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For the majority of Americans, December 25 is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but for Jews it is a time to consider ones relationship to the wider society. Some Jews have chosen to adopt the Yuletide festivities. Some have emphatically rejected the rituals and symbols of Christmas. Still others have sought ways to meld Christmas and Hanukkah. Christmas, in effect, has become a prism through which Jews can view how living in this land of freedom has shaped our religion, culture, and identity.
For centuries, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe feared Christmas-time. At any other time, pious Jews would be studying Torah in the synagogue, but not on Christmas. Wary of being attacked in the street, they took refuge in their homes, playing cards or chess with their families.
The story was different in Western Europe, where, for the Jewish elite, holiday symbols–such as the Christmas tree–signified secular inclusion in society. Affluent German Jews often posed for portraits with their extended families in front of elaborately decorated Christmas trees. The Viennese socialite Fanny Arnstein, a co-founder of the Music Society of Austria, was among the first Jews to introduce a Christmas tree into the home, an act also practiced by none other than the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Indeed, after Herzl completed his seminal book on Zionism in 1895, Vienna’s Chief Rabbi visited him at his home during the month of December. This historically significant meeting took place with a Christmas tree in view.
In Berlin, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas “with roast goose or hare, a decorated Christmas tree which my mother bought at the market by St. Peter’s Church, and the big distribution of presents for servants, relatives, and friends…An aunt who played the piano treated our cook and servant girl to ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.'” These celebrations, Scholem believed, reflected the view that Christmas was “a German national festival, in the celebration of which we joined not as Jews but as Germans.” As a young adult, Scholem would reject his family’s celebration and, instead, attend a Maccabee ball for single Jews in Berlin–a matchmaking idea that has as its modern counterpart the Matzo Ball, a party for Jewish singles held in cities throughout North America.
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