Jewish Christmas Internet Wins and Other Good Things (and Some Bad Things)
Plus: Exciting update!
Season’s Greetings! Let’s have a little fun with the internet as we get into the home stretch of everyone’s favorite time of the year.
The winner: This epic Twitter thread imagining having to explain Christmas to the uninformed.
Best not-Christmas Christmas cookies award goes to Seattle Jew Pam Mandel’s gingerbread Golems.
What we could do without. Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogan’s raunchy animated Christmas comedy. I don’t usually say this, but Jews, please stop ruining Christmas.
Meanwhile, in Redmond, an Arabic astronomy-inspired light exhibit went sideways when the Egyptian artists decided to write “Remember Palestine” in English and “Palestine is in the heart” in Arabic on their installation. After complaints, the city made the artists remove the Palestine language, which was arguably in violation of the non-political regulations of the project. Then the city doubled back on itself, apologized, and let the artists rewrite it. Read about the whole ordeal in Crosscut.
I’m excited to share a piece I wrote for Seattle Met about my challenging relationship with Christmas. When I was asked to write about the Jewish experience at Christmas, I worried about contributing to the growing identity disenfranchisement complex — the glut of articles about how hard it is to be an American for whatever reason. Also, do we need more Jews talking about being Jewish at Christmas?
A couple of thoughts. One is that my editors, whom I consider friends, did have genuine questions about my experiences and Judaism, which signals to me that as much as we think Jews are enmeshed in the American tapestry, there is still a big knowledge gap. Second, I have one quibble with how this piece turned out. I don’t want to blame living Americans for historical anti-Semitism. But I want to get across that Christianity, as glittery and cheery as it may be this month in this country, has been the greatest driver of violence against Jews. This makes it hard for me, nowadays, to want to snort crushed candy canes with an elf covered in ribbons. Ya know?
Here is a paragraph I originally wrote:
In so-called secular Seattle, stores pump Christmas songs through speakers into the streets. Joy to the world! Peace on Earth! Fa-lalalala-lalalala! It’s practically lifted from Jewish prayer. Could any message bring more relief to a bunch of people brutalized century after century by adherents of this very religion? (Emphasis mine)
Here is what was published:
In so-called secular Seattle, stores pump Christmas songs through speakers into the streets. Joy to the world! Peace on Earth! Fa-lalalala-lalalala! Their reconciliatory themes are practically lifted from Jewish prayer. Could any message bring more relief to a bunch of people brutalized century after century?
See what’s missing? Although I mounted a campaign to keep that last clause in, it indicates to me a discomfort with historical anti-Semitism insofar as it’s a Christian phenomenon.
I also originally titled it “Goodbye, Christmas,” as a hat-tip to Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” but that was also too obscure. :) *
Oh, and sorry to my parents, with whom I did not share this in advance. “When a writer is born, a family is finished.” Kidding!
Anyway, I was given permission to share it here. Enjoy it over a plate of ham and a glass of spiked eggnog!
*Editor’s note: after this came out, I learned that this was printed correctly but wasn’t updated online, and the title “Goodbye, Christmas” is the print title. I apologize for sounding gripey — I have nothing but respect for my editors, who did so much to get this piece to its current state from my original jumble of thoughts. I just wanted to point out how easy it is to gloss historical anti-Semitism.
Goodbye to My Jewish Christmas
Can I make peace with America’s yuletide obsession?
Published in the Winter 2021 issue of Seattle Met
My favorite Christmas ornament was a white plastic globe, inside which a tiny Snoopy skis down a mini mountain, Woodstock looking on from his doghouse perch. I made sure it stayed front and center, despite my mother’s attempts to class up our tree with gold ribbons and Victorian bulbs. With a fire burning in the woodstove, John Denver and the Muppets warbling “Silent Night,” we could have been any American family.
We could have been, had my mother followed through on her abandonment of Judaism. Like many Jewish baby boomers, she grew up with a Judaism that was thick with rules but thin on meaning. Off at college—a luxury not afforded her first-generation parents—she fell for a straight-haired, straitlaced WASP whose family lineage literally traced back to the Mayflower and the American Revolution. Despite her commitment to raising a child free of religious restrictions, something in her Ashkenazi DNA swelled when she walked in on little me setting up a nativity scene with her mother-in-law one winter evening. In short order, I was parked in a small plastic chair at the temple preschool.
Armed with some semblance of a Jewish identity, I, like many children of baby boomers, became Jewish-and: I could munch matzo at Passover and gorge on Peeps at an Easter egg hunt. I could leave cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, carrots for his hardworking reindeer by my grandparents’ fireplace, and stare down the Hanukkah candles as they devolved into waxy, molten globs of color. Most important, I could brag to my non-Jewish friends in my small-town Connecticut elementary school that my life was the best because I got all the holidays and, therefore, all the presents.
But every year, through the foggy window of a school bus smelling of exhaust and vinyl, there was my classmate Tim’s house—its front door draped in a front-door-sized quilt announcing, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” While the rest of the world was participating in a monthlong orgy of eggnog and mall trips, Tim’s family had to go and remind everyone that it’s really about a man who died on a cross to save humanity’s sins. What a bunch of grinches, I thought.
Still, it nagged at me. I wondered if it was hypocritical—if not disrespectful—to partake in the celebration of Christianity with a wish list that included the Barbie Corvette and a Hypercolor T-shirt. Maybe there’s something to epigenetics, or maybe I’ve just always liked to be countercultural. Somehow I knew that while Christmas may be magic, it was only on loan.
The yuletide holiday has a mythic hold on the American imagination: Pajama-clad families gather around a pine-scented tree and tear through shiny red wrapping paper. They while away the frosty morning sipping coffee and nibbling syrup-soaked bacon before heading out to the yard to try the new bikes Santa somehow stuffed down the chimney. America loves Christmas. I am American. Ergo, I should love Christmas.
For generations of Jewish Americans before me, this national obsession feels more like a selective country club. Those who celebrate Christmas might unlock the proverbial doors and obtain full citizenship from “other” to “us.” In the meantime, they built up Hanukkah, a sideshow of a holiday that is actually about Jewish rebels fighting the dominant culture and taking back their religion. It doesn’t even make sense as Christmas’s nerdy cousin when, in years like 2021, it falls at the end of November.
Christmas, on the contrary, is the greatest unifier, the fullest expression of America’s vision of itself as inclusive, peaceful, happy, and plentiful. Christmas seeps out of America’s pores: Giant decorated trees sprout up in office lobbies and shopping centers. In so-called secular Seattle, stores pump Christmas songs through speakers into the streets. Joy to the world! Peace on Earth! Fa-lalalala-lalalala! Their reconciliatory themes are practically lifted from Jewish prayer. Could any message bring more relief to a bunch of people brutalized century after century?
Being Jewish in America, I came to learn and internalize as the years went on, is hard to reconcile with a seasonal Christian identity. While we may have successfully acculturated, being Jewish also means being trapped in a store listening to songs that actually use sleigh bells as a percussion line. Other times it means having well-intentioned friends gently urge you to get to know Jesus. It means looking around your synagogue and assessing where the exits are in case it becomes an active shooter situation, and getting updates from the FBI on who those shooters might be. It means the not-too-distant memory of exiles from various lands, and always knowing where your passport is. It means discussing why your people have the right to self-determination only to be called a Nazi. To be a Jew in America is to prove that you have fully assimilated—and then have someone remind you that it’s conditional.
It also means recognizing that this is literally the best stretch of Jewish history of all time so shut up and stop making a scene. How can I drag all this baggage around and then show up to the office Christmas party with a reindeer sweater and a plate of sugar cookies? In such a case, Christmas becomes a sort of fun house mirror, one to look at myself in and laugh at the distortion.
Christmas’s magical luster dulled for me by shades. It was my Jesus-loving friends, and the vaguely anti-Semitic comments from teachers, and the dismissal of Jewish history as anything more than neurosis and bagels. Let’s not forget Tim’s mom’s door quilt thing, and, yes, Santa, whose wish list–inducing presence pushed me to think about my choice to pick up my baggage and carry it around intentionally and proudly. As a theology student, I became fluent in Hebrew, prayer, and history (a never-ending journey, to be clear). I could finally put words to my childhood defensiveness. If I decided not to run off into the sunset with my yuletide paramour, then what was I left with? What did I stand for? Or, as the ancient sage Hillel put it, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Now Christmas no longer lures me with its staged Instagram posts of bountiful table-scapes and bedecked trees. As America’s capitalist impulse rings louder, the pop carols resonating through the streets feel more like a cry for help beneath the jinglejangle.
There is still part of me who is that child hanging the Snoopy ornament on the tree with my wonderful parents in a cozy home listening to a Muppets Christmas cassette tape. While I have my own family now, which is anchored in a strong Jewish community that gives us the luxury of mostly ignoring Christmas, December still happens every year like a monthlong peppermint blast to the face. We are left to create—or more accurately, discover—our own traditions. So a few years ago we started driving out to Lake Chelan during winter break for not-Christmas. We ice skate, sip hot chocolate, sometimes see snow, and on the evening of December 24, we watch…Christmas movies. We are Americans, for Christ’s sake.
Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for.
The Cholent is having a baby!
A podcast baby, that is.
In addition to weekly posts, I will be recording a weekly podcast on Callin, a new social podcasting app. The show will be something I’ve been wanting to do for a while: help grow basic knowledge about a range of Jewish concepts. It’s called While You Were Sleeping in Hebrew School. Each show will feature a guest expert from around the country on a different subject. First up: Seattle radio host Rachel Belle on “Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?”
More on Rachel:
Rachel Belle hosts and co-produces Your Last Meal, a James Beard Award finalist for Best Food Podcast. She has written about food for publications like Lucky Peach and Eater, been a “taco expert” on the Cooking Channel and was named “Best FM Radio Personality” by Seattle Weekly. She is an award-winning radio feature reporter at Seattle’s KIRO Radio. Her relatives claim to have invented both the bagel dog and the tube top.
Here is what you need to do RIGHT NOW.
Download the Callin app on your iPhone. (Sorry, it’s not on Android yet, but it will be soon.)
Follow The Cholent and While You Were Sleeping in Hebrew School.
Join us on Wednesday, Dec. 22 at 7:30 PST for a live interview. Get in the queue so you can ask us your questions!
AND The Cholent now has a subreddit! This is a place where you can talk (anonymously) about anything Seattle/Jewish/Cholent. Check it out and start a conversation!
This week’s parasha is Vayechi.
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 4 p.m.
The 2022 edition of my book on North African and Middle Eastern Jewish women is coming out in mid January and includes a bunch of new features, such as an interview with celebrity musical group A-Wa. Details here https://khazzoom.com/2021/12/14/mizrahi-feminist-anthology-takes-flight-with-celebrity-band-a-wa/ —Loolwa Khazoom
Mazel Tov to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), both staff and volunteers, for the months of hard work leading to Wednesday evening’s vote on its first consensus statement, Racial Equity and the Jewish Community. May the JCRC go from strength to strength. —Bill Mowat