The Demise of the December Dilemma: A Season of Negotiating Positive Jewish Identity

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Whereas Jews in the United States can participate fully in Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day celebrations, Christmas does not belong to all Americans. Atheists and secularists, as well as religious minorities such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, feel excluded. The problem is more acute because Christmas festivities and displays are not limited to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They span a season that extends from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. Throughout this period, public squares, streets and shops are festooned with Christmas trees, nativity scenes, wreathes, images of Santa Claus, snowmen, and reindeer. Music is piped into every shopping mall. Movies such as The Polar Express, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas are shown on television and in cinemas. Holiday parties abound. Gifts are exchanged at home and in the work place. And greeting cards are sent to relatives, friends, and co-workers. There is no hiding from Christmas for celebrant and excluded alike.

If not celebrating Christmas, what then is a Jew to do on Christmas in America?  How is a Jew to respond? These questions are at the heart of what the mass media and Jewish communal leaders in the United States commonly refer to as the December dilemma. The lure of Christmas entices some Jews to become involved in the non-religious aspects of Christmas and other Jews to reject it as a stepping stone toward assimilation. This latter group promotes adopting the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah as the sole medium for display of Jewish seasonal joy, a holiday that not unlike Christmas can be adapted to reflect American values and ideals. “Christmas or Hanukkah?” is a difficult choice forced each year on many parents, their children, Jewish leaders and educators.

These choices cause many Jews in the United States to feel displaced and marginalized. Rabbi Bertram Korn’s remarks, delivered from his pulpit, at Congregation Keneseth Israel, in Philadelphia in 1950 about December dilemmas, still resonate today: “Every year at this time every thoughtful and serious Jew faces a problem which is intensified this season: how we as Jews deal with the popular aspects of the majority faith of our neighbors…how we adjust to the temptations of the tinsel and the holy—where we take our stand as Jews.” Forty years later, Jonathan Sarna, a preeminent historian of American Jewry, argued that American Jews have a “Christmas problem.” Although American civil religion calls upon all Americans to join in the Christmas spirit, on the actual holiday of Christmas the religious overtones of Christianity are apparent throughout American society, and, as Sarna concluded: “…the fundamental dilemma produced by Christmas’s unique status in the American national calendar remains unresolved.”

Jews in the United States have, in fact, made great progress in resolving December dilemmas. Such a resolution is ongoing and is evolving out of the creative efforts of American Jewry to co-opt the Christmas season by reshaping it to reflect uniquely Jewish ideas, concerns, and practices. Developing a variety of strategies over time that are directed toward neutralizing Christmas in America, American Jewry’s success in challenging Christmas’s vaunted status rests upon forging an identity that is at once separate from the religious and historical dimensions of Christmas, yet convergent with its underlying spirit.

The next series of blog postings will be about these strategies!

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