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Monday, 28 December 2009

Jews and Christmas

I find this is a strange time of the year if you are Jewish. What are we Jews to do on Christmas Day and Boxing Day? As Diaspora Jews we are obviously a minority within a larger culture: a culture which is nominally Christian but is also devoutly secular and devoted (with a fundamentalist’s fervour) to our dominating belief-system, the cult of consumerism.

So what stance do we take up to what is going on around us? Is it Christmas lunch with kosher turkey? Is it a day to be with family, like any other yomtov of our own? Is it a day to be one of the millions going on-line to buy a little happiness in the sales? Do we have a tree, for decorative purposes, and tell ourselves that it is after all just a Victorian invention? Is it a day to volunteer to help others, eg ‘Crisis at Christmas’, helping out so that others can have a break? Perhaps we flee the country, to get away from it all? Or do we just ignore it? How do we locate ourselves on these days?

Inevitably our response to this is personal, and it may change from year to year. We discussed this on Shabbat morning during the service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, and it was interesting to hear that , with a couple of exceptions, there was a general feeling of rather laid-back good cheer about these north London Jews’ response to Christmas. Almost as if it was the most natural thing in the world that Jews should feel at home in this celebratory holiday period.

It may be that Christmas time for Jews illustrates just how much we are fused into the larger culture of our native land: Christmas lunch has become as little to do with Christianity as Santa Claus - so if we do have some kind of gathering we are illustrating that our identity is mixed, complex, mongrel. This now is who we are: Jews who are far removed from the intolerance of those in the yeshivah world of Jerusalem whom I studied with many years ago who were very denigratory of Christmas day – they had a contemptuous and derogatory phrase for it (yoshkie’s birthday), and they wouldn’t even say the word ‘Christmas’; in that world it’s the custom to study specific extra texts on December 25th as a kind of psychic counterweight to the alien religious forces at work. So it was clear from our discussion on Shabbat morning that we aren’t like that.

But nor are we so secularised that we partake of all the jollity and celebrations without a second thought: we probably don’t see ourselves, in Jonathan Miller’s celebrated phrase, just as ‘Jew-ish’ and able to join in with it all like the millions of non-Christian secularists.

It is a curious vocation being Jewish. It is made up of so many strands of feeling and memory, of choices made and choices rejected, and whether it is something we were born into or have freely adopted, our sense of Jewishness in each of us is, I’m sure, large and capacious, filled with conscious and unconscious material, some of it rich and nurturing, some of it probably shabby and worn-out. We are, in Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase, ‘stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuff with the stuff that is fine’ (from Song of Myself). And we can enjoy that, our multifaceted, hybrid Jewish identity.

This multi-layeredness is, after all, rooted in our history. Just think of our many names. Our Biblical texts illustrate how we started off as ‘Ivri/m – Hebrew/s – a word meaning ‘outsiders, nomads, strangers, wanderers’. The root is the word avar, meaning ‘to cross over’ – Abraham the first Hebrew in our mythic tales (Gen 14:13) crossed over the Jordan (and the Euphrates) on his way from Nahor to Canaan, impelled by his divine mission. And this is who we became: wanderers though history, through countries; and crossers of boundaries, not just geographical, but also cultural and intellectual. Jewish creativity and innovation, in the sciences and social sciences, in economics and psychology, in art and music and literature, is a testimony to some almost innate psychological capacity for thinking ‘outside the box’, as we say it now - crossing over and beyond the established thinking into new areas of thought and discovery. This is Jews as ‘Ivrim’- boundary-crossers.

But we are also bnei Yisrael – the children of Israel – and we know the folk etymology of that word Yisrael: the patriarch Jacob renamed as a ‘wrestler with God’, a ‘struggler with the divine and for the divine’. And we carry this name in our soul as well. The spiritual struggle to enact the values of our tradition and faith – this is also who and what we are.

And then we are Yehudim, Jews, named after the character we focused on in this week’s Torah sedrah, Judah (Yehudah). (Genesis 44:18 – 45:14, from sedrah Va’yigash). We aren’t called ‘Josephites’ – in spite of Joseph being the key character who carries the story of the people from Canaan into Egypt, linking the patriarchs with the Exodus narratives where the group of families become a real people. Without Joseph the divine mission would have reached a dead-end. And Joseph would have been the perfect character to give us a collective name because it is Joseph who is the first real Diaspora Jew, living as a stranger in a strange land yet achieving great prominence in the secular world – second only to Pharaoh in power and influence, he was chancellor of the exchequer, prime minister and minister for agriculture all rolled into one. He could have taught how to remain true to one’s religious roots yet integrated into one’s adopted culture. I’d have been happy to be called a ‘Josephite’.

But it’s Judah, the fourth oldest of the brothers, who becomes the one to give his name to our people. His older brothers are written out of the picture, de-legitimizing themselves from taking on the mantle of peoplehood. Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine; Simeon and Levi commit a massacre at Shechem – the text is unsparing in showing how incestuous desire and murderous revenge are endemic human qualities. Jacob’s offspring are an unruly and unbecoming bunch.

And it is left to Judah, the one who was originally averse to killing Joseph and suggested he was sold into slavery instead, to redeem the situation. He becomes the brother who is prepared to sacrifice himself for Benjamin – in order to protect his aging father from the devastation of losing Benjamin as well as Joseph. ‘It’ll kill him’ says Judah, several times over – a statement of real imagination and empathy. This transformation in the character of Judah is an extraordinary piece of storytelling. "Callousness is replaced with concern. Indifference is replaced with courage and self-sacrifice." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

And so he takes his place in the psychic structure of our people when we are later named Yehudim – ‘Judahites’, as it were. Historically, it was the tribe of Judah that dominated the southern Kingdom after the Assyrians conquered the north of Israel, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. We get our other name, after Ivrim and Yisrael from him: Yehudim, Jews.

So we are multiple in our Jewishness, even in our names. And it is this multiplicity that we bring to these strange days in our calendar, our calendar which is not our calendar. During these days it is as if we are suspended between two worlds, or rather have a foot in two worlds. Maybe that is true the rest of the year as well, but at Christmas time it can really come home to us as we negotiate a pathway through the sentimentality and inanity of the festivities and all that bullying bonhomie that is forced upon us through the airwaves and the newspapers and the shops.

I feel sorry for real Christians in a way – they have their noble and rather wondrous story colonised by all the kitsch and the consumerism. But that assault on the real spiritual core of a religious festival is something I recognise too at Jewish festivals: do multiple presents for the children and scoffing doughnuts really sum up the essence of Hanukkah? Are the new hats and outfits really the spiritual meaning of Rosh Hashanah? Are the debates on the correct consistency of the matza balls what Pesach now symbolises? Silly examples, I know, but they point towards a more serious issue: how to find a language with which we can now talk about the things that matter in our own religious tradition.


  1. I'm one on the "real Christians" you feel sorry for - and I thank you for this wonderful meditation on the issues raised for Jews by the season just past. Spot on in so many ways, and so many resonances: I have come to terms with the season by regarding it as basically a pagan consumerist festival which just happens to co-incide with a Christian festival. The pagans did, after all, get there first!

  2. I took my car for an oil change during the "Holiday" Season last year. Arriving early, my car was first in line and i went to the almost empty waiting room. The young girl looked up, around and then asked me if the "Holiday" music bothered me. I said no while understanding her reason. Looking around she said "I can turn it off". Again, i said no.

    This was becoming silly. She looked around and
    then said "Some people are complaining and even tell me to turn it off". I said, it doesn't bother me. She continued and said "some people complain about the decorations".
    I smiled and waited for my car service to be completed, pay and then leave.

    This has happened to me a number of times.
    A few local places of business forbid any
    Holiday message with an explicit "X-ian"

    OK. I'll put up with this while respecting
    the growing emergence of LARGE Menorah in
    the local markets and in front of various Municipal Buildings.

    Sure - Happy Channukah or Hannukah.
    I sincerely wish the Best during your Holidays.

    No longer quite sure others wish me the same.