’Twas the Day After Christmas . . .

By Ethan Schwartz
Wednesday, December 26, 2012

As the dust settles from Christmas, many American Jews go about readjusting to a society that, for the other 11 months of the year, they find eminently comfortable. Christmastime brings questions of diasporic Jewish identity to the fore with a power unmatched by other American institutions, eliciting emotions of bitterness, guilt, or triumphalism, depending on whom you ask.  No matter how Jews behaved on Christmas, many undoubtedly participated in the most venerable of Jewish Christmastime rituals: a fierce debate about what it means to be a Jew in America. How can we be Jews if we celebrate Christmas?  How can we be Americans if we do not?

Investigating the answers to these questions is the task of Joshua Eli Plaut’s new book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish.  Despite the catchy title, it is a serious academic work. Plaut uses Christmas as a fruitful case study in the construction of American-Jewish identity, a quintessential example whose relevance resonates far beyond the holiday season.  The book’s recognition of this fact is an important achievement.

Plaut begins with the differing responses to Christmas by the two great waves of Jewish immigrants.  Assimilated German Jews largely embraced the holiday.  Their Eastern European counterparts, who associated it with pogroms, rejected it.  Indeed, Plaut observes, as early as the 16th century, observant Jews in Europe were so determined not to ascribe any significance to Christmas that on Christmas Eve they abstained from studying Torah and played cards instead.  All too aware of the day’s ominous import, they found themselves unable to continue in their pious routine.

Christmas was so prominent that even as Eastern European Jews tried to ignore it, they were, in an ironic way, celebrating it themselves.  If this was true in the isolated communities of the Old World, all the more so is it true in the porous Jewish culture of America.  Even for observant Jews, any degree of interface with American society brings the need to respond to the non-Jewish holiday that saturates it every December. The result is what Plaut calls a “parallel seasonal universe of Jewish praxis.”  Some Jews recast Christmas and Hanukkah to suit their individual social and spiritual needs.  Others establish new traditions: Chinese food, Christmastime social justice initiatives, and real-life versions of the Seinfeldian secular holiday of Festivus.  Still others, especially in interfaith households, try to celebrate both Jewish and non-Jewish wintertime traditions with integrity.

For a season that is ostensibly religious, the pervasive secularity of the landscape that Plaut describes is striking.  Yet this is precisely his thesis: Jews have been the vanguard of an effort to “transform Christmastime into a holiday season belonging to all Americans,” without religious exclusivity.  The most important Jewish mechanisms of secularization are comedy and parody, for laughter undermines religious awe.  Take, for example, Hanukkah Harry from “Saturday Night Live”, who heroically steps in for a bedridden Santa by delivering presents from a cart pulled by donkeys named Moishe, Hershel, and Shlomo.  Remarkably, Hanukkah Harry has emerged as a real Santa-alternative for many American Jews.  Plaut sees such things not as attempts at assimilation but as an intentional subversion of Christmas traditions.  “Through these parodies,” he writes, “Jews could envision not having to be captivated by the allure of ubiquitous Christmas symbols.”  And it isn’t just Jews: for Americans in general, Jewish parody helps ensure that Christmas “not be taken too seriously” and that the celebrations of other traditions “be accorded equal respect and opportunity.”

There is something disconcerting about this thesis, summoning up classic anti-Semitic images of conspiracy and sabotage.  Without a trace of irony, Plaut recounts incidents in which fundamentalist Christian groups complained that “certain Americans, particularly Jews, were trying to take the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas.”  He adds that “anti-Semitic comments often ensued.”  Those Christian fundamentalists might well feel vindicated by Plaut’s argument; yet Plaut is unfazed by this connection, and rightly so.  It is not inherently anti-Christian, he recognizes, to oppose Christianity’s domination of a secular democracy.  If Jews have helped to make American society more open, they should be proud of it.

Still, without buying into anti-Semitism, we should be troubled by Plaut’s portrayal of Jews as subversive of religious meaning.  We must ask whether today’s secularized Christmas has negative consequences for—or is a negative symptom of—the way American Jews relate to their own tradition.  The image of the Jew as irreverent comedian, able to laugh at conventions, has venerable roots in Jewish sources.  In those sources, however, it exists alongside a profound respect for the past and its claim on the present.  Only in the abiding presence of this respect is the irreverence uniquely Jewish.  

Plaut’s Jews jettison this dialectic entirely.  “Jews have demoted both Christmas and Hanukkah,” he writes, “mixing both in a popular culture concoction that asks little of each holiday and begs only that those who participate have fun and laugh at their own seriousness.”  Plaut claims that different traditions are all “accorded equal respect.”  But, in reality, they are all equally mocked.

What results is a Judaism stripped of life-shaping power and spiritual vitality.  Only a few of the Jewish responses to Christmas that Plaut describes, such as Christmastime charity, bespeak or support a substantive Jewish identity.  The rest suggest an eroded commitment to anything deeper than a thin cultural Jewishness, the fodder of self-deriding stand-up.  The anti-Semitic narrative thus misses the point: if Jews took the “Christ” out of Christmas, they could do so only by taking the miracle out of Hanukkah.

Plaut’s interesting argument ultimately suffers from its failure to recognize that in subverting Christmas, American Jews have promoted their own assimilation.  His notion of active subversion seems less significant when the watered-down Judaism it produces resembles passive assimilation anyway.  He describes American Jews who, by his account, “survive and thrive.”  Yet where Plaut sees thriving, others might justifiably see decline.

Nevertheless, Plaut’s book is an important Jewish response to Christmas in its own right.  His academic approach aims to overcome the paralyzing self-consciousness that often plagues Jews during this season. He addresses Christmas ethnographically, avoiding the moralizing that pervades most Jewish discourse on the subject.  Non-academic readers, who expect Plaut to take a stand on what this all means for American Jewry, are unlikely to be satisfied.  Yet this apparent shortcoming is actually the study’s most interesting merit: in an area dominated by pandering and polemic, Plaut succeeds in challenging his readers to form their own questions and opinions.  His provocative, if problematic, complication of the classic schema of Jewish assimilation leaves much to be done.  But precisely for this reason, it should be treated as a novel response to Christmas and an important new voice in the broader conversation about Jewish identity in America.

Ethan Schwartz is a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow.

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