Wednesday, December 15, 2010

This is it, I promise

Perhaps because it tangentially relates to my dissertation, I'm finding the Jews-and-Christmas discussion fascinating. My attempt at tying up loose ends of earlier thoughts on the matter are below; to those who've had enough of the topic, there's always the next post, computer pinball, etc.

-The existence of a Jewishness defined negatively, as non-celebration of Christmas (to stick with this example), isn't something to be celebrated, exactly, but a little understanding is all I ask. Jewish ambivalence about the holiday shouldn't be conflated with whining or making a big deal out of nothing. It's certainly possible to make too big of a fuss, about this or anything else. But it's also possible to so greatly fear being one of those Jews (cue Mrs. Broflovski whining) that one is compelled to mention how delighted one is with Christmas and how one wouldn't dream of complaining. The problem with the accusation of being a complainer is that there's no way to refute it while holding your ground. Or, as commenter Geoffrey puts it, "That [telling it like it is] only works for white men. Women or POCs aren't plain-speaking, they're 'shrill' or 'grievance-merchants' or some such."

-The reason everyone and their mothers have now commented somewhere on the internet that 'Christmas is secular' isn't because the holiday is secular, 'has pagan origins,' whatever, but rather because America is a majority-Christian, culturally-Christian country. Christianity is the default, so we only recognize Christianity as 'religion' when it beats you over the head with a New Testament.

-Because there's no clear-cut divide between religion and culture, different non-Christians approach this in different ways. The way I understood Jewishness as a child - associating it primarily with non-celebration of Christmas, brown rather than blond hair, and theoretical persecution from theoretical Nazis - includes some elements that would be familiar to other Jews, but is far, far, from universal. I've had, I think, a total of two Jewish roommates, one of whom put up a tree, the other of whom kept kosher to the extent that, although my cooking was limited to pasta-and-cheese-based meals, we did not share dishes. (While these are two different people, it wouldn't be all that strange if one Jewish person both kept kosher to the exclusion of cheese and decorated a tree.) Which is just one of the reasons why the question of how to approach the holidays isn't, in fact, exclusive to intermarried couples - if some Jews celebrate Christmas and others don't, it stands to reason that some children are raised with two Jewish parents and are still not sure what they do come December 25th. This is even in Lithwick's piece in Slate, that she and her husband grew up with different Jewish Christmases. All marriages involving at least one secular Jew are mixed marriages.

-Which brings us to... In the interest of further nuance and further repeating-myself, it also bears a mention that Jews aren't the only Other when it comes to Christmas in America. But even if a Jew marries the WASPiest of Mayflower descendants, that person is also a person, also has particular family traditions they might want to preserve. (Which is why a debate between an in-married and an intermarried Jew on whether Jews should have Christmas trees, in which they use their own families as examples, doesn't hold. But Jessica Grose gets it: "And what would you suggest for a Jewish woman married to a Muslim partner? Whose minority tradition should be preserved then?") There's a difference between Jews embracing Christmas because they don't want to come across as killjoys, Jews who grew up with Christmas and would find it abnormal not to celebrate it, and Jews who are in relationships with Christians celebrating the major holidays of both members of the couple. Only the first of the three is about a will to assimilate. Re: the second - if you're already assimilated, you're not assimilating by doing what your family's always done - 'assimilated' is if anything a screwed-up term, because it implies that each and every Jew is born Hasidic and may, in the course of his own life, reject that life. When in reality, many many Jews are multigeneration 'assimilated' and would have to make an effort to be 'more Jewish' - being true to their origins might well mean Christmas. Re: the third - contrary to popular opinion, Jews do not typically enter into relationships with non-Jews as a way of intentionally distancing themselves from Judaism, but rather Jews who are already 'assimilated' end up meeting more non-Jews than Jews, end up having about as much in common with Jews as with anyone else they meet. The 'damage,' if that's how you care to think about it, has already been done.

-This from Britta's comment and my response. It's politically incorrect, socially unacceptable, etc., to refer to Jews as being anything other than a religious group. Why? Because to do so is thought to imply that Judaism is immutable, that it's a 'race,' that one is maligning converts and sympathizing with racists, etc. Same as why the Jewish "American Girl" doll has to have light brown hair. This explains both why Christians and atheists-with-Christian-backgrounds ask why non-religious Jews would give a crap either way, and why Jews themselves who have only the faintest recollection of something called 'Yom Kippur' choose, as the one way of expressing their difference in a country where they don't have a whole lot of difference to work with, a religious statement.


Britta said...

Right. While claiming that Judaism is *only* a religion (or even a set of religious beliefs) is an understandable and on some level sympathetic reaction 19/20th century European racialized anti-Semitism, it really doesn't do justice the complexities of Jewish identity. "Also, this, "Judaism is just a religion and all Jews are just white bread Americans" can get linked up to (IMO) an unsavory anti-Israel attitude on the left, where Jews are *only* the white oppressors, and the whole reason why Israel was created (as a safe place from persecution) can be ignored. In a weird way, seeing Judaism as only a religion allows Jews to be evil and powerful again, thus allowing buried anti-Semitic tropes to come back again, this time in the guise of "anti-racism" or "anti-imperialism" etc.

Also, I find the "Christmas is actually pagan so everyone should celebrate it" line even more baffling than calling it a secularized Christian holiday. I think the idea that Jews would find paganism more appealing than Christianity kind of ironic, considering that Christmas falls in close proximity to Hanukkah, a holiday that is all about Jews not worshipping pagan gods. Also, more to the point, most pagan Christian traditions (the tree, etc) were actually popularized by German protestants wanting to celebrate/remember/be influenced by their pre-Christian Germanic heritage (i.e. the Christmas tree with lights tradition was established by Martin Luther). Not that people shouldn't do what they want and celebrate whatever holiday they wan't to, but I think it's a little unsettling that Jews should be expected to glory in the Christmas traditions (albeit pretty far removed) of German bourgeois nationalism, any more than Jews should be expected to listen to Wagner.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


100% agreement to all of that. Especially the idea that Jews should be more excited about Christmas if it's 'just' German rather than Christian!