Redefining the So-Called "December Dilemma"
For more than 20 years of my life, September 11th was a cause for celebrating my birthday, no more and no less. For the past 11 years, it has become the defining day of the 21st century. I continue to celebrate my birthday just fine, and now no one forgets it. But what was simply a day marked on my family's calendar is now a day marked by everyone as a day to remember.
Dates take on different meanings for us over time. Birthdays of loved ones are cause for celebration during their life and cause for sorrow once they have passed. So, too, dates with no significance become numbers that mark the peak moments in our lives as children are born, partners are wed, and achievements are reached.
For the American Jewish community December 25th, Christmas Day, has served as one of these dates in constant transition. As he eloquently points out in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish, Joshua Plaut reminds us that the American Jewish community has responded to Christmas in a variety of ways. From authoring some of the best-known secular Christmas songs to flooding Chinese restaurants to making menorahs so tall they rival the President's Christmas tree, we have worked our tuchuses off to make sure that we respond to December 25th in America.
But I wonder if what has often been viewed as a dilemma for the Jewish community – and specifically for interfaith families – is such a problem anymore? I wonder if what was once a threat is now an opportunity and what was once a feeling of weakness can now show itself as a day of great Jewish confidence and pride.
Hanukkah is no longer in the shadow of Christmas. Some of the most successful retailers in America now carry a variety of Hanukkah decorations, dreidels, and menorahs. If you are flying anywhere this holiday season, be sure to check out flight Skymall Magazine and its promotion of a Star of David topper for a Christmas tree. Personally, professionally, and certainly theologically, I wish this item was not for sale, but the presence of a Jewish symbol marketed for the top of a Christmas tree should not go unnoticed. It, along with Hanukkah’s increased presence in our country, is a sign that December 25th is no longer the lone holiday of the winter season. Moreover, it reminds us that December 25th is not only a day for Jews to segregate, it is a day for us to celebrate a beautiful holiday with our Christian friends, neighbors, and family, just as we hope they celebrate Hanukkah with us.
My image of a “kosher Christmas” does not include a Jewish Christmas tree, but it can include Jewish families confident enough in their Judaism that they are not threatened by the presence of a tree in a family member’s home or even their own. A kosher Christmas complements our Hanukkah observance because it reminds us that just as we welcome others into our community, we also believe in being welcomed into those communities who invite us to celebrate Christmas with them as Jews. It is a season focused on singing in the community, eating latkes and fruitcakes side by side. Most importantly, it should be a season focused on the beauty of our traditions and the value of respecting all the traditions we may find in our family without feeling threatened by the intermingling of faith traditions. Judaism has long been, and certainly is today, too strong to be threatened by the presence of trees donning ornaments or Christmas gifts given to Jewish grandchildren.
At this season of rededication, let us not only support Chinese restaurants, but also the many people and traditions that intersect with our lives at this time of year. It is not a season of dilemmas. It is a season of dedication. Dedication to love our family. Dedication to religious rights for the minority faiths as well as the majority. Dedication to bring light to the darkest days of the year and to stand tall and proud around our menorah and around Christmas trees when invited. Our faith is not threatened by the presence of another faith. It may even be strengthened by it. This year and hopefully for years to come, let us mark December 25th as a beautiful holiday for our friends – and in many cases, for members of our family – as we show them that our pride for Jewish tradition is certainly open minded enough to allow us to honor the beauties of Christian tradition.
Rabbi Josh Brown serves Temple Israel in Omaha, NE.