Eastern European Jews & Christmas

A day to play games and avoid Torah study.

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Certain names invented for Christmas transcend being merely descriptive in character and actually denote the feelings of fear Jews harbored about Christmas Eve. In Galicia and Ukraine, Christmas was referred to as Finstere Nahkht (Dark Night), Moyredike Nahkht (Fearful Night), and Blinde Nahkht (Blind Night).

Today, in America, Christmas is not a fearful time, and most American Jews have good relations with their Christian neighbors and certainly lack the impetus to read the antagonistic Toledot Yeshu. Still, the practice of calling Christmas by the name Nittel persists in certain Yiddish-speaking Orthodox communities in the United States, especially in New York communities in Brooklyn, Monsey, and Kiryat Joel. The idea of not studying Torah on Christmas still exists in some of these communities as well. Indeed, amongst the Satmar Hasidim, one term used for Christmas is Bitel Nahkht, a reference to Bitul Torah--temporarily suspending Torah study.

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Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD is Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, representing Israel's premier hospital in the USA. He is a historian, photo-ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Silent Night: Being Jewish at Christmas Time in America: Proclaiming Identity in the Face of Seasonal Marginality.