Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jul light the menorah

Somehow, the post I wrote about Jews paired off with non-Jews who are also not real-Americans turned into a discussion of Jewish men and Asian women - a topic that's been covered far more extensively elsewhere than the one I was hoping to address.

So, another attempt: here's fashion-blogger/child-prodigy Tavi describing her family's wintertime traditions: "Our family is Jewish, but my mom is from Norway, so we celebrate Jul. It is basically Scandinavian Christmas only instead of a jolly fat guy we Norsemen get an angry little gnome that beats people with sticks."

(This is probably the first - and last - time anyone will approach the Tavi phenomenon from a Jewish-Studies angle, but bear with me.)

What Tavi describes is a family that's embracing Judaism (other posts are about her bat mitzvah), but that allows for Christian traditions only insofar as they're elements of one parent's particular background. Gnomes and j's that must be pronounced like y's are not part of the Christmas, the one that many Jews understand as representative of homogenizing Mainstream Society. Had Tavi written, 'We're Jewish, but my mother's family is Episcopalian so we gather around the tree and sing carols,' she would - and this is just a guess - stand accused of coming from a family that wasn't quite Jewish. But if it's Jul that's at stake, that's another story, because Jul, whatever it is, is not about blending unnoticed into the majority culture. Note here that Tavi's mother is Norwegian - not 'minority' in the usual sense, but in this context, yes, it counts.

(One for the files of why we can't all just get along: Some of these white-but-minority-in-the-U.S. wintertime traditions stray particularly far from mainstream American culture.)

When a Jewish family celebrates Christmas, it's assimilation. But what if it's Jul, or assimilating-Chinese-American-secular-Christmas? A Soviet New Year's tree? Or, moving beyond the not-so-timely question of a holiday season that's ending, how should Jews approach intermarriage in cases in which neither spouse's traditions much align with those of mainstream America? The expectation that the non-Jewish partner should defer to the Jewish one on these matters on account of Jews are this teensy minority that needs all the numbers it can get stops making so much sense when that partner has odd-sounding traditions of his own.


Matt said...

Yes, I think I'd agree with at least some of that.

PG said...

I like David Sedaris's explanation of Scandinavian Christmas.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Which parts?


This is amusing/disturbing, but to be fair to the Scandinavians, this is Dutch and Flemish St. Nicholas holiday, not Scandinavian Christmas.

PG said...


Ah, I'd assumed that the stick-beating meant they were basically the same thing. Good to know that assault is a standard part of various Northern European winter holiday traditions :-)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

For all I know it is the same thing, but I'd think it would be more known if there were blackface involved - as far as I know, that's just in the Dutch-speaking lands.

Britta said...

Sigh. The persecution we have to put up with...no one can tell Norway from the Netherlands...Sweden from Switzerland. (only joking (mostly)). There is no blackface in Scandinavia, at least not traditionally. Considering the Scandinavians never had colonies like the Dutch, racist attitudes/traditions didn't develop in the same way.
The "little nome" is called the Tomten, and he only beats you with a stick if you are bad. Also important is the Julebok, the Christmas goat who guards the tree. It's actually thought that Christmas trees are derived from Ygsdrasil, the Viking tree of life, and that the goats are from the goats that pulled Odin's chariot. Most Christmas traditions are thinly veiled Norse traditions, given first a German and then an English spin (the English royal family is German, so most traditions trickled their way into America from there).
It's funny being Scandinavian, because we are both the "epitome" of whiteness, yet so ethnic we aren't really white in a WASP-y white bread sense. We walk a line between being "cute" with our strange ethnic customs, and embodying (literally) all that is oppressive about Northern Europe.

Matt said...

Various hyper-specific Christmas traditions wouldn't grate the way a 'generic' American Christmas does. Hard to say why, though.