Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Requisite Jewish Christmas post

If you're Jewish, and do the thing of treating non-celebration-of-Christmas as the major, definitive Jewish holiday, what actually goes on on this day for those who do acknowledge it remains something of a mystery. That it is often a drag, or just something like Thanksgiving, never occurs to you. It must all be really magical, or else why are Jews obligated to show their non-celebration of the day by being miserable? By bemoaning the fact that nothing is open, even things that you would never notice weren't open on some random weekend?

It was only as an adult, I think, that I realized there was a whole tradition of Jewish Christmas, a cheery day with Chinese food, movies, and of course singles mixers, so that more non-Christmas-observing babies might be born. Although it's possible my family did this (not the singles mixers, just the dumplings) and I somehow never put it together that this was part of some larger tradition, and assumed it was that one would year after year run through all the things that weren't possible and come up with Chinatown and movie theaters by process of elimination. (Childhood's a bit of a blur, I suppose. No "Angela's Ashes" coming from me.)

Also as an adult, it's something of a fluke that I don't celebrate Christmas - my husband's family does, but they live far away, off in Gérard Depardieu territory - well, the same country. If I were one of the Jews who had always dreamed of celebrating the holiday, I could do as apparently many in my situation do and use intermarriage as an excuse to go all-out. This is, if the social-media site mentioned below is any guide, a thing. The quasi-guilty, massively-enthusiastic celebration of that which was once taboo. But I don't really get this - it's precisely because the non-Jewish world is no longer a mystery that Christmas is no longer a mystery, just a holiday my husband's family does and mine doesn't acknowledge, much like his family, not being American, doesn't do Thanksgiving. Not exactly the same - it's different to be Jewish in a majority-Christian country. But not all that different. If I were in Belgium this time of year, I'd go in for it, especially given that the "it" of all Belgian celebrations involves eating copious amounts of delicious pie. Although Easter's somewhat more intriguing, what with the chocolates. And because non-celebration-of-Easter isn't one of the major laws of secular Judaism, I can eat as many white-chocolate-praliné eggs as I want guilt-free. Jewish-guilt-free, at least.

But the weirdness of December 25th for the likes of me, it really is about being Jewish, not merely non-Christian. It might be PC to frame it as time of the year is for non-Christians, but from what I can tell, other non-Christians either just don't care or celebrate it as a secular holiday. And obviously not all Jews care - some go in for it (old-time German Jews, more recent Russian-Jewish immigrants) even without an intermarriage as cover. But I do wish - as I think I ask every year - that the secular-of-Christian-extraction community would get that this is and is likely to remain a thing for some Jews, and would not insist that Christmas is a secular rather than a religious holiday, get-over-yourselves-already. And that this isn't because Jews are being difficult, but because Jews are projecting onto Christianity that same blurry is-it-a-culture-or-a-religion identity that constitutes Judaism. Christmas, to many Jews, feels Christian, is Christian, even if it's a secular/cultural/"pagan" variant. Along the same lines, even if you-the-secular-but-of-Christian-extraction don't identify as Christian, you may be identified as such by Jews, who are merely responding to the fact that they get identified as Jews regardless of religious affiliation. If any of that makes sense.

At any rate, a holiday that involves putting up a decorated tree and placing gifts under it doesn't seem even remotely compatible with ownership of a naughty and hyperactive (impervious to dog runs, woods walks...) miniature poodle. No menorah, alas, for the same reason.


Andrew Stevens said...

I once remarked to a Jewish woman of my acquaintance that I wasn't a Christian. I got an odd look from her. It took me a bit to figure out that the look was because she regarded me as Christian, regardless of what I actually believed. Understandable, as you say, though it's not just that Jews-by-culture get identified as Jews regardless of religious affiliation, but they themselves identify as Jews despite not believing in a word of the religion (and, if I understand correctly, even a great many observant Jews consider a lapsed Jew as Jewish, though they may not so regard their children).

Christianity is defined by belief, though. If you don't believe, you're simply not a Christian. Islam is the same. Apostates are not regarded as Muslim. (So Salman Rushdie is not a Muslim, despite growing up in a Muslim family.) So I do object to being called a Christian just because my parents were Christian, and the Christian community would similarly object. I do not object to being called a Gentile though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Short answer: Agreed that those of Christian ancestry who aren't Christian aren't Christian. I've even argued this point with Jews who think they are, so I guess I'm not the one who needs convincing. Assuming everyone is some religion in their heritage gets us into problems - see: Obama, Islam.

Long answer: Basically, you're right that there are Jews who identify as such despite not being observant. But this doesn't cover the whole picture - an impossible-to-count set of individuals are identified as Jews regardless of how they self-identify. Non-Jews might wonder at what it means for an atheist to also be a Jew, but there are other non-Jews who don't doubt for a minute that Saul Goldman is a Jew, whatever he believes. As for Jews identifying other Jews, if you're referring to observant Jews, they have no opinion on Saul Goldberg unless his mother was Jewish or he converted to Judaism. Also, Jews are maybe best understood as a quasi-visible minority. Certain people are identified as Jews by how they look, and will be taken not so seriously if they announce that they are not or no longer Jewish. Not true of all Jews, of course. Thus "quasi."

And then there's the fact that everyone's background is some mix of cultural and religious factors. This isn't just a Jewish thing, thus terms like "Irish Catholic" or "WASP," neither of which assumes an individual actually believes in anything particular. While I would not consider someone of one of these backgrounds "Christian" if they did not so identify, I would say that it's easy, if you come from the majority group, not to recognize that you also have cultural particularity. This might be more of an issue in Europe than in the States, but there's a sense in which atheists of majority/white ancestry will assume cultural particularities from minority groups are somehow evidence that these groups are hyperreligious. The example that comes to mind is how the circumcision debate was discussed - people were assuming Jews or Muslims believed they'd be struck down by God if they didn't circumcise their sons. Some might feel this way, but difference isn't necessarily religious difference, even if it gets classified that way.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe: yes to all of that. I like your point about WASPs and Irish Catholics. Of course, there is no similar label that I can think of which includes the simple designation "Christian." (I'm sure there are in other countries though.) I admit that I have much less objection to being called a WASP (despite the possibly pejorative connotations) or even just a Protestant (but better still would be New England Congregationalist, though that might be fairly meaningless to a lot of people) than I do to being called a Christian. That at least does get to my cultural heritage in a way that "Christian" does not (except, I assume, to the non-culturally-Christian who, being outside it, generalize using larger cultural categories).