As politicians continue to battle it out over whether Keith Ellison should or should not take his oath of office on the Koran (see the previous blog entry), the U.S. is engulfed in other “religious” matters -- the Christmas craze… or, as some like to call it, “Chrismukkah.”
I’ll share a Chrismukkah encounter that took place in New Jersey. My two younger sisters are ballerinas. Since their toddler years, they’ve performed in The Nutcracker, a performance that involves doing pirouettes in glittery tutus around a Christmas tree that magically grows upward from the stage floor. This year’s Nutcracker performance was “special,” perhaps even “progressive” in the minds of many-a-shallow person. It included an additional scene about the Maccabees and their “Eight Crazy Nights.” As a grand finale, the entire Nutcracker cast appeared on stage to joyfully exclaim: L’Shana Chanukah! -- “To a year of Chanukah!” During rehearsals, my sister informed the non-Jewish directors that L’Shana Chanukah! made no sense at all, and that if they’re going to wish the audience Happy Chanukah, they should at least use the correct greeting -- Chanukah Sameach. But the directors explained that they liked L’Shana Chanukah! because it sounded catchy and romantic. They really didn’t care about its bizarre meaning (especially since the handful of Jews in a predominantly WASPy audience were probably too assimilated to know that the ever-so-inclusive Chanukah greeting had been butchered).
Including “Eight Crazy Nights” in the Nutcracker topped off with the goyisha (non-Jewish) invention of L’Shana Chanukah! is, quite frankly, insulting. Is this really an expression of multi-culturalism? Is Chanukah just a show? Call me jaded, but if all that most non-Jews know about Judaism is L’Shana Chanukah!, we’re in bad shape. And perhaps the saddest part of all is the excessive American Jewish pride in knowing that chocolate gelt, plastic dreidels, and paper cut-out Chanukiahs have joined the ranks of green and red cupcakes, Jingle Bells, and Santa’s rosy face pressed against the windows of grocery stores, pharmacies, and nursery school classroom doors (in nursery school, his beard is made of cotton balls by the hands of five-year-old munchkins. At least cotton balls add some tactile sensory stimulation to an imaginary old man!)
Perhaps there are benefits to the public attention garnered by Chanukah. There are plenty of people who might perceive its commercialization as indicative of progress and as an expression of religious pluralism; that yes, American culture has, in fact, come to terms with the understanding that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But I do think the “display” of Chanukah should come with context. Is it appropriate to throw the Maccabees into a Nutcracker performance? Is it okay for non-Jews to coin a Hebrew phrase and not care whether it makes sense?
Fortunately, religious pluralism in the U.S. does indeed run deeper than commercialized goods. I do feel lucky to live in a place where there are ten different synagogues within a five mile radius, and I feel fortunate that I can walk fifteen minutes from my home and attend a Jewish meditation workshop to learn that Chanukah is not only about latkes, but about Dedication and Inner Light and about the courage of Jewish women. In other parts of the world, these Jewish learning opportunities are not available. Last year, while living overseas in a rather large Catholic country (with a grand-total of three operational synagogues), I discovered that Baby Jesus is not just in store-front windows during Christmas; he’s there all the time. It’s fair to say that most Americans are not bombarded with Baby Jesus imagery 365 days of the year. But you’ve got to wonder just how much progress has been made when my housemate, a self-declared Atheist of Jewish origin, is repeatedly wished: “Merry Christmas” at her office in downtown Boston.
Just how progressive are we?