I’m Dreaming of a YouTube Christmas: Parodies by Jewish Millennials

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Christmas is so BoringFor almost 100 years in the realm of popular entertainment, Jewish Americans have responded to Christmas by creating short stories, movies, television characters, and popular songs in order to either enhance the secular observance of the holiday or, in the alternative, to downplay the significance of Christmas holiday by satirizing and neutralizing the religious nature of the holiday. These responses to Christmas grew out of two strong traditions: the Jewish Hanukkah music that was composed as the demand grew beginning in the early 1900s, which took a parodic twist in the late twentieth century, and the involvement of Jewish composers in the creation of Christmas music beginning in the 1940s, which eventually also gave license to parody. [See previous blog posting “What Is That Song Playing In My Ear? on December 5, 2013.]

Certain of these creative works, which drew upon sentimentality, focused upon the folk and ethnic elements of America’s holidays and painted a sentimental portrait and reinforced shared American values of patriotism, generosity, peace and goodwill. Early examples in the world of song include Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Johnny Marks’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” (otherwise known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). A later example is Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.”

Others take the form of satire and parody which highlight and, in fact, exploit a shared marginality during the holiday season.  An early example is S.J. Perlman’s short story “Waiting for Santy” which appeared on December 26, 1936 in the New Yorker magazine.  Later examples include Saturday Night Live’s “Hanukkah Harry,” the creation of a new holiday “Festivus” on Seinfeld, and a 2003 American comedy film written and directed by Jonathan Kesselman called The Hebrew Hammer.

In the spirit of the modern technological age, funny and subversive YouTube and video parodies, whether in song or in spoken word (often accompanied by video) with a distinctively Jewish piquancy grew out this parodic tradition. Here are a few:

  • Youtube: BuzzFeedViolet: Christmas explained by Jews
  • YouTube: BuzzFeedViolet: Jewish Christmas Vs Christmas –  Debatable
  • YouTube: BuzzFeedViolet: Being A Jew on Christmas
  • BuzzFeed: 17 Struggles of Being A Jew on Christmas: Oy To The World
  • YouTube: All I want for Christmas is…Jews
  • YouTube: Saturday Night Live – Christmas For The Jews
  • YouTube: Kyle: I’m a Jew on Christmas (South Park)

If you have a favorite online holiday video parody, please let us know and we will post it on the blog. Happy viewing!

For an in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter Four of A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) entitled “Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: Remaking Christmas Through Parody and Popular Culture.”


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!

So What About Jews and Chinese Food?

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We all know that eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a sacred Jewish tradition. Chinese restaurants became a favorite eatery for Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and to New York City, in particular, in the early twentieth century. The origin of this venerated Christmas Jewish tradition dates back over one hundred years to the Lower East Side of New York City. Jews found Chinese restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.

Historically, the first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899. The American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out in particular Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants.  And in 1903, the Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward coined the Yiddish word oysesseneating out–to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.

Chinese cuisine clearly was an inexpensive and exotic alternative to the more familiar and expensive foods served at Jewish delicatessens. It was a happy coincidence that Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas Eve and gave Jews across the United States a natural venue in which to partake of their own version of Christmas dinner. “Eating Chinese” on Christmas was a recognized Jewish preference as early as 1935, when the New York Times reported that restaurant owner Eng Shee Chuck brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark, New Jersey. This is the first recorded incidence of  Chinese take- out and home-delivery to American Jews occurring on Christmas Eve.

“Eating Chinese” soon became a national sensation that defined Christmas-time activity for Jews all over the United States.  As immigrants arrived from other parts of Asia, the concept of “easting Chinese” on Christmas Eve has broadened to other types of Asian cuisine, as evidenced by a recent New York Times Magazine article  entitled “Joy From The World” on December 7, 2014, which reports about a Jewish-Japanese Christmas repast. Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel meld their traditions together for shared Christmas meal which includes “okonomi-latke.” (A combination of potato pancakes often eaten on Hanukkah and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake popular in Japanese street food.) According to the Times, “what started in their home has made its way onto the menu [on Christmas] this year of their restaurant, Shalom Japan, in Williamsburg…”

As a popular joke reflecting on this affinity for Jews to eat in Chinese restaurants states: “The Jewish people are 5000 years old and the Chinese people are 3000 years old. So what did the Jews eat for 2000 years?” Perhaps you have a story to share about your own Christmas Eve and Christmas Day restaurant outing!

Here comes SantaCon (and AntiCon)!!!

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SantaCon, the annual pub crawl featuring legions of participants dressed in Santa outfits is scheduled to happen in New York City on December 14th! (For more information about joining in and the route to be traversed, see http://santacon.info/New_York-NY/.) Always, mingling with the crowd of Santa Clauses, Mrs. Clauses, elves and all-things Christmas, are several Hanukkah Harrys (see previous December 2012 blog post). What is interesting this year is the AntiCon protest that is brewing (pun intended) in the Lower East Side…see http://observer.com/2013/12/take-your-body-fluids-and-public-intoxication-elsewhere-les-residents-stage-anticon/

And now….the Menorah Tree!

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We recently received a comment from Alex about a tradition in his family’s unique Hanukkah celebration and the commercial offshoot of that tradition. Alex and his brother, Mike, have developed “Menorah Tree,” the result of a family project conceived in his very own New York apartment. According to Alex: “The Menorah Tree is a 6 foot tall metal and garland menorah that provides the first true alternative for Jewish and interfaith families who want to celebrate Hanukkah with something as big and festive as a Christmas tree but would prefer to do it with an iconic Jewish design.”  The tree awaits adornment and personalization by anyone who purchases it!

A Bissel Gelt Perhaps?

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So everyone does it! And even with chocolate!

What are we talking about? It’s the giving of Hanukkah gelt!!! So, one might ask: where does this custom originate?

The origin of giving Hanukkah gelt dates back to seventeenth century Poland. It originally pertained to charitable giving of money for the purchase and maintenance of holy objects in the synagogue. The custom then expanded to giving to the poor. Beggars would stop by the homes of Jewish kinfolk to collect Hanukkah gelt. Even though begging door-to-door was generally prohibited by Jewish communities, Hanukkah time was considered an exception to the rule. Gelt-giving to teachers was also customary and became an expected monetary bonus contributing to the teachers’ primary means of support. Gelt-giving was also considered a way to emphasize and model the dignity of giving as required by the Torah. The tradition later broadened to include gifts to Jewish communal workers and eventually to children for their own account and to students as a means to sweeten the process of Jewish learning and as a reward for Torah study.

So, where are we today vis-à-vis the giving of gelt? Certainly, gelt is often given to children during Hanukkah. However, chocolate gelt has certainly permeated the Jewish cultural mindset. Even Trader Joe’s carries chocolate gelt. (It’s available now but is wildly popular, so don’t wait!)

Thanksgivukkah tidbit: Judging from what we have observed in the media (both print form and internet-based), the countdown to Thanksgivukkah continues! (Perhaps a kosher version of the advent calendar is in order!) In case you didn’t know, you really need to purchase Thankgivukkah gelt, made from Pure Belgian Callebaut chocolate by Foiled Again Chocolates (foiledagainchocolate.com).

So…should I make Latkes for Thanksgiving?

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What? You haven’t heard? It’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon! For the second time in our recent collective Jewish memory (which, by the way, runs very deep), Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving! The last time the two holidays coincided was in 1888! The coinage of Thanksgivukkah is credited to a Boston-area resident and interest has now risen to a level of what the Boston Globe has called a  “frenzy!”

And apparently, everyone has something to say! Stephen Colbert recently brilliantly ranted about “Thanksgiving under attack,” and drew a double hand-shaped menorah while holding the pen with his mouth.  Dana Holmes in the Huffington Post chimed in with a suggestion to brine your turkey in Manischewitz wine and stuff it with challah. She also recommends making a menorah from tiny pumpkins and tea lights. Buzzfeed contributed a recipe for the Manischewitz-brined turkey, coupled with the idea of embellishing a kippah with a Pilgrim-style belt buckle. A New York City 9-year-old designed a turkey-shaped menorah called a Menurkey, funding his idea through Kickstarter. Los Angeles is hosting a Thanksgivukkah celebration, complete with Food Trucks that are gearing up with specially-tailored food items. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, at the suggestion of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, intends to officially proclaim this November 28th “Thanksgivukkah.” And Moderntribe.com is offering a variety of Thansgivukkah items: including, a turkey themed Menorah (the Menurkey, of course), an Amerikkah Gothic Thanksgivukkah poster, and t-shirts with the slogan “8 Days of Light, Liberty & Latkes.” And so as not to let any stone remain unturned, there is a wikipedia page devoted to the topic (describing it as “pop-culture portmanteau neologism”), assertions that it is the greatest American Jewish “mash-up ever,” and an opportunity to wax poetic by purchasing a poem by Tucker Lieberman available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com.

Here in Manhattan, Kutcher’s, a modern Jewish-style bistro in Tribeca, will be preparing a 3- course Thanksgivukkah feast featuring sweet potato latkes topped with melted marshmallows, sufganiyot (a traditional Hanukkah donut) filled with Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, and, a Latin-inspired chocolate mole sauce made from Hanukkah gelt for the turkey!!

So, what’s my take on all of this? Thanksgiving historically has marked the beginning of the Christmas season, when American Jews felt marginalized from the national celebration of an inherently Christian-derived holiday. Today, American Jews have found their way to celebrating the season in uniquely Jewish ways. The coincidence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving provides a unique springboard for the season! The fact that there are metropolitan celebrations and widespread media-coverage demonstrates that the American population, as whole, has been sensitized to, and is aware of, the religious celebrations of its minority members!

So place those latkes side-by-side with the turkey, raise a toast in thanksgiving with a glass of Manischewitz, and sing “Rock of Ages” while thinking of the Pilgrams landing on Plymouth Rock!!!

L’Chaim and Gobble Tov!!!


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A Kosher Christmas Blog Photos

Festivus, the secular December holiday credited to a screenwriter of the 1990s television sitcom Seinfeld, grew in popularity beyond its television roots as a secular societal celebration that allowed participants to express their feelings and frustrations with the holiday season.  Festivus parties take place across the United States, serving as magnets for younger generations of Americans, among them many Jews. The celebrants of Festivus have stripped the holiday season of any religious meaning, instead relying upon irony and parody to carry the day.

Festivus Chai! And at Whole Food’s no less! While rambling around the aisles of the Whole Foods at Union Square in Greenwich Village, my wife, son and I encountered an entire wall of Festivus Chai! .According to its on-line marketing materials, Festivus Chai is a limited‐edition seasonal holiday chai made with real cocoa, holiday spices, and organic ingredients.

Made by Third Street, Inc., a beverage company in Colorado, 5% of the proceeds during the holiday season will be donated to the Whole Planet Foundation, a nonprofit which attempts to alleviate poverty through microloans in the third world. So there is a tzedakah component to the Festivus product.