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.

 

 

We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas!

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The tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is so pervasive that it has been the catalyst for many a Yuletide parody. Erev Christmas was written by veteran storyteller Bruce Marcus and Lori Factor (now Factor-Marcus) and originally published by The Boston Globe newspaper in 1993. (The version that appears below was slightly revised in September of 2011). These two Boston-area Jews chronicled their personal Christmas Eve quest for Chinese food with some measure of comic license, adding to the large canon of verse satirizing the well-known poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clemente Clarke Moore.

Erev Christmas [Christmas Eve]

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and we, being Jews,

my girlfriend and me -A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season To Be Jewish we had nothing to do.

The Gentiles were home, hanging stockings with care,

secure in their knowledge St. Nick would be there.

But for us, once the Chanukah candles burned down,

there was nothing but boredom all over town.

The malls and the theaters were all closed up tight;

there weren’t any concerts to go to that night.

A dance would have saved us, some ballroom or swing,

but we combed through the papers; there wasn’t a thing.

Outside the window sat two feet of snow;

with the wind-chill, they said, it was fifteen below.

And while all I could do was sit there and brood,

my gal saved the night and called out: “Chinese food!”

So we ran to the closet, grabbed hats, mitts, and boots –

to cover our heads, our hands and out foots.

We pulled on our jackets, all puffy with down,

and boarded the T, bound for Chinatown.

The train nearly empty, it rolled through the stops,

while visions of wantons danced through our kopfs.

We hopped off at Park Street; the Common was bright,

with fresh-fallen snow and the trees strung with lights,

then crept through “The Zone” with its bums and its thugs,

and entrepreneurs pushing ladies and drugs.

At last we reached Chinatown, rushed through the gate,

Past bakeries, markets, shops and cafes,

in search of a restaurant: “Which one? Let’s decide!”

We chose “Hunan Chazer,” and ventured inside.

 

Around us sat others, their platters piled high

with the finest of fine foods their money could buy:

There was roast duck and fried squid (sweet, sour and spiced),

dried beef and mixed veggies, lo mein and fried rice.

There was whole fish and moo shi and shrimp chow mee foon,

and General Gau’s chicken and ma po tofu…

When at last we decided, and the waiter did call,

we said: “Skip the menu!” and ordered it all.

And when in due time the food was all made,

it came to the table in a sort of parade.

Before us sat dim sum, spare ribs and egg rolls,

and four different soups, in four great, huge bowls.

And chicken wings! Dumplings! And beef teriyakis!

And fried scallion pancakes—‘cause they’re kinda like latkes.

 

The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild,

and higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled.

And while this went on, we were aware

every diner around us had started to stare.

Their jaws hanging open, they looked on unblinking;

some dropped their teacups, some drooled without thinking.

So much piled up, one dish, then another,

my girlfriend and I couldn’t see one another!

 

Now we sat there, we two, without proper utensils,

while they handed us something that looked like two pencils.

We poked and we jabbed till our fingers were sore,

and half of our dinner wound up on the floor.

We tried – How we tried! – but, sad truth to tell,

ten long minutes later and still hungry as heck,

we swallowed our pride, feeling vaguely like dorks,

and called to our waiter to bring us two forks.

 

Then we fressed and we feasted, we slurped and we munched;

we noshed and we supped, we breakfast and lunched.

We ate near to bursting and drank down our teas,

and barely had room for the fortune cookies.

But my fortune was perfect; it summed up the mood

when it said: “Pork is kosher, when it’s in Chinese food.”

And my girlfriend—well…she got a real winner;

Hers said: ‘Your companion will pay for the dinner.”

 

Our bellies were full and at last it was time

to travel back home and write down this rhyme

of our Chinatown trek (and to privately speak

about trying to refine our chopstick technique).

The MSG spun ‘round and ‘round in our heads,

and we tripped and we laughed, and gaily we said,

as we schlepped all our leftovers home through the night:

“Good yom tov to all—and to all a Good Night!

This parody lampoons several recurring themes pervasive in the Jewish affinity for Chinese food: the Jewish penchant for Chinese food on Christmas, the ineptness of eating with chopsticks, a lack of understanding of what foods are being referred to because of their Chinese names, and the passion with which they are eaten.  Selecting “Hunan Chazer” as the restaurant of choice reflects the irony of Jews eating non-kosher food, called in Yiddish “chazer,” or pig. The boisterousness of the evening is described by the food that kept coming (“The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild, and higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled”), which was contrasted with the boredom they experienced at home on Christmas Eve. The couple’s euphoria is symbolized by the MSG that was present to heighten the couple’s awareness: “The MSG spun round and round in our heads, and we tripped and we laughed ….”

According to Bruce Marcus and Lori Factor-Marcus, “We began Erev Christmas on December 24, 1992 – one year to the day before it was published on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe – on the back of a placemat in a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. In those days, the Boston Globe published Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on the front page every December 24th. That poem was our inspiration; we decided to write a spoof that described how we spent our Christmas Eve…We took some flak for Erev Christmas. After it was published, a few people took us to task for representing non-traditional Jewish dietary habits. Most, however, seemed to take our doggerel in the playful spirit in which it was written. And lastly, when asked if this is a true story (and sometimes even when we are not asked), we explain to folks that we remember there being little or no snow on the ground on Christmas Eve, 1992, and we actually do know how to use chopsticks.” The first performance of the poem by Marcus was at a Jewish Storyteller’s Coalition. Marcus’s performance of “Erev Christmas” has become part of the American Jewish folk tradition through it widespread dissemination by e-mail, print media and YouTube.

Other parodies, including some that have appeared on YouTube, mimic the function of Chinese restaurants to save Jews from being bored on Christmas. In 2006, Brandon Walker composed the enormously popular song “Chinese Food on Christmas,” as reflected by the high number of visits to this YouTube video. In 2006 there were over 583,000 visits to the site while in 2007 there were three times as many and over 2,000 comments. By 2015, the song had 1,900,000 viewings. In the lyrics of his YouTube parody, Brandon wakes up on Christmas day and sees a Christmas tree barren of presents because Santa Claus was not going to appear in a Jewish house. Brandon sings, “What’s a Jew to do on Christmas?” The answer is: “I eat Chinese on Christmas because there ain’t much to do on Christmas.”  Once at the restaurant, he joins a band that turns this culinary experience into a Jewish celebration, complete with stereotypical Jewish music, a Jewish wedding dance (lifting the groom off the floor while seated in a chair), and the blowing of the shofar. The song’s music and dance address the depth to which eating Chinese food has become integrated in the American Jewish psyche and how happy Jews are to be immersed in activities on Christmas Eve and Day.

See prior blog posting: “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” (December 9, 2014)

Chapter 3 of  A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season To Be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut provides the definitive history of the origin of Jews eating Chinese Food and its evolution into a sacred secular Jewish ritual.

For a definitive list of Chinese restaurants in NYC catering to the busiest day of the year for Chinese food, see: A New Yorker’s Guide to Chinese Food for Christmas (http://www.amny.com/eat-and-drink/chinese-food-for-christmas-in-new-york-city-1.9703839)

CHOCOLATE COINS ON HANUKKAH: How Hanukkah Gift-Giving Began In The 17th Century

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Starting on Thanksgiving and continuing through most of the month of December, our neighborhood Trader Joe’s store in Manhattan sets out harvest baskets near the check-out line that are filled with mesh bags containing “coins of the world.” These bags sell for $1.99 each and contain milk chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Anyone in the know would recognize that these generic “Coins of the World” are, in actuality, Hanukkah gelt in disguise. Hanukkah gelt, an American Jewish tradition, has entered popular culture.  For one hundred years, Jewish children have associated Hanukkah in America with receiving gifts on each of the eight nights of the holiday. The roots of this gift-giving tradition date back to the Middle Ages, to a more simple time in which coins were given at Hanukkah as a means to support Jewish teachers and dispense charity in the Jewish community.

Chocolate Hanukkah coins date to 1920 in America when the item first became commercialized. And yet, the giving of Hanukkah coins is often attributed to a legend connected to the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greeks. During the Hasmonean dynasty, when independence was brought to Judea, the Hasmoneans celebrated their freedom by minting the first Jewish coins in history. In 1 Maccabees 15:6 King Antiochus declared to Simon “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country.” Yet, it was only in 1958, two thousand years later, that the Bank of Israel started issuing annually special commemorative coins to be used as Chanukah gelt. The first coin portrayed the same menorah that had appeared on the last Maccabean coins of Antigonus.

Legend aside, the origin for giving gifts of Hanukkah coins dates back to Europe. Traditionally called Chanukah gelt in Yiddish or maot Chanukah or damai Chanukah (Hanukkah money) in Hebrew, this Askenazi custom of giving money or gifts at Chanukah is not mentioned in the Bible, Talmud or Shulhan Aruch. The custom of giving money as a gift developed in the seventeenth century among Polish Jews. The giving of Chanukah gelt originally pertained to charitable giving of money for the holy objects in the synagogue (klai kodesh) and to the poor. Beggars would stop by the homes of Jewish kinfolk to collect their Chanukah gelt gift. Even though begging door-to-door was generally prohibited by Jewish communities, Chanukah time was considered an exception to the rule.

Gelt giving to teachers (melamdim) became an important component of Chanukah during the Middle Ages. After dinner, during the nights of Chanukah, parents would give their children several coins to take to school the next day to distribute to their teachers in the schools (hedarim). These monetary gifts (or Chanukah gelt) were spread throughout the week of Chanukah. They were deemed to be bonuses and actually counted among the teachers’ primary means of support. The giving of Chanukah gelt was also a way to emphasize and model the dignity of Torah learning. The tradition later broadened to include gifts to Jewish communal workers. Eventually, the custom expanded to the giving of coins to children for their own account and then to students during the holiday, to sweeten the process of Jewish learning and reward Torah study.

It was also the custom during Chanukah for poor Yeshivah students to visit the homes of Jews who would dispense Chanukah money. The rabbis approved such Chanukah dispensations to publicize the story of the miracle of the oil. The tradition of giving Chanukah gelt to students and children ultimately supplied money for children’s dreidel games and students’ card games. In days of extensive Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe and, later on in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Chanukah gelt provided children mired in poverty with greater opportunities and relief.

Similar customs existed amongst the Sephardim of Turkey and Greece. The synagogue leaders distributed potato pancakes to families in their homes in exchange for monetary donations designated for community needs. Among the Sephardim of Salonica, during Chanukah, children were given money and candy while newlyweds were given household items and new clothes.

Perhaps American Jews, in the late twentieth century, expanded upon the European Jewish practice of supporting the poor in the Jewish community as part of the Chanukah gelt tradition. The propensity for Jews acting charitably during Jewish holidays, notably Chanukah, may have made it easier, ultimately, for American Jews to embrace volunteering at Christmas-time. American Jews, acting in the spirit of Chanukah, have broadened the gelt-giving practice to acts of tzedakah outside of the Jewish community. Furthermore, Jewish institutions have used the tradition of Chanukah gelt as a theme for fundraising.

 

 

 

 

Got Gelt?

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That was then: Although Hanukkah was not historically of relative import as a holiday, it was awaited with great anticipation by the children! Let’s face it…children are excited about Hanukkah gifts! Gelt, a gift of money that is given throughout the holiday, provided the leitmotif for Sholom Aleichem’s story “Chanukah Gelt.” In quest of holiday coins, two brothers brave a visit to Uncle Moishe-Aaron. After tolerating relentless and tiresome conversation, the boys are rewarded…with valueless Russian coins. OY!!!

This is now: Gelt is still given; however, on a community-wide basis, American Jews in the late twentieth century expanded upon the European practice of supporting the poor in the Jewish community as part of the Hanukkah Gelt tradition. The propensity for Jews acting charitably during the Jewish holidays, notably Hanukkah, may have eased the way for American Jews to embrace volunteerism at Christmas-time. American Jews, acting in the spirit of Hanukkah, have broadened the gelt-giving practice to acts of tzedakah outside of the Jewish community. Furthermore, Jewish institutions have used the tradition of Hanukkah gelt as a theme for seasonal fundraising.

In the 1920s, American candy companies, such as Loft’s, first introduced gold and silver foil-wrapped chocolate gelt. According to Rabbi Deborah Prinz, who explored the historical nexus between Jews and chocolate in her book On The Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals And Recipes To The Magic Of Cacao, links this inspiration to chocolate coins (called “geld”) given to children during the St. Nicholas holiday celebrated in Belgium and the Netherlands in early December.

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).

Where can I get a Santa suit?

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So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book  “A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish,”( Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomenal of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!

In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!

Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.

Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn—it’s a living.

The underpinnings playing Santa Claus are myriad.  Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christmas, or whether from a yearning to be participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.