“How do Jews celebrate Christmas?”
“What was that?” I must have misunderstood.
“How do Jews celebrate Christmas?” he repeated, a bit more insistently this time.
Although my clarinet playing days are long behind me, at one time I was a professional musician – free-lancing, teaching music part-time in a university and serving a four-year stint as the principal clarinetist of the U.S. Air Force Band of the West in San Antonio, Texas. It was in this latter capacity that I received this earnest inquiry about Jewish Christmas traditions.
The question was timely. It was December, and we were in the midst of preparing for a round of concerts that the Air Force marketing geniuses had dubbed “Christmas in Blue.” Air Force colors notwithstanding, the Christmas in Blue experience introduced me to a slew of Christmas songs that somehow had eluded me during my New York Jewish childhood. In the midst of unfamiliar territory, I already felt a bit disoriented.
Nonetheless, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the question. I was 2,000 miles away from New York. The questioner had been born and bred in San Antonio, with a metro area population of about two million and a Jewish population south of 10,000. He had never ventured north of Dallas. I was the first Jew he ever met. He really didn’t know.
For a moment, I thought to reveal that Jews celebrate Christmas by eating Chinese food. But recognizing that this phenomenon would have been beyond his experience, I simply said, “Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.”
It turned out I might have done better with the Chinese food response. That Jews don’t celebrate Christmas simply didn’t fit into the world he knew.
“What do you mean, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas?” He couldn’t fathom that anyone wouldn’t celebrate Christmas. After a few tense seconds that felt substantially longer, he shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
My four years living in an area with mega-churches with congregations that eclipsed the city’s entire Jewish population gave me my share of sometimes humorous, sometimes awkward moments, several of which my wife and I recount in our book Doublelife. One moment – a corollary to the Jewish Christmas question – replayed itself several times. People who had never met a Jew before invariably would ask “What do Jews believe” or “What is Judaism?”
Then in my twenties, confident in my Jewish identity but spectacularly unaware of my Jewish ignorance, I would self-assuredly proclaim: “Jews believe much the same as Christians do, just without the Jesus part.” Yes, take out a few details that are of monumental significance to Christians, rip out the central narrative of the Christian religion, and while we’re at it ignore the central narrative of Judaism, and we all believe pretty much the same thing.
I’ve heard countless Jews offer, in essence, the same response. And it might be true on a surface level. Love your neighbor, justice, compassion, kindness and so forth. Don’t we all share these values? Yes, we do, but off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen other religions that share these values. How we apply them, how our beliefs shape our actions, the weight we assign to competing values, how we see our place in the world, and a thousand other specific applications of these values are what give each religion its distinctiveness.
And that brings me back to how Jews celebrate Christmas. Because many of us really do. No, I don’t mean that we go to church or even put up trees and lights, although neither practice is unknown. But when you get beyond the “December Dilemma” of some intermarried families, the superficiality of the “Hanukkah Harry Meets Santa Claus” greeting cards, and those among us who just want to be part of the action, there remains a way in which we celebrate Christmas without meaning to.
We eat Chinese food on Christmas Day because many Chinese restaurants happen to be open. But over time, it’s become our established way of saying that we’re Jewish, that this is what we do on Christmas when everyone else is doing something else. That pork fried rice and lobster sauce are an integral part of this near-sacred ritual somehow doesn’t matter, because after all, we’re busy doing something to not celebrate the holiday.
But in working so hard to not celebrate Christmas – whether at a Chinese restaurant or elsewhere – we are, in our own way, celebrating Christmas.
When I defined Judaism by saying it’s Christianity minus Jesus, besides doing a grave injustice to both religions, I was essentially defining Judaism by what it is not. I said nothing about what Judaism actually is. We do this all the time, in ways big and small – whether not celebrating Christmas by doing something we only do on Christmas, or pretending there’s nothing distinctive about us except that we don’t follow what is distinctive about others, or creating our Jewish identity by reacting against outside forces of hatred rather than looking deep inside at what we believe and what makes us tick.
Were I to answer the “What do Jews believe” question today, I would give a very different response – one that speaks to our unique covenant and relationship with God described in the Torah, that the Torah gives all human beings a sacred role in the world and a sacred relationship with our Creator but that it prescribes a very specific role and tremendous responsibility to the Jewish people. (Yes, I know some will say that for them, being Jewish is just a cultural thing, by which they usually mean a narrow form of Eastern European-derived Jewish culture. Sorry, herring is not a religion.)
As a people, we would do better if we spent less time reacting to outside forces and more time understanding who we are from the inside. We fight wars, combat anti-Semitism and resist outside cultural and religious influences because we must to survive. But mere survival is hardly a worthy purpose. We need to find and live our purpose as a people – from the inside.
This December 25th, I will be at work, at my desk, just like any other day. But I live in Israel, where it’s a regular work day, and in most places you can go through the entire day without it crossing your mind that a major holiday is going on somewhere else. Not so easy to do in the U.S. or other Jewish communities. But the extra effort required makes it perhaps that much more important.
So this December 25th, whatever you do, I hope it will be something that is Jewishly meaningful. And it need not happen in a Chinese restaurant.