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Jewish World Review Dec. 25, 2000 / 28 Kislev, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Real December Dilemma

Our confrontation with Christmas has moved from the courtrooms to the living rooms -- THERE WAS A TIME when the prevailing attitude among most American Jews toward Christmas was one of all-out war. Not that we begrudged our neighbors their joyous December holiday. It was just that no other manifestation of our minority status in this country threatened us so much as the days leading up to Dec. 25.

For 11 months of the year, Jews could pretend that the traditional formula of American civic peace — equality among Protestant, Catholic and Jew — was one where no one was a junior partner. But from the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade to Christmas Day, there was no mistaking the fact that American Jews were living in a country with an overwhelmingly Christian population and a popular culture which reflected that fact.

Prior to World War II, when the majority of American Jews were immigrants or the children of immigrants, our response to the onslaught of the Christmas s pirit was generally one of grin and bear it. Lacking the self-confidence to assert Jewish identity in the public square, Jewish children sang along with the Christmas carols in public schools with few protests.

That would change in the postwar era, as a new and commendable spirit of assertiveness prevailed in our communal life. Determined not to have to put up with someone else’s religion being shoved down our throats, timidity was replaced with a spirit of litigiousness. Our defense organizations, in coalition with other groups, prevailed upon American courts to put limits not only on prayer in the public schools, but also on the extent to which the Christmas holidays are officially celebrated by governmental institutions.

As a reaction to a legal and cultural tradition that treated non-Christian traditions as un-American, this counterattack was entirely justified. But at some point in the last generation, it morphed into something slightly different.

December has become the season of the annual Jewish communal conniption fit, where some of us act as if our primary method of expressing Jewish identity is to cry foul if someone, somewhere, is singing a Christmas carol on public property.

Chief among the threats from Christmas has been the ubiquitous tree. If the prime motivation for many Jews was assimilation in the prewar era, then going along with the celebration of this Christian holiday was a price many were willing to pay. Jews putting up Christmas trees in their homes became the hated symbol of assimilation, if not of an abandonment of Jewish identity and pride.

Ironically, most Christians tend to think of the tree as a nonreligious symbol. Indeed, it is a holdover from German pagan traditions that became popular only in the 19th century. U.S. courts, even in the last half-century, when separation of religion and state has become a key aspect of American law, recognize the tree as a secular rather than a religious symbol.

That has always seemed wrong to me. But then again, I have trouble understanding Christmas as a purely secular holiday.

That stems, in large part, from my own experience growing up in a largely non-Jewish town. As the only Jewish kid in my elementary-school class, I resented each December bitterly as my largely secular environment was transformed into a Christmas wonderland. My family chose not to make Chanukah into a Jewish Christmas, and I was plainly jealous of the fact that my Christian friends all seemed to have what I considered to be a second birthday on Christmas.

But as I grew older, I realized that while December was a month in which I could feel like a stranger in my own land, there was nothing in Christmas that threatened my liberties or my well-being. As long as I was a proud Jew and certain of my own faith and identity, nothing that my neighbors sang (even in school) or hung on their houses diminished me or made me any less than their equal. INTERMARRIAGE CHANGES THE EQUATION
But even as we have come to terms with life in America every December, the idea of Jews celebrating Christmas still smacks of assimilation and surrender for many, if not most of us.

The question is, in an era when intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews has become commonplace, the American Jewish confrontation with Christmas has moved from the courtrooms to the living rooms of a growing plurality of Jewish families. And, as recent surveys — such as one released by the American Jewish Committee — have shown, as acceptance of intermarriage grows, so too must our acceptance of the cherished customs of the non-Jewish partners of our relatives.

Once, the Christmas tree was the symbol of the Jew seeking to escape his heritage. Today, we worry about the sight of a living room where a tree sits alongside a Chanukah menorah.

What this acceptance means for the future of American Jewry is far from certain. Optimists see it as an opportunity for outreach to non-Jewish spouses. Though some hope for a large-scale communal effort that will promote conversion to Judaism, much of the literature on this topic seems to be more about accommodation of the two faiths. That is understandable, and perhaps even appropriate, since the religion of the non-Jew in an intermarriage is deserving of the same respect as that of the Jewish partner.

But as much as I think hostility to Christmas smacks of a lack of self-assurance on the part of Jews, it is far from clear to me how a strong Jewish identity can be fostered in homes where a clear delineation between what is Jewish and what is non-Jewish is absent.

If the realities of intermarriage are convincing increasing numbers of American Jews to ease up on their unwillingness to accommodate themselves to non-Jewish customs in their own homes, then we have reached a point where the prime threat to Jewish identity is no longer in the public square or the public school, but inside our own families.

If this realization doesn’t motivate American Jews as a community to stop obsessing about the separation of church and state and start concentrating on projects that reinforce Jewish identity, then nothing will. It was one thing to try and insulate ourselves from the non-Jewish world by blocking out Christmas. It’s another to attempt to ignore the family member who celebrates it.

That is a December dilemma that no lawsuit will solve for us.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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