Jewish Santas: A Mixed Bag…

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Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmastime is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus–Jews who don Santa outfits to play the role of Santa at retail businesses, hospitals, shelters, and private homes. Examples are myriad as illustrated by comedian Alan King, who often told about his encounter with a Yiddish-speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justifies to Alan King his “ho-ho-ho” getup by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn“—a man has to make a living!

A pay check, however, is not the main reason Jews volunteer to dress up as Santa. Jews who act out the part of Santa do so for altruistic reasons, some for evoking pleasure and others because Christmas was part of their holiday celebration growing up. Still others, like the one in Alan King’s bit, may do so for commercial gain. No matter the reason or combination of reasons, certain Jewish Santas stand out from the so-called mainstream. Ben Sales of the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) recently reported about Rick Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew from Atlanta whose full-time profession is to be Santa: “If you look at the world as children do, that’s a better feeling. I’m a better person and a better Jew because I’m Santa.” Rosenthal, according to Sales, has expanded upon his Santa profession. He and his wife run a Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, that “hosts three-day weekend seminars on how to be Santa. The school covers everything from fashioning a good costume to making sure you have legal and insurance protection in place. But the seminars also promise fun times, like a Christmas movie screening and a photo op with a live reindeer. The couple also runs the National Santa Agency, which books a network of 100 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves for private parties and events.” And, as Sales reports, Rosenthal is a “member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.”

See: https://www.jta.org/2018/12/10/culture/this-santa-claus-is-an-orthodox-jew

For another current example of a Jewish Santa, see: http://jewishjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018_12.20_JewishJournal.pdf

For more on this topic, See AKosherChristmas blog posting “Where Can I Get a Santa Suit?” dated December 2, 2102, and also the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

 

Tradition….Tradition!

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The idea of Jews attending movies on Christmas Eve is neither new nor without historical grounding. In prior a blog posting (December 21, 2015: “Meet Me at the Movies on Christmas Eve”), the historical roots of this Jewish Christmas-time tradition are explored. It is interesting to note that new layers of tradition continue to be added to this activity.

According to Tom Tugend of the JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency), for 11 years, Greg Laemmle, co-owner of a chain of eight art-house cinemas in the Los Angeles area, has screened the classic movie “Fiddler on the Roof” on Christmas Eve. The screenings (in several venues) has taken on Rocky Horror-like proportions, with audience members dressed as characters from Anatevka, the fictional shtetl in which Fiddler is set. Costume contests are held. Fiddler trivia quizzes are highly competitive. A host or hostess, often a celebrity, conducts the event, “keeping the energy level high by leading audience members in song.” This has become, “in ‘Fiddler’ parlance, a tradition.”

And, as with any good idea, success has bred imitation in Chicago (at the Music Box theater) and in Seattle, where the screening on Christmas Day will be accompanied by live klezmer music and kosher Chinese food.

Tugend further reports that, when asked about the screening on Christmas Eve (this year coincident with Erev Shabbat), Laemmle said “When Christmas occurs during the Hanukkah period, we display a lighted menorah in the lobby, and when it coincides with Shabbat, we say the blessings over the wine and challah.”

Because over the years, the audience has become multi-denominational, Laemmle remarks: “We make sure that our Christmas Eve show ends well before 12 o’clock….That way, patrons who wish to do so can walk to a nearby church and attend Midnight Mass.”

Or, as Turgend quips, “Only in America.”

See: https://www.jta.org/2018/12/18/culture/a-new-jewish-christmas-tradition-watching-fiddler-on-the-roof-at-your-local-movie-theater

For more on Jews attending movies on Christmas Eve, see blog posting dated December 21, 2015: “Meet Me at the Movies on Christmas Eve” and also the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

The War Between Gefilte Fish and Chop Suey!

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Chinese restaurants are a favorite eatery for Jews on Christmas. Where does this tradition come from? Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York City in the early twentieth century lived in close proximity to other ethnic groups. As we have mentioned in our earlier blog posting “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” on December 09, 2014, 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.

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

Furthermore, Jews chose Chinese restaurants over other ethnic cuisines, such as Italian, because of the absence of any Christian symbols in these venues. The Chinese restaurant was, as sociologists Tuchman and Levine point out, a “safe treyf” (safe non-kosher food) environment in which to enjoy a satisfying and inexpensive meal made with ingredients that were desirable and familiar to Eastern Europeans, including onions, garlic, and vegetables. Comfort and anonymity can also be found in the foods served, which while not being kosher per se, are disguised through a process of cutting, chopping, and mincing.  Pork, shrimp, lobster, and other so-called dietary “abominations” are no longer viewed in their more natural states. Pork, for example, wrapped and hidden inside a wonton looks remarkably like that of Jewish kreplach.” Also, the absence of milk in Chinese cuisine shields Jewish patrons from mixing meat with milk, a violation of kosher laws. In essence, eating Chinese food helped ease the transition from kosher to non-kosher eating.

The “war between chop suey and gefilte fish” did not go unnoticed in the Jewish press. The daily Yiddish newspaper Der Tog ran an article in 1928 in which the reporter commented on this culinary tug-of-war between old and new world eating habits. “Down with Chop Suey! Long Live Gefilte Fish!” was the battle cry sounded and backlash waged by those defending traditional cultural habits.

The following advertisement appeared in the Yiddish Daily Forward on December 2, 1922:

Translation as follows:

YOU MUST:

Eat and dance with us, where you’ll feel at home

TANGERINE GARDENS

556 FULTON STREET near FLATBUSH AVE

Phone, Sterling 2797 Brooklyn N.Y.

CHINESE DINNER

75 Cents

service from 5-9 pm

CHICKEN CHOW MEIN

our speciality

MENU

chicken mushroom soup

ENTREE

chicken mushroom chow mein

subgum chow mein

chicken chop suey with mushrooms or pineapple

lobster or subgum eng peyang

DESSERTS

miniature preserved oranges and almond cakes

and oolong tea

To see what we are doing, see: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

For more on this, see AKosherChristmas Blog Post “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” on December 09, 2014,  and, of course, the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

All I want for Christmas is… Moo-shu!

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The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD), a “new kind of museum that brings the world of food to life with exhibits you can taste, touch, and smell” is hosting an immersive culinary and cultural experience CHOW x JUDAISM to explore the nexus between Jews, Chinese Food, and Christmas! Or, in MOFAD’s own words: “to learn more about how these two communities found a seat at the same table.”

CHOW x JUDAISM is on Friday, December 21, 2018 from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm at MOFAD Lab, 62 Bayard Street in Brooklyn, New York, and will feature:

  • Live Chef Demo by Chef Julie Cole (Operations Manager & Chef, Nom Wah Tea Parlor) and tastings prepared by MOFAD’s executive chef
  • Engaging Presentation by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut (Author, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish)
  • “Speed Dialogues” facilitated by comedians Mic Nguyen and Fumi Abe (Co-Hosts, Asian Not Asian podcast)
  • Complimentary beer provided by Brooklyn Brewery
  • A Kosher Chinese Night Market featuring small bites and Kosher wines

For more information and tickets, see: https://www.mofad.org/events/chow-x-judaism

https://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/41/51/24-jewish-chinese-christmas-talk-2018-12-21-bk.html

https://forward.com/culture/416273/why-do-jews-eat-chinese-food-on-christmas/

See also: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

Also, see AKosherChristmas Blog Post “We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas” (December 15, 2015) and, of course, the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

Merry Marinara!

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The fact that Hanukkah arrives so early this year (December 2) has given a bit of a breather from the cultural discordance of the Christmas/Hanukkah season. However, here and there, we find a few noteworthy items that hark to bigger issues.

In a Huffington Post parent advice column (November 29, 2018) penned by “author, speaker and dad” Doyin Richards, the following letter appears:

“My family is Jewish, and we recently moved from Massachusetts to Texas for my husband’s job. Last week, my 11-year-old son said “happy holidays!” to the mom who lives across the street. According to my son and my husband (who was present), she got visibly upset and replied, ‘Don’t say that to me! We celebrate Christmas here!’

My son is friends with her son and now feels uncomfortable hanging out with him when she’s around. My husband says we shouldn’t makes waves since we’re newbies in this conservative part of town. How should we handle this?”

Even though Richard’s response to this letter is well-reasoned and succinct, he apparently feels a need to identify himself as Christian in order to frame his answer. (Perhaps in today’s divisive times, this accords him a higher level of authority on the subject.) He begins with: “the only day it makes sense to wish someone a merry Christmas is on Dec. 25. After all, I’m not rolling up to people in October wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. Are you?“  Richards simply does not understand how or why the statement “happy holidays” has been conflated to a war on Christmas. He proffers the following (very apt) metaphor (which he had apparently used for explanation to his toddler daughters when they were young):

“Let’s say a restaurant serves up some amazing mozzarella sticks at a buffet. Previously, this restaurant only offered marinara sauce to dip them in, because it was the only sauce the majority of its patrons enjoyed. But after observing its customers for a while, this establishment noticed that some people wanted other options. So the owners did the wise thing and created a “sauce” section in the buffet that also included ranch dressing, honey mustard, pesto and some secret sauce that nobody is quite sure of. The bottom line: Customers are still be able to stuff their faces with marinara if they choose, it’s just that marinara will be included in a section with other sauces as well.”

Richards concludes that Happy Holidays is a greeting of inclusion because ”What guy boycotts a restaurant because he believes there’s a ‘war against marinara sauce’”?

Richards calls out the insistence upon wishing someone a Merry Christmas to be the height of selfishness, which “displays infantile levels of emotional maturity.” [One might draw parallels to the captains of the so-called war on Christmas.] He supports this by citing demographic data and a falling level of religious observance, which do not support the concept of a solely Christian America.

Richards then offers his advice: “You could have your kid take the easy way out here by telling him to greet this woman with “merry Christmas” going forward, but where’s the lesson in that? You’ve raised a kid to be inclusive. That should be celebrated, not ignored.”  He advises the woman to tell her son to continue to say “happy holidays” and, if someone reacts in a negative way to respond: “My goal is to cover everyone’s beliefs, including people who don’t celebrate Christmas, because they should get to enjoy the holiday season, too. I mean, Christmas is a part of those happy holidays I mentioned.”

Even though this may be a bit of a mouthful for a young teen to respond to an adult, the takeaway is clear. No one, adult or child, should have to conform to the ideas of those who are not inclusive. Richards concludes by contextualizing the so-called “war on Christmas”: “One last thing, because I feel a need to put this into perspective for a moment: Mothers and their babies are getting tear-gassed at our nation’s border, yet this woman is experiencing a blood pressure spike over a pleasant seasonal greeting by a polite 11-year-old? Really?! We have much bigger fish ― err, mozzarella sticks ― to fry these days. Happy holidays!”

Bravo!

For other insights on this subject, see A Kosher Christmas Blog posting “It’s That Time of Year Again” (October 23, 2017). And of course, the preeminent resources on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

 

A Cuppa Joe: A Cuppa Joy or A Cuppa Controversy?!

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The so-called War on Christmas continues!

Starbucks, an unintentional player in this cultural battle, has recently issued its annual seasonal holiday cup design.  This, in and of itself, should not herald any controversy. However, it probably should come as no surprise that the conservative right excoriated Starbucks in years past for serving coffee beverages in seasonal but plain red cups. The reason? They were noticeably devoid of any holiday image. According to CNN in 2015, Jeffrey Fields, vice president of Starbucks, said at the time that the company “wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”Outraged by this corporate posture, conservative activists fueled a negative social media campaign against Starbucks. (The so-called  “great plain red cup of fiasco of 2015.”)

Lest one think that the controversy might have fallen by the wayside in the wake of other more serious issues, the War on Christmas cups erupted again last year when Starbucks issued green cups “in the name of diversity.” These cups were again met with a howl by conservatives and a call by our Christmas War-focused President to boycott the company because it apparently doesn’t embrace Christmas like it once did.

This year the silliness continues.  Starbucks has opted for white cups with outlines of holiday images. Customers can color in the designs to reflect their own aesthetic and traditions: “The holidays mean something different to everyone,” a Starbucks video explains. This season the cup is just the beginning. How you make it special is up to you.” Accompanying a hot beverage is a sleeve that simply states “Give Good.” (This denotes the theme of Starbucks’ holiday campaign.)

We applaud Starbucks for its intended inclusiveness! Who knew that a cuppa joe could generate such a cuppa controversy!

See: http://www.latimes.com/food/sns-dailymeal-1856035-drink-starbucks-releases-2017-holiday-cups-103117-20171101-story.html

Bits and Bobs! Hanukkah With a Distinctly British Flair

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We generally address topics that are endemic to America Jewish culture at Christmastime; however, occasionally, an article or event catches both our collective eye and imagination!

Anyone who has spent time in London during the Christmas season knows that Hanukkah does not share the popular spotlight with Christmas in British culture.  When in London during a 2012 speaking tour, our then 12-year old New York City-bred son,  dazzled and somewhat bewildered by all of the holiday lights and decorations but aware that something was missing, noted: “Mom, where are the menorahs? Why don’t the pharmacies have Hanukkah gelt?”  Hanukkah was not to be found in public to be sure.

So, it is with great surprise and a bit of appreciation (with a raised eyebrow as it concerns a British tabloid) that I noticed a recent article by Leanna Faulkner in the the Mirror, entitled:  “When is Hanukkah 2017 and what is the story behind the Jewish Festival of Lights? Dates, facts and activities for kids. Here is everything you need to know about the story of Hanukkah and how to celebrate the special Jewish Festival of Lights.”

I must admit that I am completely taken with the 2007 photograph of the kippah-sporting Prince of Wales (Charles) and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla) lighting a Hanukkiah. [Fact-checking the tabloid photo, we did uncover a series of AP photos of the couple lighting a hanukkiah on December 12, 2007 in Hendon, northwest London.]

Noting that thousands of Jews celebrate Hanukkah in the UK, the article instructs readers about the holiday given that ”not many people know much about the celebration referred to as the ‘Jewish Christmas’.”

Ultimately instructive, the tabloid article does contain a few inconsistencies and what should be characterized as “what is that all about?”:

  • A reference to the menorah as an “eight-pronged candle,”
  • A description of the gift-giving tradition using a photo of a Christmas present with the following caption: “A man about to open a Christmas present. Almost two out of three people receive a Christmas gift they do not like, but many are too polite to ask for it to be exchanged for something else, a new study has found.”

And, in an endearing mash-up, the following Hanukkah facts:

  • Around 17.5 million oily doughnuts are eaten in Israel during Hanukkah, commemorating the miracle of oil.
  • The word Hanukkah means ‘dedication’.
  • Since Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, there’s not one proper translation [transliteration], meaning there are a whopping 16 different spellings.
  • Whether you spell it Hanukkah, Channukah or Hunnakah, you’re correct.
  • In Yemen, children went from house to house, tins in hand, to collect wicks for the Hanukkah menorah.

 So a proverbial hat’s off to the Mirror! And perhaps as we light our hanukkiot this year, we should all say “Next Year in London!”

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/hanukkah-2017-what-story-behind-11394061

And for those traveling to London during Hanukkah, since 2015, there is a menorah lighting in Trafalgar Square through the auspices of Chabad Lubuvitch UK.

https://www.visitlondon.com/things-to-do/event/40472517-menorah-on-trafalgar-square#f3IMwWpSXGpISkr7.97