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

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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…

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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!

Leave a comment

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

 

We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas!

Leave a comment

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 – 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)

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

Leave a comment

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!

Hanukkah Harry Comes to Town!

Leave a comment

Santa Claus, a folk hero of the Christmas season, is readily available to most American children, Jewish children, however, had no corresponding hero with which to identify. Then came Hanukkah Harry!

Hanukkah Harry was first introduced in a 1989 episode of Saturday Night Live in “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas” as a positive figure who had earned a reputation as a trustworthy Jewish Santa.  So well-respected was Harry that when Santa became ill just prior to Christmas and was unable to fulfill his duties, he called upon Harry to take his place. Hanukkah Harry ably substitutes for Santa until the non-Jewish children he visits realize that Harry has distributed practical gifts—slacks and socks (typical presents for Jewish children)—and not the gifts that they had hoped to receive. After their initial disappointment, the children realize that Hanukkah Harry was only trying to help out under difficult circumstances. They ultimately appreciate Hanukkah Harry’s willingness to assist Santa, in the same manner as fellow Americans are thankful to Jews who willingly volunteer to substitute and perform their jobs on Christmas day. As for the Saturday Night Live episode, while Santa may have had the better gifts, Hanukkah Harry had the altruistic motive, teaching that holiday spirit is more appealing than the crass commercialism to which many children, Christian and Jewish, are subjected.

Just when one is left to believe that Hanukkah Harry had reached a modicum of success with his appearance on Saturday Night Live, the rivalry between Santa and Harry reached epic proportion in the minds of imaginative comedians. Some have envisioned Harry winning in a combat between the two giant holiday superstars. Hal L. Singer’s 2002 music release on compact disc “I Saw Hanukkah Harry Beat up Santa” offers one such episode and a motive of jealousy for the fisticuffs that are about to ensue.  Harry instigates the rivalry by “haunting Christmas like the ghost of Christmas past.” Santa “bashes in Harry’s Caddy” and “Harry jumps in his Caddy and he was mad as heck,” resulting in his taking “off after Santa to break his jolly neck.”

Without any pretext, Hanukkah Harry gets even with Santa Claus for Santa’s control of the Christmas airwaves. The scene takes place in front of Morrie’s deli, presumably so that Hanukkah Harry will have support and justification for his retribution on Santa. His use of a Cadillac car to inflict harm hearkens to a time when this automobile was considered to be a status symbol among immigrant Jews. The message is that Santa’s hubris will ultimately contribute to his undoing.

These two roles of Hanukkah Harry, supportive and combative, are recorded as entries in the Internet Urban Dictionary, a source of humorous definitions found in the urban environment. The first definition of Hanukkah Harry is that of a “very funny guy that helps Santa Claus and lives in Israel.” His brother, Santa Cohen, helps as does his sister, Yenta Claus. The siblings have a cousin named Schmanta Claus and they all love Hanukkah. The second definition posted in Urban Dictionary for Hanukkah Harry is “the Jewish equivalent of Santa Claus” when “Hanukkah Harry wipes Santa Claus’s ass.”

As portrayed in American Jewish popular culture, Hanukkah Harry illustrates that Hanukkah is just as important as Christmas. Once this parity was achieved through the humor of Jewish artists, satire became the vehicle of choice. In the fantasy world facilitated by the then new YouTube internet medium, a Hanukkah bird drops presents from his high vantage point, along with bird waste. Introduced through YouTube, in 2006, the comedian and rapper Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E) presented a scene centered upon a bird dressed in blue that delivers presents over the course of eight nights from his home in Boca Raton, Florida. Apparently, Hanukkah Harry trained him. The bird’s sole recognizable trait is his “blue and white turd,” although a news helicopter sights the bird sporting a yarmulke. Reminiscent of Big Bird, the beloved television character of Sesame Street fame, this Hanukkah bird is considered cute and responsive to children’s needs. The cuteness is undermined, however, by the bird’s limitations. He does not talk and he cannot be seen.

Eric Schwartz’s message in this rap, as well as in his other YouTube entries (“Chocolate Coins” in 2006 and “Hanukkah Hey Ya” in 2008) is that Jewish children have no reason to envy Santa. They have so many “cool” rituals, games, and gifts that they deserve to be called heeb hoppers. Unlike children who celebrate Christmas, they never have to worry about whether they were naughty or nice nor need they request any presents directly from a Santa while seated on his lap. This Hanukkah bird can neither read a gift wish list nor be seen by children. But the presents for all eight nights continue from an endless and miraculous source of gifts.

Both Hanukkah Harry and the Hanukkah bird now appear in popular cultural celebrations during the month of December. Beginning in 1994, every year on a specified weekend date in December in cities throughout the United States and the world, thousands of young people sporting Santa costumes converge on a central gathering place. The name of the event is Santacon.The focus of Santacon is multi-fold:  rooted in a flash mob and featuring both spontaneity and creativity, the participants meet to publically parade, to rove and to barhop, clearly having a good time all the while spreading good, albeit bawdy, cheer and goodwill. A website called SantaCon.info provides information about several of the gathering sites in the Northeastern United States, as well as historical context and the prospect of purchasing cheap Santa suits and other Santa paraphernalia.  In New York City alone, thousands of Santas converge from all directions at one (secret) previously -designated place. This street gathering always includes a few people dressed in blue and white robes as Hannukah Harry and as Mrs. Hanukkah Harry. Occasionally, dreidel and menorah costumes appear and even, on rarer occurrences, a person surfaces dressed as a blue and white bird, a clear reference to the Hanukkah bird featured in the Youtube rap of Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E).

This year SantaCon has shared its route in advance. They will meet at 10 a.m. at McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Starting at 11:00 a.m., parties will be hosted at Verboten and the Hall. In the middle of the afternoon, the Santa crowd will head to the Lower East Side, near to the Delancey and the DL. Late afternoon will find the Santa crowd in the East Village with events hosted at Solas, Bar 13 and at 230 Fifth, near Madison Park.

For more on our thoughts about SantaCon, see prior blog postings: “Here Comes SantaCon (and AntiCon)! on Decembr 13, 2013, and “You Better Watch Out…!!!! on December 16, 2012.

A Rejoinder to “Hanukkah Sucks”

Leave a comment

When Emma Green of The Atlantic magazine contacted me to discuss Hanukkah for an upcoming article in the on-line magazine, I was initially excited by the prospect. She approached our discussion, which was quite enjoyable, with an open mind. We talked at length about the holiday’s symbolism and underpinnings. What struck me at the time was a statement made by Emma that Hanukkah was “theologically thin.” While I agree that Hanukkah is based on an historical foundation that later on incorporated a theological concept of a miracle, I should have been more attuned perhaps to Emma’s preconceived stance. The result of our conversation was my pop-in inclusion in an article in The Atlantic online that attacks American Jews’ celebration of the holiday while ignoring the thrust of my interview. [See Green’s Hanukkah, Why? Cultural Critics Often Blame Christmas for the Festival of Lights’ Commercialized Kitsch. The Real Story is Much More Complicated.]

Green’s article is deeply flawed.  I certainly did not fare as poorly as other scholars cited in the article; however, I am dismayed that the article failed to discuss the duel underpinning for Hanukkah’s ascension in the American vernacular. In my interview with Green, I repeatedly emphasized that the singular way to understand Hanukkah in America today is in connection with its juxtaposition to Christmas and its contemporary connection with religious liberty. In writing about and discussing Hanukkah, it is imperative to compare and contrast Hanukkah and Christmas on both a particular and a general level. I emphasized to Green that Hanukkah is the festival of light during what has been characterized as the season of light. Hanukkah is a holiday that has come to symbolize the fight for religious freedom, which coalesces with an important American value. Green chose to disregard this. Instead Green chose to highlight Hanukkah as a holiday of kitsch and “celebratory of violent nationalism.”

Perhaps the internet citation for the article signals the author’s preconceived perceptions:(http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/hanukkah-sucks-amirite/419649/) An interesting corollary is the search heading, which reads “How American Jews Ruined Hanukkah.” Perhaps these are merely attention-grabbing devices. Perhaps they are a reflection of the subversive irony of hipsterism. The Atlantic magazine article fails to portray the individual perceptions and behaviors of American Jews vis-a-vis Hanukkah.

I have written a direct email response to Green. It reads as follows:

I read your article again just now. To me it seems that while your reasoning is interesting, it is also flawed. As I write in my book, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012), Hanukkah (in America) can only be considered and analyzed with respect to its contextual relationship to both Christmas and the December holiday season, both generally and particularly. Hanukkah, in fact, is certainly one of the strategies American Jews employ to respond to (and mitigate the effects of) Christmas. This is Hanukkah’s true importance to the American Jew. Your article avoids a discussion of the juxtaposition, correlation and interaction of the two holidays. If you read (or reread) my book, each chapter represents a different strategy of response, all of which are interconnected. Basically, your treatment of Hanukkah is in isolation of its historical and contemporary context to (and its magnification because of) the December holidays.  Lastly, for most American Jews, Hanukkah connotes a joyous affirmation of Jewish identity and religious liberty (as I mentioned to you in our recent discussion) during the month of December.