Monday, December 15, 2008

Jews have no business being enamored of Christmas

For the first of this season's Nextbook literary salons, my co-organizer, Elana Kupor, selected a piece of short fiction by Binnie Kirschenbaum titled "Jews Have No Business Being Enamored of Germans," in which the female protagonist expresses her vehement belief that Jewish people and German people shouldn't tangle. She bases her theory on both historical issues (for example, the Holocaust) and a peculiar personal event, in which a lusty German hippie sneaks into her room and tries to get into bed with her.

While I think the reader isn't expected to come away from the story convinced that Jews and Germans shouldn't interact, I do find that some Jews I know have a dim view of Christmas, and while I can understand why, it doesn't square with how I was raised. That's something that has become particularly apparent to me this year, since I'm a resident of the Ravenna Kibbutz, where a Christmas tree in the common space wouldn't fly. (I've decided to forgo my annual acquisition of an evergreen, since the idea of a little tree in my room doesn't appeal to me.)

I wasn't raised religious, although I attended Sunday school from a young age until my bar mitzvah, after which I co-led services from time to time at T'chiyah, my family's lay-led congregation (which has since acquired a very nice rabbi). I floated away from Judaism during high school, happy to be freed from the intensive work of Sunday school and bar mitzvah preparation, and in college all I could muster by way of Jewish involvement was a disastrous semester as Hillel's treasurer and participation in Kosher Co-op's annual Chanukah blowout. After a few years in Seattle, I wanted to find a way to get involved in the Jewish community that would fit my personality and my take on Jewish life, such as it was. I tried going to shul and attending Jconnect events, but neither setting felt quite right. The Kibbutz is the first Jewish organization I've found -- in Seattle, but really anywhere I've been -- that seems (almost) made for me. It's a good feeling to find a place like that, especially after such a long search.

Anyway, back to Christmas. My father, whose first wife wasn't Jewish, loved celebrating the holiday so much that when he married my mother, who is Jewish, he didn't want to give it up. (He liked to call it "Wxmas" -- pronounced "Wux-mas" -- because the last letter of the word "Jew" is "W." It's kind of a long story.) I was raised with a Christmas tree, angel chimes, stockings hung by the chimney with care, cookies and milk for Santa, carols sung by the fire, and on and on. When I was very young, I once asked my father, before bed, whether I could convert to Christianity, so enamored was I of Christmas. "We can talk about it when you're older," my father said in a conspiratorial whisper. "For now, just don't tell your grandmother."

I know that my father's view of the winter holidays was that they all seek to bring a little light and warmth into a dark time of year, and what could be wrong with that? I also know that many Jews I know now and have known over the years resent America's de facto cultural Christianity, and the way the Christian mainstream routinely steamrolls minority cultures, or pays them condescending lip service. I know that maintaining Jewish identity in a nation dominated by Christians is a challenge, and that an oft-oppressed people can become sensitive about cultural colonialism. But I can't shake my love of the trappings of Christmas -- the music, the lights, the merriment -- in much the same way my dad couldn't. I went yesterday to St. Stephen's for an hour of carol singing with organ and harpsichord accompaniment, and it was a truly marvelous experience.

We sang classic songs like "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "In the Bleak Midwinter," and during the program the music director, Les Martin, showed us how the mighty organ works and walked us through the church's collection of other instruments, including a lovely mini-organ and an incredibly beautiful harpsichord, which he used to accompany us on "Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming." Though it put quite a strain on my untrained throat, it felt great to sing out as part of a drop-in choir of enthusiastic neighbors and their children. After the singing, we all had hot cocoa with tiny marshmallows, hot cider, and Christmas cookies shaped like snowmen and holly and whatnot. The interim rector, the Rev. Janet Campbell, was very friendly to all of us.

As I sang songs about Jesus' birth in the manger, I thought about the implications of singing lyrics about a plainly Christian story in a setting as Christian as a church. My father believed that he could be perfectly Jewish and still enjoy Christmas in a non-religious way (it helped that he wasn't very religious in general), and I seem to feel the same, even though I live in a very (culturally) Jewish setting. When I sing Jewish songs or prayers, they don't mean anything more to me, spiritually, than the Christmas songs do, but they have the warmth and sweetness of familiarity -- they make me remember childhood -- and offer comfort in that sense. Buddhist ideas resonate more with me spiritually than Jewish ones, at this point in my life, but Buddhism doesn't have as many good songs as Christian tradition does, and it doesn't have as much good food as Jewish culture (though if you consider Indian food Buddhist, Jewish cuisine has a fight on its hands).

When a young Jewish woman I know recently commented that she hoped others would join her in "avoiding the Christmas cheer," I saw where she was coming from but noticed how different my feelings on the subject are. My father's death in 2003 has given Christmas a new association for me -- celebrating it, albeit as secularly as he always did, is a way to feel connected to him at a time of year that directly precedes his birthday (Jan. 2). Largely as a result of living at the Kibbutz, I feel more Jewish than at any other point in my life, because my Jewishness is now a chosen thing, not something I have to do because it's expected of me. And I happen to think that my recent surge of Jewish identity can withstand a little Christmas cheer.

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