Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Attention Jews: Resist the tree


     I'm generally live-and-let-live when it comes to faith.  All religions are airy nonsense and only familiarity combined with personal bias permit us to view some doctrines as strange and laughable and others as normal and respected. Thus, to me, it doesn't matter what habits and ceremonies your faith demands: wear a special hat, bow to an idol, burn incense, decorate a tree, believe some 2,000-year-old fairy tale is literally true. It's all the same and no skin off my nose.
    Generally. 
    Only two situations prompt me to object. The first is when groups enlist the government to enforce their own dogma. That isn't playing fair. If you believe God is on your side, why do you need Uncle Sam too? The government is supposed to be the neutral arbitrator between equally ridiculous sects. That is a fine distinction, perhaps, one that is lost on many—they feel oppressed when the governmental stick is pried out of the hands. Some people are so used to having their asses kissed it feels like a birthright to them. Tough. Times change. 
     The second aspect of faith I can't abide by is when Jews have Christmas trees. Oh, I suppose there are exceptions: if you're in an inter-faith marriage, well, maybe your Christian spouse wants a tree. Then it isn't your tree, it's your wife's, or husband's. The reason I feel so strongly ... well, here's a column from the vault where I try to explain. Note that Friday is not Christmas this year; it's Thursday. I'd hate to mess up your entire holiday, and probably should just change the day in the lede, but then some wiesenheimer would point out that Christmas fell on a Friday in 1998 and attack me for altering the historical record. 

     Friday is Christmas. I will, as is my practice, work at the newspaper so a colleague who observes the holiday can be with his or her family. 
      This isn't selfless of me—the paper pays double time for working on Christmas, and it's a quiet day if nothing burns down. I'm not missing anything except a day at home. My family doesn't eat a special dinner. We don't sing songs, we don't give gifts, we don't have a tree.
     We're Jewish. This sounds simple enough, but a lot of people don't get it. First, there are the Christians for whom Christmas is an event of such monumental proportions—one they start preparing for in July - that they can't understand that there are people who voluntarily give it up. The exchange, which I've had a dozen times, always begins breezily. "What are you doing this year for Christmas?" they'll say. "Nothing," I reply. Their features darken and they struggle to get their arms around the concept. They think I've perhaps misunderstood. "Yes, yes," they say, "but what are you doing Dec. 25?" 
      The second group is a little more surprising. Certain Reform Jews—many, if my social circle is any indication—are not satisfied with paring away the strictures of their own religion, but also must embrace the festivities of another. They put up a tree. They visit Santa. They embrace Christmas because not doing so feels like denial, and they can't imagine denying themselves anything. 
      I find it a particularly repellent form of intellectual dishonesty. Holidays are the fun part of a religion, but religions are not all fun. There are commandments, rules, serious parts as well. To latch onto the frills of somebody else's faith just because they're fun seems disrespectful of both your own faith and theirs.
     It's like crashing a party. You don't know these people, haven't put in the effort that being friends requires. Yet you're lining up for the buffet anyway. It's crass. When I think of Jews celebrating Christmas, for the first time I understand the sort of contempt that some Orthodox Jews have for us lesser Semitic breeds who have shucked the demands of keeping kosher and praying and kept the parts that are easy and enjoyable. There's a sense of expropriation, like teens wearing battle ribbons we didn't earn as fashion. 
     Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Wonderful music. A Christmas tree is a beautiful thing. A high school friend once asked me over to help trim hers, and I had a blast. Hot buttered rum. Great food. Afterward we went from house to house, singing in the crisp night. (Well, I didn't sing, but only because I don't know the words.) How could you not love it? 
      But it wasn't my tree. It wasn't my holiday. I have my own holidays. My boys lit candles at Hanukkah. I got to see their faces illuminated by the candles, happy, singing. My oldest, Ross, is just 3 but has picked up on Christmas. He closely watches the Christmas specials on TV. He saw the Santa on a Christmas card on our mantel and asked why it was there, since we don't celebrate Christmas. I explained that somebody had sent it to us. He had a sort of pout. I asked him how he felt about not celebrating Christmas. He said one word: "Sad." I weighed my response for a long time. "That's OK," I said at last. "It is a little sad not to celebrate Christmas. But we have our own holidays we celebrate." He didn't seem to understand. But he will.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 2, 1998


22 comments:

  1. I have some Asian friends who aren't Christians that have some of the most beautifully decorated homes and trees loaded with presents underneath. I assumed they were Presbyterians but was told "we don't believe we just do it for the kids and presents". They're second generation Americans adopting the mainstream American culture. Personally as a devout Catholic I'm not offended. I love kosher hot dogs with bacon and cheese. It's a free country, Merry Christmas everybody!

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  2. When I was in 1st grade at Myra Bradwell Elementary School, I envied my Jewish classmates, who seemed to get off school once a week for some mysterious holiday or another. Which wasn't fair, since they got Christmas off too!

    John

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    1. John when did you go to Bradwell. I went there as well in the 50's

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    2. 1949 I think. Just 1/2 year because St. Bride's (we lived on 78th & Coles) wouldn't let me start in January. So I had to start 1st grade again in September and skip 3rd grade later to rejoin my age cohort.

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    3. You are a bit older than me. I was 5 in 1592. So that is when I probably first went there. I moved to Wisconsin in 57. We lived at 79th and Essex

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    4. So, you lucky dog, you just had to walk across the street to White Castle's, whereas we had to trudge several blocks for our sliders.

      John

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    5. Well down the street. If you are familiar with the area we lived right by rail road tracks. There is no longer a White Castle there. I only remember a few things from the area. There was a place called Cunis, that served great sodas. I think it is in South Holland now. There was a store on the corner of of 79th and Essex. I think it was just called Alperts after the owner. Bought a lot of baseball cards there. It has been at least 15 years that I took my wife to show her were we lived. Showed her Bradwell.

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    6. Everybody but me went to Cunis. Never liked sodas or shakes (or even pizza back then when it was new).

      My house is still there on 78th Street. In much better shape than when I left it.

      John

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  3. Doesn't wash, Neil. You can't have it both ways. Rules, traditions, and disrespectful to crash a party. And yet, simultaneously, it's all airy nonsense and fairy tales. Talk about intellectual dishonesty!

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    1. So you don't see the difference between my holding a party to celebrate the turtle god, and you're showing up uninvited? Those are different qualities at work. Bear in mind that you're not grasping something doesn't mean it's ungraspable. I'd say it would wash for you if you scrubbed a bit harder.

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    2. Your ripostes are getting better than the blog itself.

      John

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    3. Sorry, Neil, that's still having it both ways. You can't say that the turtle god is make-believe, and that the rules of your turtle club are nonsense, and simultaneously enforce the entry rules of the party as if they were real. Sometimes when one washes up, one gets soap in one's eyes.

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    4. As the great Samuel Johnson said, "I have given you an argument, sir. I am not also obligated to give you an understanding." People from Ireland speak with a brogue. It doesn't affect the meaning of their words, but it's an Irish thing. If I speak with a brogue, no matter how skillfully, it's bullshit, and pretense, because I'm not Irish. It's like that.

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    5. More to the point, it seems to me, is that if you were to have a Guinness and some corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day, nobody would think twice about it.

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  4. I'm gonna have to disagree. The "Santa / Christmas tree / lights all over the place for two months / make a buck from it while you can" aspects of Christmas are so secularized that I don't see why anybody who wants to can't join in. Which is why I think the conservative "war on Christmas" is such B. S. The greeting that staffers at Wal Mart or Macy's are offering to strangers in order to pump sales has absolutely nothing to do with the religious part of the holiday; it's all about the crass, commercial part that is anathema to the message of the Gospels. Independent of that, Neil, I'm sure you'd be welcome at Christmas Mass, as long as you didn't line up for Communion, though the churches are already stuffed with people who don't show up regularly.

    "Crashing a party" seems a stretched analogy to me. If a guy across town had a big party on your birthday, but didn't affect you at all, how would that be crashing your party?

    Questions: do you maintain this same attitude toward celebrating Halloween? You know, All Hallow's Eve, the night before the Christian All Saints' Day, another formerly Christian concept that has exploded well beyond its religious origins? Am I being crass in "lining up for the buffet" at Manny's Deli, because I'm not Jewish, but I enjoy some of the secularized versions of traditional Jewish foods?

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    1. The Mannys argument, to paraphrase a great physicist, is so bad it's not even wrong.

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    2. Love the paraphrase! We aim to please, O Anonymous one...

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    3. It might be so secularized to Christians, who are so used to their own traditions they just seem general, not religious. But they ARE religious. Of course it's easy for you to say, "Jesus came for everybody, all are welcome." But if you embrace Jesus, you're Christian. Jews for Jesus is a Christian come-on, not a Jewish splinter group. The Christmas tree isn't a generic winter holiday trapping -- that would be a snowflake. Again, I'm not the Jedi Council. i think the tree is bad form for Jews. Anyone who wants to argue otherwise, well heck, lots of Jews have trees, so obviously they disagree. They're wrong of course...

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    4. It's not for me to say what's bad form for Jews, or not, so I'll certainly leave that to you. I'm not the Jedi Council, either, of course. Observance-wise, I'm about as Catholic as you are Jewish, and I just wanted to offer a different perspective. I'm not talking about "embracing Jesus." I'm talking about the difference between Santa or a Christmas tree and having a creche in your yard. The former, at this point, are pretty far afield from being primarily religious, though I grant that they started out that way. Heck, this whole two-month "Christmas season" was created by folks who want to sell stuff. Christianity-wise, it's Advent right now, which is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. The Christmas season, religiously, comes AFTER Christmas, but you won't find that out from your tree salesperson or the people decorating department stores in early November. None of which is going to change your mind, I realize. Thanks for the reply, though.

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  5. My sister in law just sent this to me

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2009/12/holy_night.single.html

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  6. If my Christian / atheist family goes out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas, would that be wrong?

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  7. It's hard to explain the lack of feeling for this holiday, which has nothing to do with religion.

    It's a tree, bright lights, presents. For many, what else?

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