We say that the Jewish holidays come either too early or too late but they never come on time.
We know what it’s like for Chanukah to come so early that it falls on Thanksgiving, and we like when it comes late and falls on Christmas so we have our Jewish alternative to “the most wonderful time of the year.”
This year Chanukah fell cleanly between the two, if a bit on the earlier side. That was refreshing! We were able to celebrate Chanukah for its own sake without the pressure of having it stand up and compete with its non-Jewish neighbors. People came to synagogue for services, and Chanukah parties and communal menorah lightings were well attended. Chanukah gatherings did not have to serve as consolation this year for those on “staycations.” We were able to simply say “thank you” when wished a “Happy Chanukah” from our non-Jewish friends without needing to reciprocate with “Merry Christmas” or anything else.
But what happens now? Most public menorah displays will stay lit through the end of December. But beyond that, there is no distraction from the peculiar circumstance of the American Jew, belonging but not belonging, insider and outsider.
The broader public is sensitive to the reality that not all Americans celebrate Christmas, and that even for most Christians the observance is removed from its religious meaning. We see more and more “Happy Holidays” signs as religion becomes generic and reduced to Hallmark slogans. Has Christmas in America become secularized sufficiently that it can be kosher?
Or to look at it from the opposite perspective, have we American Jews become assimilated enough that we are not afraid of Christmas anymore?
As American Jews, we never quite know what to do on Christmas. This year we have to think about it more than we do on other years because we can’t just do Chanukah instead. Chanukah is over.
In the Orthodox world most schools stay open on Christmas to avoid any hint of assimilation. Non-Orthodox Jewish schools close for “winter break” although even many public schools say “winter break” now instead of “Christmas vacation.” Many American Jews like to go out for Chinese food on Christmas eve, not only because Chinese restaurants are open but also because it is not a very good American Christian thing to do. We find that we need to differentiate ourselves somehow, even as we mix in. But I also like to drink eggnog on Christmas. I recognize that I live in a culture in which my identity is that of a minority but I still hold a stake in the majority culture.
We use various strategies to keep our Jewish identities but not disavow our place as Americans at the table.
The first Jews who experimented with Christmas engagement were the German Jews of the 19th century. Christmas as we know it developed in Germany, where the trees and the music are combined, with communities coming together in the ubiquitous outdoor “Christmas market” where folks enjoy the warmth of a glass of Glüwein at night. When I first studied German Jewish history from a German Jewish emigre historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he stressed to us that assimilation is an unfortunate word, as it implies that the Jew was lost amidst the broader culture. The better term for the cultural process of German Jewry, our professor told us, was acculturation. Assimilation implies that the Jew is lost in the majority culture. Acculturation implies that the Jew successfully has become part of the majority culture without losing the rootedness of a Jewish core.
Whether we in America are doing more acculturation or assimilation is a story that contemporary observers debate but only future historians will determine. On the one hand, we have the surveys that bemoan the continuing decrease in Jewish observance and education, raising red flags for continuity. On the other, we have blatant evidence of acceptance, such as Joe Lieberman’s nationally televised eulogy for John McCain at the National Cathedral, where Lieberman talked about McCain taking a “Shabbos elevator” with him in a Washington hotel.
We live in an extraordinary time. Jews have the option to place their Judaism aside and completely blend in with the broader culture. And concurrently, an observant Jew can talk about Shabbos in the National Cathedral.
We did not need the Pittsburgh tragedy to remind us that there are many in this country who never will accept us. The German Jews did not need the Holocaust to remind them that all the acculturation or assimilation in the world would not prevail over the seeds of racism, hatred, and bigotry. But we do recognize that there are various different Americas. There is an America that does not accept us. Then there is an America that is generic and heartless, a massive marketplace where a person will face neither discrimination nor embrace. And then there is that middle ground, an America where we can find acceptance for who we are, and in exchange we accept others for who they are.
Cultural identity is a continuous negotiation of accepting and rejecting, of assimilating and acculturating. A Christmas without Chanukah gives us an opportunity to see who we are as Americans without the easy escape of running home to light the menorah. We have an opportunity to accommodate the majority culture in our lives even as we remember who we are every day, not just for eight days. This year when my Christian friends wished me a “Happy Chanukah” I relished the opportunity to just say “thank you” without the reciprocal “Merry Christmas” or the generic “and Happy Holidays to you!” Rather than an exchange about the weather, I felt acknowledged for who I was as a Jew, and was able to genuinely say thank you for accepting me for who I am. And now it is our turn. When we say “Merry Christmas” to our Christian friends they cannot respond with “Happy Chanukah” unless, of course, they are paying no attention to the calendar of Jewish holidays. They can say “thank you” and thereby imply that they acknowledge that we recognize that we are living in their majority culture, a culture in which we have a share, but not ownership. I believe that we are ready to have this conversation this year.