“December Dilemma” is the perfect way to describe the mixture of emotions I feel during the holiday season.
I like twinkle lights, but I don’t like how stores start playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving. I love old Claymation Christmas cartoons, Christmas cookies, and Christmas carols. Red and green are great colors that go well together, but I prefer blue and silver. I like shopping for presents, but I hate how busy the mall gets.
I am similarly conflicted about Santa Claus. After years in public school of having to write him letters, and receiving nothing for my efforts, we have a complicated past.
So in the spirit of Sam’s recent delightful letter to Santa, here is mine.
Season’s Greetings. I am sorry that haven’t written since grade school, when my teacher made me write to you. I do not remember what I said in that letter, but it was probably grumpy and insincere. You see, I was the only Jewish kid in my school and I was so tired of having to write you a letter every year. It just seemed fruitless. You bring presents to children around the world, but only those who celebrate Christmas. I understand, I don’t celebrate Christmas and you deliver Christmas presents. It’s like why I don’t get presents on my sister’s birthday.
Even though I knew you would not leave me presents, I still insisted that we leave you your favorite snack, Christmas cookies. I think my Dad knew that you still wouldn’t come, because in Kindergarten I caught him eating your cookies. Bet that never happened to any Christmas-celebrating child…
And now, Santa, I would like to take this time to formally apologize for what I think is probably the biggest rift in our friendship: I am so sorry that I told my Kindergarten class that you were not real.
I don’t remember doing it, but my parents said that they got the call telling them about the horrible lies I was spreading throughout the preschool. I am sincerely sorry, I was just a sad and bitter little Kindergartener. I am sorry for denying your existence. (If it is any consolation, I do not think that the other kids believed me). I regret my actions and any pain, trauma, and trust issues I may have caused those poor children. I hope they didn’t spend too much time in therapy because of this incident.
In the spirit of friendship I would like to invite you to celebrate another holiday together. No it’s not Hanukkah or Kwanza, Festivus or Saturnalia, it’s my birthday. In an odd twist of fate, my birthday is on December 26th. (I must admit, this less than ideal birth date may have added to my dislike of Christmas) But this year, I will keep my chimney chute open and leave out some cookies. We can chat and discuss our differences. It will go down in history as the Great Birthday Mediation of 2014. We can lay a solid foundation for further Jewish-Santa relations in the future, and maybe figure out a way to stop clogging your mail box full of letters from Jewish kids whose teachers make them write to you….just a suggestion.
P.S. I would really love a stand mixer this year.
While some of my friends and neighbors are getting ready for the holiday season by watching Christmas specials, I recently decided to watch a different sort of “tradition-al” film— Fiddler on the Roof.
“Fiddler” is celebrating 50 years since it first opened on Broadway. Like many people, I associate the musical with old-world life in the shtetl. But, watching it recently, I was struck by how much remains relevant to Jewish life today, particularly during the holiday season.
As Tevye, the main character, and his family face the influences of secularism and Christianity, he struggles to reconcile his love for his family with his love of tradition. And, when his daughters’ pursuit of love comes up against his passion for tradition, he is willing to adapt, and he does…until he can’t.
The struggle reaches a climax when his third daughter marries a Christian. After his dreams of arranging his daughters’ marriages has already been shattered by his two older daughters (with the eldest marrying a poor tailor, despite Tevye having promised her to a wealthy butcher, and the next one leaving home to join her political prisoner love in Siberia), the final straw comes when his third daughter proclaims her intentions to wed outside the faith. When she and her beloved come to him, their exchange is painful:
CHAVA: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
TEVYE [to himself/to the heavens, as the others all freeze]: Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith? My people? If I try and bend that far, I will break. On the other hand…No. There is no other hand.
What I find most beautiful about this musical is that regardless of whether one thinks Tevye should be more accepting of his daughters’ choices or if you think that his daughters ought to have more reverence for the traditions with which they were raised (matchmaking included), one cannot help but admire the characters’ willingness to struggle.
Holidays seem to bring this struggle to the forefront as our observance of tradition is made public with whether and how we celebrate Hanukkah—whether we put a menorah in our windowsill for all to see, whether we have people over for latkes and whether we give children gelt or gifts. Perhaps though, the more confusing dilemmas are related to whether and how a Jewish family acknowledges and/or celebrates Christmas.
I encourage everyone who struggles to watch Fiddler on the Roof. If nothing else, it is proof that those who struggle are not alone and that the struggle is not exclusive to our generation. I also believe that an even more profound message is in this classic film – a lesson not to be too quick to judge others for their choices during the holiday season. Remember, for each “on the one hand,” there is an “on the other hand.” Because even though Tevye initially says “there is no other hand”…. His struggle does not end there. He only seems to reach a wall—but the wall is porous, as we see Tevye’s love for his daughter shine through. When the Jews of Anatevka are forced to leave, Tevye’s daughter Chava and her Christian husband come to bid farewell to her family. They express that they, too, cannot stay in a place where people are treated so poorly. At first, Tevye does not acknowledge her but as she walks away, he mumbles: “And God be with you.”
During this holiday season, let us honor the struggle Jews have faced for centuries and recognize that there is a myriad of ways in which we could honor tradition and the choices of our families, friends and neighbors. And, as we try and stay true to our “on the one hand,” let us always remember that somewhere there lies an “on the other hand.”
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Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me, because I can celebrate it with my Christian family. For many Jews like myself, who have not only friends but also family of other faiths, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come together. It is a holiday embodying values important both in Judaism and American culture.
However, this embrace of Thanksgiving by people of all faiths was not always the case.
Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of the annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional event. It supposedly was first observed in 1631 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Pilgrims breaking bread with the local Native Americans who helped them with their successful harvest. However, this image of the supposed-first Thanksgiving has become fraught with controversy, since history makes clear that beyond the first joint “Thanksgiving,” mutual peace, dependence, and friendship did not characterize Native American/Pilgrim relations—but that’s another blog post.
With time, the holiday came to serve as symbol for national unity, but one that was still rooted in a primarily Protestant Christian understanding. The Continental Congress gave the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777, which stressed that observance would “please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance.” In 1844, South Carolina Governor Hammond called on Thanksgiving for the citizens of his state to join in worship, as “becomes all Christian nations…. to God their creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.” In response, Jews in Charleston protested. They refused to observe Thanksgiving publicly in the synagogues, keeping the two buildings closed on the holiday and accused Hammond of violating the constitution of South Carolina. Hammond’s reply? “I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land.” Rather than continuing an intemperate debate, they resolved to publish all of the correspondence in the press, allowing “public opinion of the country” to decide the issue.
The official federal holiday was enacted during the Civil War when this nation was in the midst of a tumultuous struggle. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials, beginning in 1846, encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving be widely adopted. She hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Her appeal for a national day of thanksgiving was successful, and Lincoln put forth a national proclamation in November of 1863. Secretary of State Seward called on the nation to observe the day “with one heart and voice,” to bring about peace. The holiday stressed the act of a “family homecoming,” and helped ease the dislocations of wars, industrial and commercial revolutions, and social unrest.
It also helped Jews feel more included in the American experience.
Scholars like Beth Wenger in History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage argue that over time, Thanksgiving has proven to be an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot, pointing out that the Pilgrims were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible. Almost since their first arrival in America, Jews sponsored celebrations of American holidays as a way of asserting both their allegiance to American civic ideals and the symbiosis of Jewish and American values. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews even made a practice of celebrating Thanksgiving in synagogues while Christians were doing the same in churches. With time, it became popular to participate in interfaith ceremonies. Indeed, this trend continues across the country in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Sun Valley, Idaho.
Despite its complicated past, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder that even in our troubled times, we can still give thanks. Practicing gratitude in one’s everyday life is as good for a person as exercise or healthy living. It keeps us centered, humble, and ultimately, empathetic. It is that empathy for others around us that defines us both as a Jewish community and country, and it can continue to help all of us, despite our differences, tackle difficulties in the future.
I will be grateful to gather for this ecumenical celebration with my own religiously diverse family. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
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