Thursday, December 15, 2011

"[A] commercialized selfish jewess"

The Christmas thing. As I've explained before, and will need to do each year, there are a whole lot of Jews in this country (hi!) who were raised, perhaps inadvertently, with the understanding that non-celebration of Christmas is the central tenet of Judaism. You can explain to such individuals that Christmas is pagan/secular/commercial, or that there are far more important facets of Official Judaism than not celebrating Christmas, if that even ranks at all, or that there are far more positive ways of promoting being Jewish than making it about not having fun when everyone else is. But it's useless. If this is where you're coming from, if this is your experience, you can be neck-deep in Clams Casino on Yom Kippur and aghast at the idea of your halls being decked come December.

The seemingly bizarre notion that Judaism=non-celebration-of-Christmas isn't that strange, really, and is rooted in childhood. Because you're not engaged in theological discussions with your classmates, the way you know their religion, assuming a secular-ish, mixed-faith environment, comes down to one question: Christmas or Chanukah, or more essentially, Christmas or not. If this has always been your identity, it will not strike you as odd.

In the past, Emily "Prudence" Yoffe has sympathized with Jewish partners who aren't so into the Christmas thing. So the following letter-writer might be forgiven for thinking - mistakenly, it turns out - that Yoffe would find her approach to the holiday something other than insane:

I am Jewish, my husband is not. We were married by a rabbi, attend synagogue, and have a Jewish home. Our son, born this year, had a bris. My husband's parents live in a rural town across the country and know no other Jews. They have been open and welcoming and traveled at great expense and difficulty to our son's bris. But we have run into a problem with the upcoming Christmas, which we will spend with them. We intend to explain to our son that Christmas is Grandma and Papa's holiday, and accordingly we asked my mother-in-law to wrap any gifts for him in Hanukkah paper. My mother-in-law insists that Christmas has become a secular holiday and cannot understand why our son should not enjoy Christmas as her own son did. We see them rarely, so I do not want to taint the holiday with a stern message to them. I think our suggestion is a good compromise that allows their grandson to celebrate the holiday with them with minimal confusion and is consistent with the decisions we reached. How can I help my mother-in-law respect our wishes?
Mom, in other words, has a touch of the nuts. If you marry someone who isn't Jewish and hasn't become Jewish, you relinquish your right to raise your children in full non-celebration-of-Christmas. Mom could explain to the in-laws about Judaism-as-non-celebration-of-Christmas, but who's to say a) that she could articulate it as precisely as I have on this here blog (and her wrapping-paper idea suggests not), or b) that they'd know what on earth she was on about if she did. But she is now a part of a family that is not entirely Jewish. This is different from being a citizen of a country that is not entirely Jewish. These rural folk who've never seen another Jew are her relatives, and what she needs to respect isn't any "Christmas is a secular holiday" nonsense, but that Christmas is a holiday celebrated, for whatever reason, by some of her relatives. She doesn't get to pretend that the entire family is Jewish when it isn't, especially when some of the relatives expected to join the masquerade have only the faintest notion of what "Jewish" is.

The Slate commenter responses to the nutty mom, however, are just as off as she is. Oh how cruel, that the Jewish mom isn't embracing diversity! When this is a pretty clear-cut case of a tiny minority's ways up against the mainstream culture. If the in-laws celebrated something that was also unusual and particular, but not Jewish, if Kwanzaa or the Chinese New Year were at stake, that would be its own matter. (One can read, in another recent Slate "Life" column, about some of the Christmastime traditions I married into but have not, alas, embraced as my own. A meta-diversity-issue if there ever was one.) But here, between Real American Christmas and its Jewish shadow holiday, there's a whopper of a power imbalance. To the commenters who thinks it's the same as a Christian kid being exposed to Chanukah, that is, to put it mildly, missing the point. It's all well and good, if your culture is that of the majority, to "tolerate" others. It poses no particular threat to your way of life. (The absurdity of the "war on Christmas" being, of course, that Christmas isn't going anywhere, but is in fact beginning earlier and earlier each year.)

It's not that minorities shouldn't tolerate the majority, but that what ends up being asked is that they thank and thank and thank the majority for tolerating them, and hold forth at any opportunity on how lovely they find the majority's traditions. Mom should, for the reasons mentioned above, accept that her in-laws celebrate Christmas, but her reaction, if nutty, is rooted in something sane.

But the responses that interest me most are the ones that latch onto the gender of the Jewish parent:
You come across as a control freak as I read over your letter. How very sad for your son. I know a few people who left the Jewish faith because they had mothers like this and of course had little to do with their mothers once they became of age. Is that what you want? 
Reread the letter in the voice of Howard Wolowitz's (sp?) mom from Big Bang Theory. Can anyone else imagine how much of a pain the LW will become if her kid grows up and ends up dating or marrying outside of the Jewish faith?
It's paper and that LW sounds just like a commercialized selfish jewess...putting such restrictions on paper and confusing the holiday...her husband is spineless.
Got that straight? The problem here isn't this woman, it's Jewish women, as a "type." Pushy, castrating, insane.


Dan O. said...

What's funny is that without Christmas, us Jews would have some pretty serious dissonance about Hanukkah because of:

(i) Jewish civil war (Jews killing Jews), (ii) most Jews identify with the liberalized reaction (Hillel, the Pharisees) to the Hasmonean dynasty of zealots celebrated in this festival of the Maccabees, (iii) the contemporary controversy over any potential rebuilding of the Temple, and any list would not be complete without(iv) forced circumcision.

In fact, I wonder if Hanukkah were more itself than not-Christmas whether (i) it would become yet another legacy holiday, and (ii) there would actually be fewer forced circumcisions (not really any other kind).

And yes, I realize this has absolutely nothing to do with your post, which I agree with completely.

Micha said...

There is a place where Hanukah is just a minor holiday not connected to Christmas. Shockingly enough, even without Christmas, Hanukah somehow succeeds not being about forced circumcision.

I bet you are one of those annoying people who view Thanksgiving as a Holiday celebrating the persecution of native-Americans. Or is this kind of attitude restricted to Jewish holidays?

Phoebe said...

Dan, Micha, you do keep things lively.


I meant to say before... I appreciated the Gaiman article, but didn't include it here because... I was writing about America, and am kind of fascinated by British Jewry (are they more like American Jews or French ones, or something else entirely?) but wouldn't want to conflate too many phenomena. I'm not sure how central non-celebration-of-Christmas is to Jews anywhere but America. My guess would be that it would be less of a big deal in France - Albert Memmi has written about the oppressiveness of "secular" Christianity to those it reminds of Other status, but American Christmas is huge in a way that European Christmases might not be. At least from what I've heard, in Belgium, which doesn't even have France's history of laicite, Christmas is less omnipresent than it is in the US. It could also be that in places where Christmas retains its religious significance more than it does in the US, there'd be less of a question of Jews celebrating it.

Dan O. said...


"I bet you are one of those annoying people who view Thanksgiving as a Holiday celebrating the persecution of native-Americans. Or is this kind of attitude restricted to Jewish holidays?"

Not at all. In fact, my view on the complete absurdity of Easter annoyed my Christian relatives. As for Thanksgiving, I do remember that the bountiful harvest comes from conquered land. And, why not? We do the same on Passover. After all, if it weren't for the massive native extinction, I likely wouldn't exist and neither would my family.

In this case, I'm actually thinking about my son that is likely to be born in the next 3 weeks (quite possibly during Hanukkah), our decision re circumcision, and J. Goldberg's hysterical interview of Mel Gibson regarding the Maccabee film he's making. And all because of this tweet I read yesterday:

MichaelHearst Michael Hearst
Orthodox man on 9th street just promised he wouldn't circumsize me if I visited his temple! #toolate #tmi

Maria said...

"If you marry someone who isn't Jewish and hasn't become Jewish, you relinquish your right to raise your children in full non-celebration-of-Christmas."

I think we cannot forget that, no matter how reasonable the above view is, that the children in question are halachically Jewish and it hardly matters that their father and in-laws aren't. A Jewish woman shouldn't feel that she (or her children) must acquiesce to her spouse's / in-laws'/ society's religious demands. It may sound impolite but the children are the future of the Jewish people and musn't be allowed to adopt wayward rituals that endanger their identity and may lead them to make a mistake like their mother has (regardless of how "secular" such practices are deemed to be).

Of course, I would agree with you if the children's father were the sole Jewish parent, in which case it would be better if they were raised in their mother's faith (assuming the mother refuses to convert). Cases like these are in my view even more heartbreaking than the former, since the children (barring a unlikely future conversion) will never be what they could have been. We have friends with two young children in this case, the father a Sephardi Jew from the Maghreb, and in the corner of his living room sits a golden tajine topped with a magen david, a treasured family hierloom now covered in layers of dust. The mother refused to convert and is rather content to raise the children in her native Anglicanism. Unfortunately it is often only once one is married and/or has children that Judaism becomes important again, by which time it is too late.

Dan O. said...


I want to clarify that according to the single largest Jewish group in the United States, The Reform Movement, children with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are Jewish if they want to be. The Reconstructionists have a similar policy.

Micha said...

Wonderful, letting Mel Gibson define Hannuka for you. You seem to be a lot of fun at Christian and Jewish Holidays.

In any case, here in the country where only Hannuka is celebrated, we succeed in doing it by focusing on the heroic and positive side of the Holiday just like in America with American Holidays yet without Christmas. Shocking but true.

Oh, and I should also point out that the reason the pharisees didn't like the Hashmonites was not because they were zealots, but quite the opposite. The descendents of the first Hashmonites were quite Hellenistic. Why do you think they had names like Yochanan Horaknus and Alexander Yanai.

Well, apparently each diaspora Jew has his own way of dealing with the Christmas/Hannuka dissonance. Some have a Christmas tree or merge both holidays, others have problem with wrapping paper, and you decided to cast Hannuka as the holiday of forced circumcision. Whatever works, I guess.


Maria, if assimilation is a problem, then it is foolish of Orthodox Judaism to cast away all the children of Jews who had the misfortune of having a Jewish father rather than a Jewish mother. Especially when some of them actually want to be Jewish. Right now Orthodox Judaism seems part of the problem rather than part of the solution(s).

David Schraub said...

"If you marry someone who isn't Jewish and hasn't become Jewish, you relinquish your right to raise your children in full non-celebration-of-Christmas."

I don't think is what's going on, and I think you're far too harsh on mom here.

While Jill is converting to Judaism, that doesn't change the fact that she hails from a Christian family that celebrates Christmas (and Halachally, our future children and the children in this column are equally Jewish -- one gathers that the husband has consented to this state of affairs). Which means Christmas will be in their lives in a familial way even though the kids, themselves, are Jewish, which poses potential for confusion. How does one explain that to the kids?

Well, presumably something to the effect of "Christmas is Grandma and Papa's holiday". They celebrate it, and that's great, and we should be happy they're celebrating, and we can even celebrate with them, but it's not our holiday (like someone else's birthday). Basically, what mom did here. The wrapping paper thing doesn't even strike me as mildly neurotic, let alone nuts (nuts would be demanding that grandma and grandpa take down all their Christmas decorations when junior comes to visit). But requesting holiday-appropriate wrapping paper? Perhaps a compromise could be reached on neutral colors (brown and yellow?). But other than that, I think she's made a fair effort at compromise.

Phoebe said...

Long comment I wrote disappeared, so I'm going to try to address everything...

Part I

-My sense of the Slate letter was that the LW was wrong in her approach, but that the commenters were more wrong still in the reasons they gave for thinking she was wrong. The commenters are wrong because it's absurd to suggest that a Chanukah-observer who's wary of Christmas is akin to a Christmas-observer who's intolerant of religious minorities. There's a really important and, I would think, obvious power imbalance. They're wrong in thinking that members of religious minority groups (and they refer to Jews in particular) need to be so endlessly grateful and groveling every time they're "tolerated." Blech.

Where the LW is in the wrong is in not understanding that she's up against not "mainstream culture" in some abstract sense, in terms of store music and colleagues at the office. Her beef is with members of her own family. She doesn't (as the commenters think she does) owe it to mainstream American cultural Christianity to be more laid-back about Christmas. She owes it to her own relatives to respect their celebration of Christmas. If they're going to the home of these relatives to "do Christmas," the color of the wrapping paper of a gift that will be under a tree seems irrelevant.

-One of my Facebook friends, who is, it seems, Jewish, recently posted something about OMG his ancestors would flip if they saw that he and his non-Jewish wife have a Christmas tree. He seemed to get a perverse thrill from this. So that can happen. But! What can also happen is, when Jews are in relationships with non-Jews, Christmas gets demystified. You learn that it's basically their Passover, their second Thanksgiving, and it's a family gathering, with all the neurosis and boredom that entails. Some of them - more than you'd think - envy us our Chinese food and movies.

Phoebe said...

Part II

-Maria, what Micha said. If you're concerned with Jewish continuity, you want to make sure those who want in aren't being kept out. This goes for the children of Jewish fathers, as well as the whole mess that is proving one's Jewish enough to get married in Israel. Also, as for what the children of the LW "are," there's no hard-and-fast answer. The tradition of matrilineal descent is - and here, echoing Dan - observed by some, not all, Jews, and no non-Jews. Which is to say, it's only a relevant rule for them if they wish to join an observant Jewish community. No amount of protesting that the children of Jewish mothers are Jewish, while those of Jewish fathers only are not makes it so, in the world that allows for other possibilities of Jewish self-identification. And, um, other-identification. If little Thor Rabinovich comes out looking and seeming more Rabinovich (see: Adam Goldberg, Ben Stiller), he experiences the world as a Jew, no matter his mother's Viking ancestry.

-David, re: conversion. I do think it matters that the LW's husband never converted. It means that not only are the in-laws non-Jewish, not only is Christmas their holiday, but it's also Dad's holiday. Or must Dad remain in a kind of limbo, not permitted to participate in either? If he had converted, then changed his mind re: Christmas upon having kids, we might fault him. But here, let's say he sides with his parents on this. (The LW uses "we" but it's not all that convincing.) How is he in the wrong?

And, I could go on forever re: conversion, but will try to be brief. Basically, I think it makes sense if the Jewish partner has a religious Jewish identity. Not nec. orthodox, of course, but religious. I don't understand conversion when it's cultural Judaism that's at stake, because whatever conversion takes place, the non-Jewish spouse still won't have grown up with as many bagels, still won't have had Nazi persecution nightmares as a child, or whatever else cultural Judaism entails. Assuming shared parenting, children get both cultures. I think people can run into problems when they imagine that a religious conversion means all of a sudden their partner will switch to being the boy/girl next door. However, if it's approached in terms of, yay, Judaism's now that much diverse for having Thor Rabinovich as a member, then I'm all in favor.

Dan O. said...

I respond to indirect insults (which are odd from an Israeli) with direct ones. The former are tolerated, while the latter are not.

Phoebe, this is why your endorsement of the concept of the Self-Hating Jews is so unfortunate.

Phoebe said...


I have not been following your argument with Micha. So I'm not sure where my previous thoughts on "self-hating Jew" enter into it, nor do I especially want to find out. But I defended the use of the term "Jewish self-hatred," not the labeling of individual Jews as self-hating.

Micha said...

Dan, I apologize for the insult. I can only say that I found your original post somewhat offensive or at the very least quite ridiculous and reacted with anger. This is the reason, but not an excuse.

I stand by my point that your attempt to cast Hannuka without Christmas as a Holiday about forced circumcision seems to be a way to deal with the reality of having Hannuka in a Christmas celebrating country. Frankly, I can't say I like this method any more than that of a woman being rude to her in-laws over wrapping paper.

"The former are tolerated, while the latter are not."

I don't know what you mean.

"Phoebe, this is why your endorsement of the concept of the Self-Hating Jews is so unfortunate."

Do you think I implied you are a self-hating-Jew? I would be hesitant to do so, since I don't know you well enough. All I know is what you said in your original post, which was -- unless I misunderstood -- that without Christmas, Hannuka would have been a Holiday celebrating forced circumcision and other forms of intolerance. This is a claim I found offensive. My reply was that just as American and Christian holidays tend to ignore the uglier parts of their respective history and dwell on a positive if sugarcoated message, so it is with Hannuka. I did wonder if your apparently negative view of Hannuka is restricted to only Jewish holidays or holidays in general, which is why I used the example of Thanksgiving, a very positive holiday despite its connection to negative historical events. I think if you had said that your attitude is restricted to only Jewish holidays I could accuse you of a hypocrisy that might be indicative of specific hostility toward Jewish culture while giving a pass to other cultures. However, you didn't say that and I didn't say you're a self-hating Jew. I restricted my anger for what you said.

So again, I apologize for the anger but I still have a big problem with what you said.

As a general rule, and as a person who enjoys celebrating Jewish holidays in the sugarcoated version while leaving the more complex history to other times, I am not a big fan of focusing on the negative history during the holidays of other peoples, American or Christian or otherwise.

On a related note: