It’s That Time of Year Again!

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Here we go again! It’s not even Halloween and a gauntlet has been thrown down. The underpinning is the greeting “Merry Christmas.” A bit early for this, one might think.

The notion of a War on Christmas has therefore been politicized beyond all previous boundaries. In this particular year, the issue has gained national prominence bandied about during both the run-up to the presidential election of last year and now as a hallmark to a divisive political agenda. Poisoned rhetoric has distorted and amplified holiday greetings and decorations into acrimonious and divisive political statements. The all-inclusive phrase “Happy Holidays” has been transmuted into an insult to Christianity.

So, let’s take a look at this issue from an historical perspective.

For many years, debates centered on the what has been termed the “Christmas Wars” have taken place somewhat obscurely on socially, politically and religiously conservative talk radio and cable programs. Regardless of which strategies Jews in America have employed to face Christmas, most Americans remained largely unaware of the internal December debates taking place within Jewish communities throughout the United States. However, the cumulative effect of questioning the role of Christmas in America by Jews for over one hundred years increasingly helped the population at large to understand that not everyone celebrates Christmas. As minority groups immigrated in increasingly larger numbers to the United States and brought with them various religious traditions, Americans in leadership positions within local municipalities, school districts and public schools became more sensitive to those who felt excluded from Christmas festivities. Municipalities and public schools, in becoming more aware of diversity, neutralized the holiday celebration so as not to offend Americans with differing religious traditions. By the early twenty-first century, instead of wishing one another a “Merry Christmas,” for example, Americans began to wish each other “Happy Holidays.” School programs and concerts began to be referred to as winter celebrations rather than Christmas festivals.  Office parties took on the moniker of holiday party rather than Christmas party.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, despite vocal assertions by certain conservative religious and political groups that America should be considered a Christian nation, most American citizens had come to accept the reality that Christmas was not the only December holiday that should be accorded national recognition. With this realization came an acknowledgment that certain accommodations would have to be made to allow other religious symbols to join those of Christmas in the public domain, particularly when those symbols also reinforced American values. Seventy-five years ago, it was songwriter Irving Berlin who taught the American people, through the ever popular song White Christmas, that the country’s goal in celebrating Christmas was not to practice religion but to employ its symbols to promote American ideals of home, family, freedom, and patriotism. Certainly, both Christmas and Hanukah now accomplish this goal for many Americans.

As Michael Che succinctly rejoined on the “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live (aired on October 14, 2017): “When we say ‘Happy Holidays’ we’re not attacking Christmas, we’re saying ‘All Holidays Matter.’ ”

Happy Holidays!

 

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The Christmas Mitzvah: ‘Tis The Season To Be Giving!

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Charity is integral to the Christmas holiday season. For more than 150 years, Americans have attached special significance to giving charity and volunteering on Christmas as ways to fulfill the holiday’s spiritual mission. The act of charity mutually binds the benefactor and the recipient through civic and religious obligation. Charitable organizations and agencies call upon citizens to open their hearts and their check-books to help the disadvantaged during this period.

Christmastime charity in the United States can be linked to two seminal events: the publication by Charles Dickens of his composition A Christmas Carol in 1843, which heightened readers’ awareness to the importance of being beneficent on Christmas; and, New York intellectual and journalist Margaret Fuller’s highly publicized Christmas Day visit to the New York Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in 1844, which turned charitable giving to children into a civic ritual.

Charity among Jews in the United States through the early 1800s was localized in synagogues, organized for the purpose of taking care of newly arriving Sephardi Jews. As a result of the large-scale German Jewish immigration beginning in 1820, philanthropic organizations were formed to assist landsman—fellow countrymen—to establish societies based on town of origin. As the Jewish population grew, charities were filtered through institutional agencies that transcended regional interests. In 1819, Rebecca Gratz, the American-born descendant of German immigrants, established the Hebrew Female Benevolent Association of Philadelphia, the first independent Jewish charity in America. The association offered food, clothing, shelter, fuel, an employment agency, and traveler’s aid to Jews in distress. Another compelling reason for assisting Jews from within the community emerged: during periods of anti-Semitism Jews found it uncomfortable to use non-Jewish charitable organizations because of the intensive proselytizing by agency staff.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was strong enough to consider joining in the charitable Christmas fever that swept America. Jews, who often sat on the sidelines while their many American neighbors celebrated their December holiday, saw in this outpouring of Christmas charity an opportunity to be part of a new American tradition. Perhaps the earliest written record of Jews performing charitable acts on Christmas Day in America dates to 1884, forty years after Margaret Fuller’s Christmas Day visit to needy children. The Cincinnati Jewish newspaper, the American Israelite, acknowledged in its pages the public Jewish charitable efforts at Christmastime. It cited the example of Hy King, Jr., President of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, who sent a letter on December 22, 1884 to the organizer of a local Christmas collection along with a wagonload of presents:

Mrs. Perry, Dear Madam: As President of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, permit me to tender to you a donation of Christmas presents to gladden the hearts of the poor little ones. Your noble charitable work should appeal to all creeds. I shall only deem it a duty, but also a pleasure, to assist in all your charitable works.”

In an 1885 article printed in The American Israelite, the author acknowledge that Jews had enthusiastically endorsed charitable giving to their non-Jewish neighbors: “It is the custom here, as in other cities to provide a hearty meal for all the poor children of the vicinity during the Christmas holiday…Many of our Hebrew families, recognizing that the movement was to make children happy, set aside all questions of faith and doctrine and contributed very liberally in money and material.”

As early as one hundred twenty years ago, the American Jewish press recognized the correlation between poverty and charitable giving to the poor at Christmastime. A December 1900 article in the Jewish Daily Forward described the charitable giving that was characteristic of the general society at large during the holiday season with the following observation:

Capitalist newspapers boast that this Christmas capitalists have given more to charity than during any Christmas in previous years. This is true. The reason is that there have never been as many poor people asking for charity as there are this year. Many of the Christmas dinners for the poor were attended by thousands of people. The Salvation Army alone served 19,000 dinners on Christmas Day, beginning at 10:00 am. At no other time of the year can one see so clearly the masses of poor, the wholesale poverty, than on that day when the “redeemer of humankind” was born.

This awareness of poverty expressed in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward was an experience that the poor European Jewish immigrants in New York knew about first-hand.

American Jewish Charitable efforts soon began to focus not just on monetary aid but on relieving fellow Americans from their work so that they could instead spend Christmas Day with family. On December 29, 1927, an editorial in the American Israelite reported on the feelings of reciprocity that pervaded between Americans who celebrated Christmas and the Jews working in the New York City Post Office. Jews agreed to substitute for their colleagues at work during Christmas, and non-Jews offered to work for Jewish employees on the Jewish high holidays. The same reciprocal relationship occurred in hospitals, the military and government agencies. The American Israelite of December 28, 1944 noted that “Jews ask extra duty so Christian buddies may observe Christmas.”

During the 1960s and continuing until the present, this generosity of spirit intensified and extended to helping those outside of one’s immediate work environment. Jews began to volunteer individually and communally in hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior citizen facilities and other charitable venues. The Christmas Mitzvah (coined in my book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish), Jews engaging in charitable acts of volunteerism on Christmas, has become a widespread phenomenon throughout America. The Christmas Mitzvah is a distinctly Jewish response to Christmas–Jews in America volunteer and engage in charitable acts that enable their fellow Americans to celebrate Christmas.

 

 

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy on Christmas: An American Jewish Tradition

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Jews who eat at Chinese Restaurants on Christmas across the United States form a loosely extended yet temporal community that takes Jewish identity seriously. It didn’t take long for one enterprising, forward –thinking and self-proclaimed Chinese food enthusiast to conceive of the idea of adding entertainment to the eating experience. Quite simply, it started as a joke. In October 1993, a stand-up comedian named Lisa Geduldig, who resides in San Francisco, California, was hired to perform at what she thought was a women’s cabaret evening at a comedy club in South Hadley, Massachusetts. When she arrived at the venue, Lisa realized that she had, in fact, been hired to tell Jewish Jokes at the Peking Garden Club, a Chinese restaurant. On her website, Lisa Geduldig relates how she told an old summer camp friend about the irony of combining an evening of Jewish humor and Chinese food.

In San Francisco, a couple of months after this conversation, Lisa inaugurated the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy as an evening of Jewish stand-up comedy in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. When Lisa conceived of the event, she hoped to create a hermetic Jewish environment where guests could focus on Jewish tradition and identity and bypass Christmas. “Jewish people feel alienated that time of year and just like to have something to celebrate instead of hiding under the covers until the end of December…I mean you get very Christmas-ed to death from November 27 on…You just feel like a stranger in a strange land  for the entire month of December.”

Lisa’s vision has proven highly successful. Since its inception, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has increased every year, and now, after more than two decades, Jews consider it to be an annual Christmastime tradition. It is a seminal event in modern comedic performance focused on Christmas. At Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, which spans 6 performances over 3 days and attracts thousands of attendees, Jewish stand-up comedians, some hailing from the Borsht Belt, such as Shelly  Berman, David Brenner, Henny Youngman, and Freddie Roman have all headlined, joking about Christmas and Hanukkah in ways that would have made their immigrant ancestors blush. Also represented is a younger generation of comedians who range in age from twenty to forty-five, such as Lisa Kron in 2003 and Jonathan Katz in 2009. Lisa Geduldig is aware that the world of comedy historically has been dominated by men. It is a badge of honor for her that new female comedians are making their mark and are present on the stage at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.

Lampooning both Hanukkah and Christmas bypasses tension often experienced by Jews for being different and marginalized during the holiday season. Comedians raise awareness of the challenge of having to recognize Christmas as important to American society while at the same time desiring to escape its influence. At Kung Pao, humor is the chosen vehicle employed by a Jewish minority to confront a holiday season dominated by the Christian majority. Humor is a weapon comedians use to take cultural revenge on Christmas, thereby symbolically robbing the holiday of its ability to intimidate.  One repeat patron, a 40-something doctor explained ”I am an outsider. It is someone else’s birthday party and I’m not invited. ..we all commiserated about living through and being an outsider for one month a year…I will attend Kung Pao show next year because I belong to the group…”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has become a model for other similar Christmas Eve Jewish comedy banquets and has set the trend for Jewish social gatherings across the country. Over the years, Jewish organizations and comedy clubs in American cities have copied Lisa Geduldig’s event format by hosting a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese food followed by Jewish a comedy show; however, none of them have the staying power of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, an American tradition spanning twenty-three years!

Until recently those American who rejected Christmas, including Jews, were considered outsiders. By joining together on Christmas at entertainment venues across the United States to celebrate and proclaim Jewish identity, Jews achieve the special status of insider, representing those who seek alternative, acceptable means to celebrate the holiday season As one young Jewish woman observed while waiting to enter a Kung Pao Kosher Comedy performance, “I want to be with other Jews celebrating, doing something that’s not Christmas, that’s ‘un-Christmas.’ I want to be an insider, not an outsider. Being here at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, I don’t feel like an outsider.”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, in its 23rd year, runs from December 24th – 26th and this year, features performances by: Wendy Liebman, Dana Eagle, Mike Fine, and Lisa Geduldig. http://www.KosherComedy.com

Examples of evenings across America this Christmas featuring Chinese food with a cultural performance include:

  • The Moo Shu Jew Show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • An evening of Chinese Food and Comedy at the dim sum emporium Hei Lei Moon in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Strip Dreidel, Chinese Food and Woody Allen Movie Night in San Francisco, California
  • An evening of laugh-out-loud comedy and tasty Chinese food, the Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, California
  • Kung Pao Shabbat, an evening of Chinese food and Klezmer music, Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew

Christmas By Any Other Name…

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In the nineteenth century Christmas Eve was a night of fear and isolation for many East European Jews. Interestingly, there are traditions surrounding the words invoked by European Jews to describe “Christmas.”  In his article entitled “Torah Study on Christmas Eve,” scholar and theologian Marc Shapiro maintains that the word “Christmas” never appears in “all of rabbinic literature.” Citing R. Eliezer of Metz , Shapiro concludes that the very mention of this idolatrous holiday whose name “expresses the idol’s divinity and lordship” is halakhically forbidden.  This seems to have sufficed for most Jews vis-à-vis mentioning the word “Christmas.”

This explains why there was a body of Yiddish words denoting Christmas as spoken amongst the Jews of Eastern Europe which persisted until World War Two. Utilizing the results of a Columbia University survey conducted in the 1960’s of more than five hundred Yiddish speakers, Jeffrey Shandler posits that Yiddish speakers throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century and through the mid-twentieth century considered the word Nittel to be a lomdish, a scholarly term for Christmas.  Shandler cites twenty different names for Christmas used by Yiddish speakers while living in Europe. Two questions in that survey related to Christmas: (1) what was the Christmas holiday called, and (2) what did one do on that day? Nittel was the name for the holiday most often cited by the respondents. Many other names invoked by the local Jews were tied to a particular European geographic region and were often a variation of the common local name for the holiday (e.g., Jews in Alsace, Galicia and Western Poland used VayNahkht, a name parodying the German WeiNahkhten). Certain names were descriptive in character. The Jews in southern and central Europe called Christmas Eve GoyimNahkht (Gentiles’ night), ToleNahkht  (night of the crucified one) and YoyzlsNahkht (Jesus night).

Certain of the names invented by European Jews to refer to Christmas transcend being merely descriptive in character and actually denote the feelings of fear and dread Jews harbored about Christmas Eve. In Galicia and Ukraine, Christmas was referred to as Finstere Nahkht (dark night), Moyredike Nahkht (fearful night), and Blinde Nahkht (blind night). Moyredike Nahkht directly alludes to being fearful of persecution on Christmas Eve. Fear influenced behavior. The name, Blinde Nahkht denotes a night in which the light of Torah study is curtailed. Finstere Nahkht signifies the darkness maintained in Jewish homes during Christmas Eve. According to Shandler, the names epitomize the essence of the East European Jewish response to Christmas. Fear was apparent but not the only sentiment expressed. Terms such as beyz geboyrenish (evil birthing), Yoyzlsnahkht (Jesus night) and Veynahkht (woe-night) verbally scoff at the very source of the fear while simultaneously acknowledging its existence. Though not as widespread today, the practice of calling Christmas by the name Nittel has persisted in certain Yiddish speaking Hasidic and orthodox communities in the United States, especially in New York communities in Brooklyn, Muncie and Kiryat Joel. For example, amongst the Satmar Hasidic community, one term used for Christmas is Bitel Nahkht (a verbal parody of Bitul Torah, an expression referring to the suspension of Torah learning on Christmas Eve).

 

Meet You At the Movies on Christmas Eve: The Origin of a Jewish Tradition

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Jews in America, particularly during the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, employed a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of being outsiders to Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation. These strategies include attending events that concentrate on bringing family and friends together in temporary and public settings, thereby providing not only a safe haven but also opportunities to positively identify as Jews and as Americans. Going to the movies certainly falls within this category. However, rather than being a modern cultural innovation, the concept of Jews going to the movies on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is steeped in long-standing tradition.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, even though most commercial establishments were closed on Christmas, immigrant Jews frequented entertainment venues that catered to Americans who did not celebrate Christmas. Jews residing in New York City were fortunate in being surrounded by a world of entertainment consisting of Yiddish theater, movies, arcades, dance halls, cafes and vaudeville houses to which, in fact, Jews contributed as store owners, actors, movie theater proprietors, and audiences. The fact that Jews lived in crowded conditions in the Lower East Side meant that entertainment centers catered to a built-in constituency that clamored for diversion from their long and difficult living and working conditions. Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan became avid purveyors and consumers of commercial leisure. Eastern European Jews, who spoke Yiddish, enjoyed attending performances of the Yiddish theater, which stayed open on Christmas. As early as 1917, theater advertisements for plays being performed on Christmas Day appeared in the Yiddish press; some plays actually opened on Christmas.

According to Jewish film scholar Judith Thissen, who has extensively researched Jewish patronage of the movies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a film that generated significant controversy at that time was entitled “The Jew’s Christmas.” The narrative involves a rabbi who sells his copy of the Torah to buy a Christmas tree for a poor little girl. It is ultimately revealed that this little girl is the Rabbi’s granddaughter and the film ends happily with the family reunited around the Christmas tree. According to Thissen, Moving Picture World documented that a large delegation of rabbis witnessed the projection of the film and was satisfied with the story and its treatment of Jewish ceremony and custom. The rabbis did, however, look with disfavor on the title of the film. Thissen then asserts that the film was viewed with less tolerance by Tageblatt finding the last scenes particularly offensive.

On a broader scale, the Lower East Side saw the expansion of the nickelodeon, a moving picture of short-duration accompanied by illustrated songs. The price of admittance was a nickel.  This medium was very popular among Jewish residents; nickelodeon shows ran in a continuous loop from morning until evening. People went from one theater to the next: “It is heaven and earth and moving pictures,” reported the Forward in May 1908. There were more nickelodeons situated in the Lower East Side than anywhere else in New York City. Andrew Heinze notes that nineteen nickel theaters were scattered along the Second and Third Avenue streetcar lines of the East Side. By 1908, forty-two were located in or adjacent to the Lower East Side and ten were in the uptown area branded as Jewish Harlem.  Adolph Zukor was the first nickel theater entrepreneur in Manhattan who opened in 1904 a modest theater above his penny arcade that was accessible through a glass staircase beneath which water cascaded over lights of changing hue.  On Jewish holidays, the nickelodeons and Yiddish theaters attracted big crowds.

The high attendance levels of Jewish audiences in movie theaters did not go unnoticed. Christian authorities apparently were distressed by the fact that Jews went to the movies on Christmas Eve in New York. Resultantly, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. ordered the closing of all New York City nickelodeons on December 24, 1908, believing that the new medium degraded community morals. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was founded in 1909 to protest the Mayor’s censorship. Its lobbying effort was successful in facilitating the opening of nickelodeons once again on Christmas.

Which brings us to today! According to one Long Island Native, now living in San Francisco, “there seems to be an unwritten law that Jews in New York have to go to a Chinese Restaurant and then a movie on Christmas Eve.”

For an in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter One of A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) entitled “Coming to the New World: Can The American Jew Keep Christmas?”

For an in-cinema experience: see Seth Rogan’s recently released film: The Night Before.

For a listing of recommended movies, old and new, to view on Christmas Eve via NetFlix, see: http://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/jewish-movies-to-watch-on-christmas#.xgYymgxlP

 

 

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 Mensch Who Saved Christmas!

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Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmas-time is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus. In a limited sense, this title is bestowed on Jewish volunteers who act generously, very much like Santa Claus would.

A celebrated case of acting like Santa Claus was the response of Aaron Feuerstein, the Jewish owner of the large textile factory Malden Mills in Methuen, Massachusetts. His factory burned to the ground in 1995, two weeks before Christmas. Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue to pay salaries to and health benefits for his twenty-five hundred employees until partial production resumed at the mill. He also gave them Christmas bonuses. When asked where he obtained strength and inspiration after the devastation, Feuerstein cited an ancient Jewish quotation that served as his motto: “When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch.” For his exemplary efforts, Feuerstein was labeled by the news media as the “Mensch who saved Christmas” for his employees.

As was recently reported in Ha’aretz, the cost of reconstruction and later downturns in the economy twice forced Malden Mills into bankruptcy. The second filing resulted in a distress sale of the company, its renaming as “Polartec” and the outsourcing of production overseas. Feuerstein was later characterized as someone whose naïve sentimentality after the fire led to significant economic loss, including loss the his family business. A  2011 essay at the website ethix.org, published by Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Integrity in Business and cited in Ha’aretz, suggests not blaming Feuerstein’s mensch-like behavior for Malden’s subsequent problems: “Yes, his decision to rebuild at a cost $150 million higher than the payout from his fire insurance definitely started Malden on the path to bankruptcy, but more significant were three unseasonably warm winters in the years following the reconstruction. And what American textile company hasn’t faced difficult challenges in recent decades, starting with the relocation of much production offshore?” Ultimately, the Ha’aretz article concludes (again citing ethix.org) “[The] market situation, not his kind heart, is what ended Feuerstein’s run as a textile industry leader.”

Aaron Feuerstein is now 90 years old. In a recent Boston Globe article, Feuerstein said: “I go on living with gratitude and humility. I’m happy with my life. I do the best I can.”

Kudos to Aaron Feuerstein!!!

see http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/this-day-in-jewish-history/.premium-1.691072