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.

Location:Rte 315„US Virgin Islands