santa Claus. I also think that the issues involving JC's birth are a lot less dicey than those involving his death, though obviously there are plenty of ways Christmas can cease to be ecumenical if your focus is on putting the Christ in Christmas and ranting about people saying "Happy Holidays".

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

And a happy Hanukkah to you too!