Friday, December 19, 2003

The Litmus Tree (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, December 2003

In the outrageous and occasionally funny new film, “The Hebrew Hammer,” the evil son of Santa tries to destroy the Jewish people by having his henchmen distribute free bootlegged copies of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to unknowing Jewish children. When the kids get to the climactic scene in front of the Christmas tree, they shed their proverbial tzitzit and are lost forever to the Jewish people.

In Susan Sussman’s popular children’s book “There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein,” a young Jewish girl named Robin pines for a Christmas tree, and matters only get worse when she discovers that her classmate Sandy Goldstein has a Chanukah bush in her home. Eventually Robin is comforted when her grandfather teaches her how she can help her non-Jewish neighbors celebrate their festivals, as long as it’s outside of the home.

The message that Jews constantly receive at this time of year is that it is OK, exemplary even, to help our neighbors celebrate their holidays, but that our homes should remain tree-free at all costs. In other words, as long as the Evil Evergreen doesn’t sneak past the mezuzah, Jews can have their fruitcake and eat it too.

This brings up some troubling questions. First, is it really kosher to help the O’Malleys across the street celebrate Christmas? Isn’t it rather disingenuous to say, “I’m not celebrating – I’m helping THEM to celebrate?” It sounds downright Clintonian: “I poured the eggnog – but didn’t inhale.” No, the former president didn’t commit adultery; he was simply helping Monica to her celebrate her own sexuality.

This matter hits home, because I spend each Christmas Eve (unless it falls on Friday night), whooping it up at Stamford’s homeless shelter, joining my congregants in putting on the jolliest X-mas bash this side of the North Pole. Feeding the homeless is undoubtedly a mitzvah. Filling in for the non-Jewish employees is also a nice, neighborly thing to do – sort of like being a Shabbos-goy in reverse. But for all too many Jews this kind of activity has become an excuse for real celebration on an otherwise terribly lonely night for all who don’t live in proximity of a Chinese restaurant or open movie theater.

So at the shelter, I sing “Silent Night,” because “Jingle Bells” just doesn’t cut it. I’m singing it for them, but I’m still singing it (except for the few key phrases that I mouth). One year I was asked to wear a Santa suit. I considered it for days and ultimately declined. Had I done it, it would have been for them, but the kids from my congregation might have had to be rushed into therapy.

With or without Rabbi Santa, there are always enough vicarious jollies to satisfy this room full of Jewish volunteers. Mitzvah points, yes; but there is something more subversive going on here that we have to admit: It’s great to feel that we can circumvent the rules – that we can embrace Jewish values while simultaneously partaking of the Forbidden Fruitcake. It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong for Jews to do these things, it’s simply sad that so many feel the need to.

Ah, but at least my house is an X-Mas-free zone. In the 1990 National Jewish Population survey, 82% responded that they never have a Christmas tree in their home. 44% said they light Shabbat candles. In other words, the fact of NOT having a Christmas tree is a far more definitive sign of the Jewish identity of a household than the primal Jewish act of welcoming the Sabbath. The more recent 2000-2001 survey measured Shabbat lighting at an alarming 27% but for some reason the Christmas tree question was apparently not asked.

I’m not sure why, because if you ask any Jewish student who attends a Hebrew School or Day School, including many from interfaith families, they will also see the tree as the indicator of Jewish loyalties. You can spend Yom Kippur at the racetrack downing shrimp cocktails and still be a certified Member of the Tribe; one worthy of admiration, in fact, for exercising our God given right to disdain everything we learned in Hebrew School. But if you bring the dreaded Litmus Tree into your home, if you pull a Sandy Goldstein, Jewish children go bonkers. .

I’m not sure when the Christmas tree became the prime indicator of Jewish identity. In the ‘50’s lots of solidly identified Jews had Chanukah bushes. During that era Jews wrote many of the great Christmas songs and owned many of the department stores that popularized Santa. Christmas was not seen as such a threat. But now it is.

I suspect that our Evergreen Envy began to rise concomitantly with the dimming of the Shabbat candles in our homes. As Jews became less secure in the glow of their own rituals, they became more fearful of succumbing to the ways of our neighbors, subconsciously recalling the warning of Psalm 106:35: "They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them."

What’s nice is that, at least in some quarters, this is leading to an upsurge in observance of Jewish celebrations. People are recognizing that a Sukkah is really a Christmas tree that you can eat in, and that the warmth of Shabbat comes not once, but 52 times a year. For these Jews, what goes on at Sandy Goldstein’s is irrelevant, and what happens on the evening of the 24th is immaterial.

Once again this year, I’ll be headed down to the shelter on that fateful night, which corresponds to the 6th night of Chanukah. I’ll bring a menorah with me and light it, so that the homeless might assist their Jewish assistors in celebrating our holiday (in fact there almost always is at least one Jewish resident there as well).

And when the latkes come out of the oven, I’ll most definitely inhale.

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