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Chrismukkah

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?

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4 Comments

Maybe I can answer your question...

My dad was raised Catholic, my mom was raised a barely practicing Reform Jew (her mother is an Italian Sephardi immigrant but keeps few Sephardi traditions). They joined a UU Church in the 80's and my sister and I attended UU Sunday School all our lives, while attending the Reform Temple on the High Holidays and hosting Passover seders and Chanukah parties. My mom identifies as a Jew but she loves the UU Church. I used to identify as a "Jewish Universalist" and even wore a chalice and a Magen David around my neck when I was a teen. I was always interested in exploring Judiasm and did some reading on my own, but never really became engaged in a Jewish community while growing up. The UU community I was a part of was warm and welcoming, while frankly the Reform community seemed pretty cold, materialistic, conservative, and uninviting. I do think that many culturally/ethnically Jewish folks become involved in UU life because they cannot find any vibrant, progressive Jewish communities in their area.
In college and beyond I found liberal Jewish communities where people were more warm and there was more space for difficult questions, even about Israel/Palestine issues, and now I identify solely as a Reconstructionist Jew though I still believe UU principles and mostly do not keep Halakhah.
Anyways...I definitely identify as a Jew when I enter a synagogue, and my sister and my mother do too, but there are definitely times when I feel more comfortable in a more pluralistic setting. In Jewish settings I sometimes feel like an outsider for being raised in a working class town with no other Jews, and for asking radical questions about Israel/Palestine, but in UU settings my Jewish identiy can also make me feel like an outsider (like when the minister wants me to light a chanukiah on a Sunday morning three weeks after Chanukah is over just because it coincides with the Christmas service). Honestly, I guess I feel most comfortable with "half-Jews" or Jews who have had a lot of interaction/exposure to non-Jews.
Basically I feel like a little bit of an outsider in most religious settings. But I think my outsider status can give me a unique perspective on both Judaism, UU'ism, and to a lesser extent, Catholicism. It even led me to major in Religion in college.

Interesting post! I have noticed a whole trend in recent years in which Jewish tokens are used to signify Jewish identity. A couple of years ago I attended an evening with something called "jewish girls gone bad," which featured, among other things, an MC who would periodically shout the word "Jews" to the audience, for whom, being at an event consisting of lots of Jews who didn't necessarily know or want to know more, was significant. I guess it's a bit like drinking green beer on St. Patrick's day if you're of vaguely Irish ancestry, or you like the idea of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."

The trend has caught on. Tonight, at TT the Bears, there is an evening with the Leevees (famous for the new holiday song, "How do you spell Chanukah"). There are at least three similar tours making the rounds this year, including "Jewish Girls Gone Bad."

In the meantime, funding for, or interest in actual Jewish culture is no where to be found outside of the Orthodox community. I guess, as a community, we're getting what we've paid for.

After I stopped laughing at the absurdity of "L'shanah Chanukah", the reality of the situation started to sink in. The inclusion of Chanukah in Christmas celebrations, as well-intentioned as it may be, bothers me on a number of levels -- the major reason being that it perpetuates the idea that Chanukah is the "Jewish Christmas". As we all know, Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, and yet it gets all this attention in America because it happens to fall at Christmas time. (And Jews do it too -- for many families, this is the only Jewish holiday that they acknowledge.) It makes me want to tell these people, "I know you're trying to be inclusive, but you've got it all wrong." Perhaps your sisters should recommend a Sukkot theme for the fall show?

JN,

regarding the nutcracker example--i know this argument doesn't hold a whole lot of water because of hegemony and centuries of intolerance and all that, but on one hand, the "eight crazy nights" and botched greeting are about as representative of the "true" chanukah as the rest of the play is of the "true" christmas.

actually, come to think of it, it all brings up an interesting question of cultural representation in art; the nutcracker is full of slightly odd, scratch-your-head-and-go-hmmm examples of cultural appropriation (the "arabian" coffee dance, chinese tea dance, and so forth), but of course those were all part of the original ballet, which was composed over a century ago and, well, a product of its time. so, is this new addition just following in those artistic footsteps, so to speak? does the context excuse it? well, of course not (though it is an interesting thing to ponder).

anyway, it seems pretty clear that it's more a case of shallow, feel-good quasi-multiculturalism... underscored by the fact that the nutcracker really has nothing to do with a religion at all, aside from a christmas tree and party to set the scene. which really is just reiterating your original point, i guess. (:

nkw

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How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "Chrismukkah." 19 December 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/Chrismukkah>.

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