Posted by Robin Podolsky
One of the nice things about living a seamless Jewish life is no more Christmas angst. The key is staying out of malls or planning to make a day of it. (A friend and I were reminded of this when we made the innocent decision to see The Hobbit at The Grove. Could not believe the parking or the saccharine music piped just a little too loud. But the tree and the lights were like a second Rivendell.)
Generally, though, what’s not to like? Most of us get a paid holiday from work with no religious restrictions to observe. There is, of course, the traditional movie and Chinese food (or Greek, as Greek Orthodox Christmas is weeks away). There are service opportunities at homeless shelters throughout the city—of course that’s true every day, isn’t it?
Most people are in pretty decent moods. Our city of neon gets even more shiny than usual. And people who wish one a merry Christmas are, for the most part, just being nice, not aggressively evangelical.
For the most part. There are those who make a public stink about anyone who broadens the greeting to “happy holidays,” and who propagate the ‘war on Christmas’ meme. This bespeaks a refusal of pluralism and a desire to re-vision the United States as a Christian country that only ‘tolerates’ others who graciously accept their place.
What is wrong with acknowledging the scope and breadth of the holiness and joy at this time of year? Why not be sensitive to the mood of this season as it begins to build?
First we have a coming to terms with the gathering night. Yom Kippur, Day of the Dead, Halloween/Samhain all invite us to conceive of November as a time when the veil between worlds thins, when we take stock of ourselves and our frailties and remember our beloved dead. The last two holidays especially invite us to consider the uncanny, to face our fears with humor as well as respect.
Other holidays overlap. Solstice, Diwali, Hanukah and Kwanzaa are all observed with candles and light, the promise of renewal after winter, the assurance that seeds grow in the dark. Hanukah and Kwanzaa both celebrate cultural pride and are signs of its flourishing. Eid Al-Adha and Christmas both celebrate the willingness to sacrifice and the rebirth of hope. All the religious holidays celebrate the miraculous, the gift of meaning.
Joy upon joy, holiness upon holiness. Why not be sensitive to the varied flavors of uplift and revelation that the season brings in our fabulous world city? Why not wish everyone “happy holidays,” instead of assuming that we know what holiday they observe at home?
The more grounded in my own tradition I am, the easier it is for me to take pleasure in the joy of others. I see no reason to appropriate Christmas as an ‘American holiday’ or a secular holiday. I attend the parties of my Christian friends because I love them. I don’t sing Christmas carols, because I don’t believe that the obscure rabbi Yehoshua ben Yosef, one of the thousands of Jews tortured to death by the Roman Empire, was ever a Christ, let alone resurrected, and I see no reason to disrespect a tradition by trivializing it as a harmless (because meaningless) bit of popular myth.
This reminds me—I have learned, not only to stay out of malls, but also to be very selective about TV. Once you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life twice, enough is enough. It’s easy to avoid the movies and Peanuts special, but then there are those Very Special Episodes.
As my colleague Abe Fried-Tanzer reminds us, Glee is getting better, but has a ways to go. Yes, we did get the adorable Puckerman brothers’ rendition of Hanukah Oh Hanukah, but then we have Rachel, a marked Jewish character, winning a winter showcase with a rendition of O Holy Night, not only a Christmas song, but a deeply doctrinal one. WTF?
Of course, we know what’s up: the show has a Christmas album to sell, and Lea Michele, who is not Jewish, has the pipes of an angel and killed the song properly. Still, I ask again, WTF? Why code a character as emphatically Jewish and then strip her of all religious affiliation?
That has been a source of irritation for me with regard to this show anyway. Why create what is obviously the kind of real life town that abounds throughout the Midwest—one with a substantial Reform Jewish presence from the 19th Century wave of immigration—a town in which Artie Abrams, Tina Cohen-Chang, the brothers Puckerman and Rachel Berry (and Jacob Ben-Israel, but the less said about him the better) could form a substantial community, and then make so little of them? Every single religious episode of Glee that I can remember only features Christian spirituality; except for the hilarious Schindler’s List/Simchat Torah Puckerman interlude, which actually captures a certain…situation. But why is there never the breakout sincerity moment with Judaism that there sometimes is with Christianity? Why don’t we get to see the religious and cultural life this community enjoys as we have with Quinn and Mercedes’ churches?
So: Very Special Episodes reveal unconscious biases and unresolved narrative breaks. Good for provoking thought maybe, but holiday cheer, not so much.
Mah-ever. A very nice woman from my Jewish seminary’s Christian sister school just texted me “happy Christmas,” and I wished her the same. My neighbors’ lights are really very pretty. I’m off to make my yearly veg contribution to my Christian carnivore friends’ annual Christmas Eve potluck. Tomorrow I get to watch Keira Knightly throw herself under a bus over a decadent aristocrat before enjoying the best fake meat cuisine in the world. Happy Holidays!
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December 14, 2012 | 3:20 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
(For now, the only constructive comments I can think to offer about Connecticut are an acknowledgement of the horror and an offering of prayers. Next week, after the close of this festival during which we’re forbidden to eulogize and after more facts have come to light, there may be something more to say. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall gets us off to a worthy start.)
My childhood memories of Hanukah are all happy and uncomplicated; good things to eat, games and a licensed opportunity to play with fire. Even a painless lesson in the futility of acquisitiveness. I remember an early year—I might have been in the first grade—when, at about the sixth night of presents, I received some kind of perfectly nice board game—something we might have got at the five-and-dime only wrapped in pretty paper--and was about as politely pleased as a six year old could be. Stuff was piling up that I hadn’t even played with yet. My parents and I looked at each other and acknowledged that too much surfeit makes the whole game of giving and receiving kind of dull.
The sparkling candles, however, never grew dull, nor did the story of the Maccabees. This was a story of the relatively weak beating the strong, of people standing up for their freedom and succeeding. As I grew older, the story did not lose its resonance. During my teenage years, nation after nation in the Third World fought back against colonialism, and it was easy to see in the Hanukah tale a foreshadowing of their struggles.
Later, as I matured and regained that connection to Judaism which had withered in my youth, the spiritual meaning of the holiday merged with the political. It continues to strike me as significant that the Maccabees fought to worship as they believed right—fought for the life they knew—and in order to protect that life, wound up leaving familiar far behind. They left Jerusalem for the country, where they fought a long guerilla war, only taking the city at the very last. They left their homes for the Greek soldiers to raid, hiding out in the wilderness from where they launched their attacks. It turned out that what made them who they were was not their familiar soil, but their allegiance to the One God. This is the story that we find in the Books of Maccabees—which we can read in the Catholic Apocrypha, but not in our own Tanakh.
Our Rabbis, in legislating observance of Hanukah, have nothing to say about a victory over imperialism. Instead, in Tractate Shabbat, we learn about the miracle of oil; how when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally retaken and cleansed, there was only sufficient oil for one night’s lighting of the ner tamid, but the lamp stayed lit for 8 days. Like the story of Pesach in the traditional Haggadah, this approach to Hanukah links our victory to our connection to the Holy One, refusing any disconnect between that link and the efficacy of human agency.
Eventually, I began to understand our Rabbis’ approach to the holiday as a celebration of a miraculous deliverance at the hand of God rather than as a commemoration of military might. Of course our Rabbis, under the ruthless Roman yoke in Eretz Yisrael and, later, under the relatively benign protection of the Persian Empire in Bavel, had practical reasons to demur from celebrating political rebellion.
But there’s more to it than that. Our Rabbis understood the Maccabean story less as a fight for Judean political sovereignty and more as a crucial tipping point in the construction of what would become the Judaism-as-religion that we have inherited. They incorporated the holiday into our spiritual heritage, a candle that would light our way no matter where the Diaspora might take us.
There is an historical basis for their understanding. Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant who tried to impose Greek worship on the Judeans/proto-Jews, was a Seleucid, a successor to Alexander the Great. When Alexander arrived at Jerusalem, he was flattered, he was given his tribute/protection money—and he left the Temple alone. It was when the Seleucids attempted to force their way of worship onto the Hebrews that everything exploded. The discovery of this bottom line was, I believe, a key moment in Jewish self-understanding, one of those foundational events that enabled the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism out of the ashes of our Temple when it fell.
Rabbi John Rosove, a colleague on this site, argues convincingly that the Maccabean victory represents the resolution of a Jewish civil war, of traditionalists and moderates versus extreme Hellenizers. The divisions he describes are real; however, as Shaye Cohen reminds us in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (WJK, 2006) we can parse the nuances even further. All Jews in the antique period lived in a Hellenistic milieu—Greek was the language of commerce, material and intellectual, in a way not dissimilar to how English functions today. The question facing all Mediterranean and West Asian peoples was how to integrate the global culture of their day with their own unique heritage. And—crucially—all of this was happening in the context of imperial military domination.
There is nothing unique about foreign occupiers seeking and finding alliances with the upper classes of the peoples they wish to dominate. Nor is it unusual when oppression and military might are intertwined with more welcome contributions. It is true that Alexandrian emperors brought more than idols to the land of Israel. They brought international trade, great theater and art and a complex philosophical tradition with which Judaism would interact for centuries to its enrichment; philosophical material that, one might argue, even found its way into our Tanakh and that helped to shape the dialectical discourse of our rabbis, along with an urbane salon tradition on which parts of our Pesach seder are modeled in form, although certainly not in content. But they tried to tell us what to do in our own temple and that was not allowed to stand.
According to Cohen, the Maccabees were not (as it has become fashionable to portray them) a bunch of anti-urban reactionaries hiding out from progress. Neither were they romantic revolutionaries seeking a return to some former, pure way of life. They were, in my opinion, legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do—drawing on their own traditions and also appropriating material from the very culture they were fighting—declaring holidays on their own authority, fighting on Shabbat, etc.—in order to achieve independence.
Sadly but not shockingly, the Hasmonean dynasty launched by the Maccabees turned out to be as corrupt and decadent as everything it sought to replace. They even turned aggressively on their neighbors, seeking to convert others to Judaism by force, much as the Seleucids had attempted to convert the Jews. Contemporary Zionists who paint the Maccabees as entirely positive role models might want to remember this, especially in the context of current events. How is the “stubbornness” of Palestinians who insist on a sovereign state so different from that of our ancestors? How to make sure we don't switch roles in the drama?
As Rabbi Rosove observes, Hanukah has become, like Pesach, a holiday that sparks debate over its meaning and what it says about who we are. In other words, Hanukah is more Jewish than ever. Season’s blessings to all.