by Daniela Enriquez
Every year, Jews face the “December dilemma”—what to do on Christmas? Or, is it okay to do something? In his book A Kosher Christmas, Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut tells about the evolution of Jewish Christmas traditions in the United States, from the late 1800s to our days. The book is full of historical references to private and public lives, furnished with curiosities and fun facts—did you know that Theodor Herzl decorated his house in Vienna with a Christmas tree?
Below is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation I had with Plaut.
Why did you decide to write a book on Christmas?
I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation on a socio-contemporary history of Jews at Christmastime in America. I started the research in 1994, and after about 9 years of study, including a substantial amount of fieldwork and library research, I finished it in 2003.
There was more than an academic reason for my interest in the topic. At a professional level, as a rabbi, I was experiencing the December holiday season as a time of clashes of cultures in America. Every December, I encountered the struggle that people in my congregation were facing. I came to realize that the so-called “December dilemma” actually had deep roots in the United States dating back to the 1850s. I was interested in understanding why others were so troubled about the impact Christmas had in their lives, which was something that never made me feel insecure.
Your book is full of historical references to Jewish life during the 1900s, sometimes related to the private lives of Jewish families. How and where did you find all the information?
My archival research revealed that the best single early historical source was a newspaper founded in Cincinnati in 1854 – which is still being published – called The American Israelite. It contained many articles describing the Christmastime behavior and activities of Jewish families in small towns throughout the Midwest and the South. There’s important material that I discovered in archives, from library research, and from interviews with individuals and families across the United States. Over the course of 20 years, I created a massive personal archive that includes scholarly and popular articles, photographs, Jewish Christmastime memorabilia such as Jewish greeting cards with a Christmas flavour, newspaper advertisements, musical recordings of Christmas klezmer songs, and even Hanukkah stamps issued each December.
Is it “kosher” to talk about Christmastime Jewish traditions?
Absolutely! Although speaking about Jewish traditions at Christmastime might upset certain people who are more traditional, nowadays there are many Jewish traditions and rituals associated specifically with Christmastime and the December holiday season: eating Chinese food for Christmas Eve; celebrating Hanukkah as the Jewish version of Christmas; volunteering on the 24th and 25th of December in food shelters and substituting for friends at work in hospitals, and even volunteering to dress up as Santa Claus, thereby helping to spread holiday cheer. Even Orthodox Jews have their own traditions: they do not study Torah on Christmas Eve, and many of them play either chess or card games. I would characterize all of these as unique Jewish traditions for the December season. As a last mention, there are also secular Jews who celebrate the Christmas holiday without any religious trappings.
That leads to my next question: What do you mean when you say that Jews have reached the status of ‘insiders’ of Christmas?
Jews have successfully carved out their own space in December to celebrate being Jewish at Christmastime in America. This clearly includes making the holiday season comfortable for each and every American that may feel excluded from local and national celebrations. Thus, by going to Chinese restaurants, or attending subversive comedy shows or the movies, Jews create an insiders’ community where they feel safe, have fun, spend time with families and feel like they are partaking in the joy of the holiday season, in a subconsciously Jewish way. Additionally, celebrating Hanukkah gives many Jews in America their own holiday that makes them feel like insiders during December. However, there is another concept of being an “insider”: because so many of the new cultural activities created by Jews at Christmastime are innovative and fresh, they have become attractive to many non-Jews who want to partake in what Jews do for Christmas. These non-Jews have come to feel like outsiders vis-à-vis Jewish Christmastime traditions.
What would you answer to someone who says that Jews are jealous of Christmas?
I do not think Jews are jealous of Christmas. In Germany, and all over Europe and the United States, celebrating Christmas was once a matter of being accepted in society, but such celebrations did not entail any of the religious aspects of the holiday. Some Jews might feel somewhat envious and a bit guilty about responding to the attractiveness of the festivities involving holiday lights and Christmas trees and parties, but I think the creation and ever-evolving nature of Jewish Christmastime traditions have helped to counterbalance their feelings of not belonging.