From Medieval Europe to Modern America, Seeking Out Meaning on Christmas for Jews

The ‘December Dilemma’ of today is one that U.S. and Canadian Jews can be grateful for.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
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Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Throughout history, Jews have grappled with a “December Dilemma,” deriving from either the threat of anti-Semitism on or around Christmas, or simply the uneasiness of living in a Christian society for which the holiday has an overwhelming presence.

In medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing for Jews. Throughout the year, Jews were an embattled minority, but on Christmas they were absolute pariahs. The Chaumont Christmas play of the 1200’s depicted Jews as true devils, and anti-Semitic attacks occurred over the coming century on and around Christmas, including the blood libels in Fulda, Germany in 1235, in Judenberg, Austria in 1312, and in Le Puy, France in 1321, followed by a steady history of Christmas-related riots and pogroms that continued into the modern era. Jews responded with theological loathing of their own. In Yiddish, Christmas Eve is known as “Nittel Nacht,” which some suggest is derived from the Latin natale domini. On Nittel Nacht, many Jews would play cards instead of studying Torah – a custom intended to be a spiritual boycott of Christmas so as to prevent one’s Torah study on that day from inadvertently being considered a spiritual merit for Christianity or its founder in the divine court above.

Relative to medieval Europe, the United States of the 20th century was a refuge from anti-Semitism. But Jews found that being accepted into a largely Christian society created new tensions. The public celebrations of Christmas, which were commonplace in schools and town halls until the 1940’s and 50’s, challenged Jews to find inventive new ways to fit in. Janice L. Booker recalls the customs of Jewish public school students in 1930’s Philadelphia: “An unwritten, unspoken agreement among the Jewish kids was that when we sang the carols, lustily and with pleasure, we kept our lips sealed when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned. To my knowledge, no parent ever asked for this and no one discussed it; it just was.”

This “solution” to participating in a Christian society while maintaining one’s Jewish identity epitomizes the uneasiness and uncertainty that modern Jews have felt about Christmas. When December rolls around, it is Christmas, Christmas everywhere. There are “All Christmas” radio stations, Christmas decoration stores, and special Christmas flavors for donuts. Christmas is a holiday of the shopping mall, where Santa seems to be giving presents to everyone but us. Because of this, Hanukkah has played the role of an imitation Christmas for many Jews, with gift giving and maybe even a Hanukkah bush. (The Maccabees, warriors against Hellenism, would not have been amused.)

For ultra-Orthodox Jews, this “December Dilemma” is not a dilemma at all. Uninterested in cultural integration, they find no need to concern themselves with someone else’s holiday. Some even continue the custom of “Nittel Nacht,” treating 21st century America like medieval Europe.

But neither ignoring Christmas nor imitating it points to the true meaning of Christmas for North American or Canadian Jews. We live in countries where Jews have achieved a full measure of integration. For us, the true meaning of Christmas is gratitude for the authentic good will that exists between Jews and Christians

Last summer, 14 year old Edon Pinchot competed quite successfully on a the television show “America’s Got Talent” while proudly wearing his kippah. What was remarkable about this is that a kippah-wearing man could not compete - even today - in a similar contest in Europe. Frankly, Edon couldn’t have competed in a similar contest in the United States 40 years ago. But the United States, which has been a haven for Jews throughout its’ history, is now a place where Jews are truly accepted. It is a place where a national TV show can have a contestant who wears a kippah, and an Orthodox Jew can run for vice-president on a national ticket. Much the same is true of Canada, where former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler wore a kippah when he took his oath of office and four out of nine Supreme Court justices are Jewish.

The acceptance Jews currently feel in North America is not just because of democratic principles; it is also due to a religious revolution among Christians. Maimonides predicted 900 years ago that Christianity’s connection with the Jewish Bible would eventually bring Jews and Christians closer together. In America, that prediction has finally come true. Christianity is no longer a force for anti-Semitism in North America. Instead, some of the strongest supporters of Israel in Canada and the United States are evangelical Christians, and many Christians see philo-Semitism as imperative to their faith. As one evangelical author Joe Carter put it: “our heroes have always been Hebrews.”

Christmas should remind North American Jews to be grateful that we live in an era like no other in Jewish history. And we should share that gratitude with others. In an article in the New York Times, several Jewish professionals explained that they cover extra shifts on Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Day to enable their colleagues to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who is director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off, he always works. ''That just infuses good will,'' he said.

Good will, which the Talmud calls “Darkei Shalom,” ways of peace, is something precious. And for Jews who live in peace in countries that practice the ways of peace, good will is the true meaning of Christmas.

Chaim Steinmetz is the rabbi of the Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem synagogue in Montreal.

People walk in a shopping mall that is decorated with Christmas lights in Berlin, Germany Dec. 23, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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