the december non-dilemma

Instead of writing some fancy introduction, I'm going to just start by telling you that the thesis of this blog post is that the entire concept of the "December dilemma" is a myth. I'm going to explain why, and then I'm going to suggest what we (the Jewish community, and perhaps more specifically, those of us who serve in
leadership roles in the Jewish community) should do about it.

So with that totally transparent introduction, you can click if you're interested in reading more.

As far as I can tell, there are two separate (though perhaps related) definitions of the "December dilemma" (which shall henceforth be referred to as Dd). Both versions are based on the idea that Hanukkah falls at around the same time of year as Christmas, and for Jews in America (where Christmas is more than just a holiday, it's an entire season) this is somehow challenging or problematic. But they focus on different questions:

Dd Version 1: How do I deal with my Jewish struggle to be different at a time of year when those differences are put into hyper-focus? (Variations: Can I let my kid have a "Hanukkah bush"? What do I do when my kid is asked to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in his/her school's Christmas pageant? Should our family go to our neighbor's/friend's/mother-in-law's/etc. Christmas party? What should I say when people wish me a "merry Christmas"? Should I enjoy the magic of that holiday classic Jingle All the Way?)

Dd Version 2: How does our interfaith family deal with the issues and challenges of celebrating two different holidays at this type of year? (Variations: What do I do when my parents refuse to step foot in my house as long as there's a Christmas tree in it? When my child's religious school teacher says, "Jews don't celebrate Christmas," does she mean to imply that my child isn't Jewish since we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah? Should I wear that stylish Christmas sweater that grandma knitted for me?)

Dd Version 1 is about protecting Jewish identity -- the notions of separateness, distinctiveness, difference -- in a world that celebrates (at least during the "holiday season") cultural homogenaity. After all, isn't the Hanukkah story all about celebrating a group of Jews who resisted assimilation and protected the spiritual and ethnic heritage of Judaism?

First of all, hogwash on the anti-assimilation thing. The Hasmoneans (aka Maccabees) were a bunch of religious extremists who were fine with executing people who believed that it was ok to adopt elements of Hellenistic culture. Not that I'm advocating for un-circumcision or defilement of religious spaces, but those of us who despise of religious extremism in all it's forms should distance ourselves from this particular part of Hanukkah's history. There are plenty of modern "Maccabees" who believe that women reading Torah at the Western Wall is a form of defilement, or who think that working out at the local 24-Hour Fitness is an unacceptable sign of assimilation. I reject this ideological position from both ancient and modern Maccabees. Furthermore, the anti-assimilation message message of Hanukkah -- even when presented with a softer touch and less judgmental sounding language -- simply doesn't resonate for the sizable population of American Jews who have assimilated and see nothing wrong with it. These Jews (among whom I count myself) are more drawn toward Judaism's insistence that we work towards a more just world, toward the moral and ethical heritage passed on to us, toward our people's history of living as the minority but with a commitment to being good neighbors and productive members of non-Jewish society. We don't want to dress differently, eat differently, and talk differently. (I'm not arguing for total assimilation or for complete abandonment of peoplehood. I'm just saying that a message of nationalistic cultural preservation and religious isolationism just doesn't work for Jews that need a Judaism that is consistent with full participation in normative American life.)

Dd Version 1 has at its core the assumption that Jews who participate in Christmas (whether they have a tree or just really love watching my governor find the true meaning of Christmas while finding the perfect toy) are somehow at risk for losing their Jewishness. Furthermore, purveyors of the Dd Version 1 myth believe that the "Christmas-ization" of Hanukkah at best leads to the overemphasis of a minor holiday and at worst is a perversion of our entire heritage.

I reject both these assumptions. In the case of the latter, making a big deal out of Hanukkah isn't a perversion. As my teacher Rabbi Zöe Klein has written (see page 7 of this PDF), the whole point of Hanukkah is to "publicize the miracle" and make a big deal. What better way to do just that than to string up lights and decorations, to have great parties, and to be merry? As for the former, discussions, articles, and sermons in which Jewish leaders speak of a "dilemma" sound awfully silly to people who don't have a dilemma at all.

And that's the real point. The real reason Dd Version 1 is a myth is that so many Jews are so far past it. It's a dangerous cliché. To be worried about our kids singing Christmas music as a harbinger of assimilationist doom is to be ultimately concerned with the tired notion of national ethnic preservation, a form of religiosity that this generation of young parents has abandoned (partly because the language of "continuity" Judaism leaves such a bad taste in their mouths).

In other words, young Jews have constructed Jewish-American identities that weave together American-ness and Jewish-ness in creative and sophisticated ways. They don't have a "December dilemma" because singing Christmas carols and watching Christmas movies don't bother them, and hearing Jewish leaders suggest otherwise sounds backward and even offensive. (You could argue with me on this point, but be prepared to answer for reams of research on Gen X and Y Jewish engagement: sovereign self, declines in Jewish philanthropic giving, affiliation rates, Israel engagement, etc. I suppose I could cite sources, but all this research is kinda old-hat by now, isn't it?)

Dd Version 2 is similarly tired. It comes from a basic discomfort with intermarriage, and like Dd Version 1, it's not a dilemma at all to most people who we'd think are struggling with it. (And even if they are struggling, highlighting the issue might only serve to exacerbate the challenges rather than resolve them.)

The uncomfortable truth about intermarriage (at least for those who get fidgety at the idea) is that for the general Jewish public, it's a fact of life. The truly uncomfortable part is that -- contrary to the doomsday predictions of anti-intermarriage zealots -- lots of intermarried couples are doing just fine. Significant numbers of students in Jewish religious schools have a non-Jewish parent. Even more contrary to the "continuity" rhetoric: Plenty of non-Jewish spouses are invested in their children's Jewish education.

When it comes to the so-called "dilemma," the research says that intermarried families who celebrate both holidays don't find the experience all that challenging. Furthermore, they're likely to treat Hanukkah as a religious holiday (and Christmas as a secular one), they report that their children have strong Jewish identities, and they're quite sure that celebrating both holidays (virtually no one actually tries to blend them, contrary to fears) isn't particularly confusing for their kids.

Truth be told, intermarried families only have a "December dilemma" when that dilemma is thrust upon them by people who think that Hanukkah/Christmas celebration is a litmus test for some (nonexistent) religious battle. Furthermore, as intermarriage has become statistically normative for American Jews, intermarried families have to deal with this stress less and less as they find more of a welcoming attitude from Jewish grandparents who are less stubborn and synagogues who've learned that rejecting intermarried families only pushes them further from Judaism.

So what do I think that Jewish communal leaders should do about the tired myth of the "December dilemma"?

First, we need to stop trying to push it on people. When real dilemmas arise (Jewish kids forced to participate in Christian religious celebrations in public schools) we should deal with them appropriately. But the rest of the time, we don't need to be trying to emphasize the difficulty of being Jewish at Christmas when that whole idea is so tired and cliché that it has it's own South Park song.

Second, we can be more welcoming to intermarried families in our communities (especially the ones who care about being engaged members of our communities) by not trying to suggest that some "dilemma" challenges their very identity.

Third, we can be appreciative (and even participate in) the "Christmas spirit" by acknowledging that celebrating generosity, family, and light is totally consistent with being Jewish. A great illustration, which I originally read here:

Rabbi Berel Wein tells a powerful “Jewish” Christmas 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 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, 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.

Christmas spirit, indeed!

Update/Addendum: I was appropriately chastised by my editor for failing to account for Dd Version 3, which is not a myth at all.

The "holiday season" presents meaningful difficulties for Jewish children who are not at all jealous of Christmas, interested in singing about Rudolph, or eager to watch Christmas movies but who are made to feel uncomfortable when this sort of celebration is forced upon them in the aforementioned spirit of American cultural homogenaity. Having grown up in a heavily-Jewish city and having gone to day school for much of my schooling, I never had to sing in a school Christmas pageant or deal with a teacher who didn't understand that not everyone celebrates Christmas. (Even in public school, many of my teachers were Jewish.)

So when it comes to the dilemma faced by Jewish kids forced to have their separate-ness become an issue every December, I have virtually zero personal experience. And I believe that this sort of December dilemma isn't just a myth, though I wonder if communally highlighting it is necessarily the right approach. Rather, I think parents and rabbis and teachers should address these situations according to what's in the best interest of the child. That means I believe in calling in the ACLU if that's what's right, but also that we should back off all this "December dilemma" stuff if it would serve to embarrass or stigmatize a child. Standing up for what's right is one of Hanukkah's messages, but sometimes what's right is to help strengthen a child's connection to their secular community.

But again... I'm out of my element on this one.

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