HomeDecember 2013Santa Claus and Zionism

Santa Claus and Zionism

One evening in early November a few years ago, we were having dinner, and the name “Santa Claus” came up.  (I think we were speaking about differences between Chanukah and Christmas.)  My then-12-year-old son Elie said, “Who’s Santa Claus?”  Despite the immediate questioning of Elie’s intelligence provided gratis by his sister Rebecca (“Oh come on, are you for real?”), I realized that it was perfectly understandable that Elie had no idea who Santa Claus was.  Elie arrived in Israel at the age of two, and since then he has been back in the States only twice (and both trips were during summertime).  Still, it was a bit of a shock for me since we are American Israelis, and it seems that I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not recognize the name “Santa Claus.”
Elie did not know about Santa Claus, because Elie lives in a country without a Christian majority culture.  (I wonder: if there is a person reading this column whose child or grandchild does not know who Santa Claus is.)  In America, Jews are cognizant of major Christian holidays and traditions — this is fine and only natural given the dominance of Christian culture in America.  In Israel, Jews don’t have to measure themselves against a different religious culture.  Indeed, religious Zionism’s dream was that in a country where Judaism is the majority culture, Judaism can grow and thrive in ways unimaginable in the Diaspora.
This dream, however, has been put on hold.  A major reason for this is an unusual interplay between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis concerning religion, the result of which prevents Judaism from contributing to the life of a modern state.  On the part of the ultra-Orthodox, there is no interest in what religion can contribute to general culture, because the ultra-Orthodox are not interested in general culture.  Their main focus is on punctilious observance of the Sabbath and of the kosher laws.  A huge effort in Israeli culture is thus made towards seeing to it that the state’s apparatus functions in accord with stringent ultra-Orthodox demands concerning the Sabbath and kashrut – and as long as these demands are indeed kept stringently, the ultra-Orthodox are content. The secular populace, for its part, is content to keep religion confined to ritual observances.  This segment of the population would rather preserve the status quo (even though it gives the ultra-Orthodox disproportional power in certain political situations), rather than consider what Judaism has to say about such wider societal issues as the environment, animal rights, organ transplantation and nuclear proliferation.
Will the national religious camp be able to make good on its dream of a vibrant Judaism in the Jewish state, a Judaism that speaks to and addresses all issues of society?  I’m not sure.  During my first year here (1997-1998), I sat in on a theology seminar given by the noted scholar Rabbi David Hartman (who unfortunately passed away in February of this year).  I remember Rabbi Hartman pounding on the table and saying, “Thirty years ago when I made aliyah [he moved here from Montreal in 1971], I thought that in Israel there was finally going to be an opportunity for Judaism to embrace all of life.  But I was a complete idiot!  Because what did I discover — that the religious here are concerned mainly with pas akum [the Jewish legal issue concerning bread that is made by gentiles].”
The truth is that in Israel we have not yet fully exercised our religious freedom.  We have the luxury of living in the world’s only Jewish majority culture, where a child can grow up without having heard of Santa Claus, but what have we done with this freedom?  Answer so far:  Not enough.  When, for example, Judaism is associated with a massive campaign against road fatalities on Israel’s highways – instead of with protests against construction on the Sabbath of those highways – then we will have realized the State of Israel of which Rabbi Hartman dreamed.


  1. I’ll never forget next door during Christmas with a Catholic family, Bing Crosby didn’t sing I’m Dreaming of a White Chanukah, we never had a tree with lights, Burl Ives, 2 weeks off school to celebrate Xmas, etc. Made me wonder if I had been born there I would also be eating sausage and eggs, ham, candy canes, you name it without a care if I wasn’t naughty but nice….


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