SOMETIMES CHRISTMAS COINCIDES with Hanukah, sometimes it doesn’t. Last year it did, this year it doesn’t. This lack of contiguity matters a good deal to American Jews but largely goes unnoticed in the Jewish State. In America, when December 25th falls within one of the eight days of Hanukah, Jews are in sync with their surrounding culture–they celebrate at the same time that the majority of Americans celebrate. In Israel, Christmas is not on the cultural radar for most Israeli Jews, and so whether or not it falls out during Hanukah hardly makes a ripple in an Israeli’s consciousness.
Not observing Christmas in America is an important element in one’s American Jewish identity. Part of what makes me a Jewish American is that I don’t celebrate Christmas. It follows, therefore, that any time it is assumed that all Americans celebrate Christmas, I (to some extent) will be offended. Here in Israel, the fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas has almost nothing to do with my Jewish self-identity. Indeed, one is only mildly aware of the holiday in passing.
For an American Jewish immigrant to Israel, there is a surprising facet to this issue of the absence of Christmas from Israel’s cultural landscape. With my new cultural environment, I have developed a more benign view of Christmas. For example, when I read my sixth-grader an English-language children’s book that recounts the big moments of a particular sixth-grader’s life—including the Christmas play, I didn’t get upset at the writer and publisher for not being sensitive to my religious sensibilities, I didn’t have to skip that page, I didn’t have to worry that that exposure to Christmas fun would cause my child to want to celebrate Christmas (though I did have to explain to him what Christmas is). Instead, I could read the page with mild bemusement at the prevalence of Christmas in American life. The hypersensitivity I had to all things Christmas in America has faded away here.
This is not to say that from an intellectual perspective I have ceased being upset by the fact that Christmas is a national American holiday. I find it odd that people are prepared to argue that this holiday is somehow devoid of a particular religious orientation (interestingly enough, in Hebrew Christmas is called “the Holiday of the Birth”). I once read an interview with the late Jan and Stan Berenstain, authors of the popular Berenstain Bears books for children, in light of the publication of their autobiography. The article mentions that fans of the Berenstain Bears have repeatedly asked for a Berenstain Bears Hanukkah book. Stan, who was Jewish, didn’t see this as a possibility, however, because “there’s no way to do it without bringing religion into it.” Asked how the Berenstain Bears Christmas book fits in, the article says that Stan feels that Christmas “is popular and widespread enough so that it doesn’t get into the murky waters of competing religions.” Again, that old assumption that Christmas is a pareve American holiday. Sort of gets me upset. Emotionally too.
Could it be that I still have a very strong American Jewish identity? Could it be that I still care an awful lot about what goes on in America? Guess I do. In any case, I can still wish everyone a wonderful, peaceful year ahead.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.