Friday, December 10, 2010

Jews and the Why-Bother Question

Dahlia Lithwick's piece about which Christmas movies Jewish parents should allow their children to see offers a better description than I could of what Judaism-as-not-Christianity looks like. I both get it and can see how ridiculous it would look to those who don't. Of all the things parents have to keep from children, they're going to get worked up about Santa? A favorite time-to-embarrass-Phoebe anecdote in my family is of the time when I sat on Santa's knee at a Christmas party for doctors and their children. I guiltily confessed to Santa that I was Jewish. "Santa," a doctor colleague of my father's, told me that he was Jewish too.

The comments to Lithwick's article reveal just how baffling the Jewish response to Christmas is to non-Jews:

"I always laugh when I see this kind of thing...if your faith is so weak that your kids will announce 'screw this, I want to be Christian' after watching a tv show, then maybe you need to rethink things."

As though this were about faith in Judaism, as opposed to Judaism-as-non-observance-of-December-25th.

"Do people of non-Irish ancestry agonize over whether or not to drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day?"

Do all non-Irish people - or even any subset thereof - define their non-Irishness entirely by the non-observance of St. Patrick's Day? 

I don't know how Lithwick is raising her children religiously, whether they're observant Jews or able-to-identify-a-babka types. But it doesn't matter, in a sense, because what we're getting a glimpse of with this article is how crucial the non-celebration of Christmas is to many American Jews' understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Her article would make no less sense if we were to find out that her children have never so much as heard of Yom Kippur.

All of which leads to the question: why bother? Why, if your Judaism is zilch, if you're not offering your children anything positive in the way of a Jewish identity, would you care to protect your children from Christianity, even the watered-down version thereof that is a commercialized American Christmas? 

This is, as it happens, a question slightly older than the children of Slate writers, or than the writers themselves. The nineteenth century French Jews I can't seem to leave be were, often enough, Jewish only by virtue of not being Christians. Yes, recent scholarship has shown that many French Jews maintained positive Jewish identities, if not through religious practice, than by forming organizations to help Jews abroad, etc. But not all. There were plenty of Jews whose Judaism consisted, for the most part, of non-Christianity. Why, then, did they continue to see themselves as Jews?

Two (main) reasons: Loyalty to one's family - distant and immediate - was itself a value. To be a proper French bourgeois meant being true to one's roots more than it meant having any particular stance on Mary's son. That, and the Jews who altogether abandoned Judaism, who took why-bother to its logical conclusion, found that they were still considered Jews. This may not have been much of a barrier to Jews who truly believed in Catholicism, but it would have reminded those interested in converting for social reasons that everyone knew who they really were, and that they'd be less conspicuous if they didn't go to church.

Switch back for a moment to today. Let's say little Christopher Goldberg gets to watch Santa movies and to have a tree. This will if anything make it more obvious that he's a Jew - in the place of those who'd ask why CG's family made such a fuss around Christmastime if they went that route, there'd be another crowd asking why CG's parents didn't have enough self-respect to do Chanukah instead, and reminding them that, come on, who are the Goldbergs fooling, anyway? 

(It now might become clear why secular Jews strive for positive identities, for example everyone's favorite, Zionism. I'm thinking now of Theodor Herzl. How, just before he went all Zionist on us, he suggested that Jews get baptized en masse. How it then occurred to him that even this wouldn't solve the "Jewish question," because a baptized Jew was still viewed as a Jew.)

Of course, 19th C France  - let alone Vienna - and the contemporary US are not the same. The level of integration is not comparable, nor is the "racial" landscape. If in 1840s Paris everyone was hyperaware that Alphonse So-and-So was of Jewish origin, things are not the same today in the States. The only people interested in the one Jewish grandparent of public figures are white supremacists and (some) Jews - Americans are by and large willing to accept heaps of Jewish "blood" in generic white folk. 

So if the fears that keep Jewish parents today from letting their children "do" Christmas center less than ever before around a sense that they'll be thought Jewish regardless, they perhaps center more than ever before on one that their families will be sell-outs. We're looking, it seems, at something both specific to Jews and more universal. Jewish parents use Christmas to teach their children the lesson that they do not need to do what everyone else is doing. It's an opportunity for a "because I said so" moment. For a "this is how we do things in our family" moment. For a "not as long as you're under my roof" moment. An extension of the lesson Christmas-observing parents teach their children by not buying them the $400 video-game consoles they've been asking for. In theory, even enthusiastic Christmas-observers would respect this choice as an example of modern-day yuppie parents rejecting indulgent parenting. But that's not how it plays out.

Final note: This comment to Lithwick's article is tremendous:

"Perhaps they [your children] will feel less confined to their Jewish heritage if they are allowed to explore outside of it."

Because clearly what Lithwick's looking to do is find ways for her children to feel less confined to being Jewish.


Jacob Arnon said...

I have never been attracted to Christianity nor any other religion. Nor believing in one religion is enough.

Monotheism makes it easy since there is only one god to stop believing in that deity means not taking any religion seriously.

That said I do appreciate all the lights that people put up at this time of year just as I appreciate lighting candles on Chanukah without believing in the theological justification behind it.

As for Santa I was too conscious of the real people behind the costume to ever take them seriously.

Taipei Swan said...

As a Jew whose family didn't really give me much in the way of a Jewish identity, I have to concur with much of this post.

I don't have a problem with celebrating Christmas and am fairly accepting of it - I actually quite enjoy it, but yes, I definitely find that even when I do participate in Christmas stuff I'm still considered Jewish.

I mean, Christmas is something we grew up with here in Australia, with all those cheesy TV specials, so it'll always have some meaning.
But I never felt it made me any less Jewish.

Britta said...

Maybe the solution would be to move to Portland and raise children there. I have either never heard or seen of any of those movies, and I was raised celebrating Christmas. I think I was 12-13 before I ever saw a movie about Christmas, and that Jimmy Stewart movie which a teacher showed right before winter break.