It’s Christmas time. Europe, especially Germany, celebrates Christmas the old fashioned way. Christmas Markets light up city, town, and village squares. An old tradition that gave ordinary folk a unique opportunity to buy gifts and decorations for family and friends. Years ago wooden toys, baked goods, homemade nativity scenes, and green foliage were sold out of makeshift wooden huts in village squares. Fast forward to today, and although the same markets still exist, and the wooden huts still stand; the traditional simplicity has somewhat morphed into glitzy ornaments (probably made in China), and tacos, pizza, and garlic bread have replaced the immortal wurst. Even the traditional gluewein has been upgraded to warm Amaretto or the millennian “must have” Hugo. But on a recent trip to Nurnberg’s Christmas Market, one of the largest in Germany, what caught my eye was the unexpected. Nothing prepared me for a small brown wooden hut with an Israeli flag on it! Oy Vey!
Nurnberg is best known for its post WWII Nurnberg trials where Holocaust justice was finally served. But it is also a city still struggling to balance Third Reich legacy and 21st Century tolerance. The famous Zeppelinfeld Arena once home to 400,000 marching saluting German troops and 300,000 party spectators, is now a soccer field and a favorite location for Sunday outings. The large Swastika that adorned the top of the building is long gone, courtesy of the US Army which took great pleasure in blowing it up to smithereens. However, the building itself still stands heavily locked up. It seems that far right nut cases would love nothing to do but turn it into a Nazi shrine and cause a pain in the proverbial tuche to local authorities. It was also in Nurnberg that the “final solution” was drafted and implemented. Not a city one would perceive as conducive to great Jewish relations. Prior to WWII, the Nurnberg Jewish population was a vibrant 9,000, the second largest in Germany. Post WWII, only 200 Jews remained. Eventually, with the fall of the Soviet Union and migration, that number rose again to approximately a 1,000. Jews make up 0.001% of the city’s almost 600,000 inhabitants. Not high Jewish presence or visibility, which makes Jewish participation at one of the largest Christmas Markets in Germany more intriguing.
Nurnberg prides itself as being diverse and tolerant. Every year the Nurnberg Christmas Market includes an area dedicated to ethnic and minority communities who share their Christmas traditions and foods. Although I was excited to see the Israeli participation, I was also curious. Having been studying Hebrew for two years, I eagerly approached the Israeli “delegation” and introduced myself in Hebrew. I received a “deer in the headlight” stare and was abruptly informed by the gentleman behind the counter that he did not speak Hebrew. He was German, and a member of the Nurnberg Jewish community. As I proceeded to buy Menorah candles and a shiny Israeli flag keychain; the gentleman seemed to have warmed up to me. But I was still too chicken to ask when and why did the Jewish community decide to participate and represent Israel. I assumed that perhaps Hanukkah and its proximity to Christmas had something to do with it. As I walked away I could not help but notice another little brown hut, right across the cobbled square; it had a Palestinian flag. Not to start a provocative argument I refrained from asking that gentleman where exactly the “country” of Palestine was located? But I digress.
Unlike the United States, where Hanukkah has reached Hallmark Christmas marketability; in Germany or Europe for that matter, one hardly ever finds the same proliferation of Hanukkah merchandise. In the 33 years that I have lived in Germany I have yet to come across one Jewish or kosher store let alone one selling Hanukkah paraphernalia. New York City on the other hand is inundated with them. Ironically enough I became acquainted with Hanukkah in Northern Germany some 33 years ago. I have been observing it ever since. Although some might find a Christian celebrating Hanukkah strange, I find it reasonable. Doing some research on Hanukkah I came upon some words of wisdom from a Rebbe. Hanukkah goes beyond latkes and sufganiyot, Hanukkah teaches us to stand for what is right despite the odds and gives us the same Maccabean courage to rebel against evil. Hanukkah should be in our hearts all year long.
Not everyone is of the same opinion as the Rebbe. Ben Shapiro, the prominent American Jewish pundit is disturbed by what happens in the United States. He is of the opinion that American Jews feel compelled to compete with the Christmas glitz and elevate Hanukkah to the same level. According to Mr. Shapiro, most secular American Jews only celebrate Hanukkah for the sake of their children; to give them a sense of “holiday spirit” and belonging during the over powering Christmas season. The problem is that young Jewish kids are more apt to become secular and uninterested in their Jewry if they are thought to think of Judaism as competing with other religions. Judaism is a way of life that sets Jews apart by historic moments in time that define them and their belief. Hanukkah should be celebrated as winning a war against those who attempted to force Jews to worship false Gods. Good against evil. As a Christian, I find Mr. Shapiro’s angle conducive to spirituality and Jewry, but is it so bad for the rest of us to celebrate Hanukkah? Was it correct of the Jewish Community to introduce it at a Christmas Market (that is to say if that was their intention)? At a time when Europe and the US are reporting a rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment, would it not seem beneficial for Jewish communities to participate and educate?
We all realize that Christmas has been hijacked by the market economy. Retailers raise most of their bottom line at Christmas time, which is ironic because secularists would love nothing more than to abolish religion altogether. Yet, between October and December it is “religion” that drives the economy to a successful closure. In the United States, especially in cities like New York, Hanukkah has become as financially viable for retailers as Christmas is. Eight days of gift giving is a capitalist’s dream. Why not get caught up in the “most wonderful time of the year”? What is the harm? I confess that while in New York City I was also caught up in the Hanukkah frenzy and ended up with two Menorahs: one from Macy’s and one from Saks 5th Avenue. Both get lit beside a German wooden Christmas pyramid, an advent wreath, and a nativity scene from Poland. I enjoy them all equally and they all fit perfectly on my dining room table. I have been often asked why I celebrate Hanukkah. My answer: Why not?
I don’t believe that the Nurnberg Jewish community’s participation at the Christmas market had any political implications or nefarious motives toward secularization of Hanukkah. I do not even think that want as Mr. Shapiro put it: “A Jewish Christmas”. I am of the opinion that the Jewish Community wanted to support the city’s efforts in bringing people together. These markets attract locals and tourists alike. Although a Christian ritual, they are enjoyed by everyone of every faith. The Jewish community saw this as an opportunity to inform, educate, and enjoy the combination of two historical events from two Biblical perspectives. A chance for those who know very little about Judaism and Israel to get to know both and appreciate them at face value rather than through political rhetoric. Amid the smell of fresh lebkuchen and warm gluhwein one could not however dismiss the conspicuous strong presence of German polizei in very close proximity to “Israel”. Coincidence? Possibly. And as I walked away with my Menorah candles and “Israel” keychain I felt compelled to turn and wish the non-descript man Hanukkah Samaech! Did he understand me? Who cares…it is the Hanukkah spirit that counts.
Chabad.org. What is Hanukkah? Retreived December 9, 2018 from: https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/102911/jewish/What-Is-Hanukkah.htm
Shapiro. B. November 30, 2018. Stop Trying to Make Hanukkah The Jewish Christmas. Retrieved December 9, 2018 from: https://www.dailywire.com/news/38886/shapiro-jewish-journal-stop-trying-make-hanukkah-ben-shapiro