A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish Paperback – Oct 24 2012
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"Fascinating. Plaut means so well and covers so much ground. After 207 pages, I am a Hanukkah maven. Ask me anything."--Elinor Lipman"New York Times Book Review" (12/02/2012)
About the Author
JOSHUA ELI PLAUT, an ordained rabbi, holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He is the author of "Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983" and has documented Jewish life and popular culture through photography, oral history, and ethnography.
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The writing covers the history of being Jewish in America, during Christmas - how it and Hanukkah has been handled by various towns and people. The remaking of Christmas into a non-religious holiday is also covered - the songs and stories, shopping and gift giving.
Jimmy Carter lighting the first of what would become the National Menorah is included. That ceremony was in Lafayette Square, but the national Christmas tree has been located on the other side of the White House on the Ellipse, where the site of the menorah has been moved to. Some of the explanations of this location are a bit confusing. The tradition of eating Chinese, especially at Christmas is dealt with too.
There are black and white pictures throughout the text.
This is an all-encompassing book on the subject and would be of interest to anyone trying to learn more about the religious and secular celebration of this time of year and as even a sociological study.
He states in the first chapter, "Why does Christmas evoke strong feelings among Jews in the United States? Christmas is America's most popular national holiday. Of all the national holidays, only Christmas is founded on religious beliefs, with traditions and symbols associated with Christianity... Whereas Jews can participate fully in Thanksgiving and New Year's Day celebrations, Christmas does not belong to all Americans. Atheists and secularists, as well as religious minorities such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, feel excluded. The problem is more acute because Christmas festivites and displays are not limited to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They span a season that extends from Thanksgiving until New Year's Day... If not celebrating Christmas, what then is a Jew to do on Christmas in America? These questions are at the heart of what the mass media and Jewish communal leaders in the United States commonly refer to as the December dilemma...These choices cause many Jews in the United States to feel displaced and marginalized." (Pg. 2-3)
He points out, "Responding to the resurgence of Jewish identity in the United States, partially occasioned by support for the State of Israel, Jews in America have reinvented the celebration of Hanukah as an alternative to Christmas. This strategy has made it easier for Jewish parents to influence their children to avoid Christmas in favor of celebrating Hanukkah." (Pg. 5) Later, he adds, "As Hanukkah grew in popularity, merchandisers produced a line of Hanukkah decorations and games to parallel the commercial wares and decorations offered for sale at Christmas. Less emphasis was placed on the religious aspects of Christmas and Hanukkah and more on secular components and expressions of popular culture." (Pg. 45)
He observes, "Perhaps most surprising is that Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern ZIonism, also brought a Christmas tree into his Vienna home. Indeed, after Herzl completed his seminal book on Zionism... in 1895, Vienna's chief rabbi, Moritz Gudemann, visited Herzl to discuss the new book. This visit occured on December 24, Christmas Eve. The chief rabbi was surprised to find that the Herzl household displayed a Christmas tree. In his diaries Herzl wrote, 'I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the 'Christian' custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured! But I don't mind if they call it the Hanukah tree---or the winter solstice.'" (Pg. 17)
He states, "Irving Berlin ["White Christmas"] was not the only Jew to have found an opportunity in the American Christmas season to express the mood of the country... American Jews composed some of the most beloved Christmas songs... Johnny Marks wrote 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (1949), 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' (1956), 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' (1958), and 'Holly Jolly Christmas' (1965); George Wyle cowrote 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year' (1963), Mel Torme composed 'The Christmas Song' (...1944), Jay Livingston and Ray Evans produced 'Silver Bells' (1950), Mitchell Parish coauthored 'Sleigh Ride' (1950), and Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote 'Let it Snow...' (1945)." (Pg. 90)
He suggests, "America's Jews have reacted to their exclusion from Christmas in a manner similar to how they have reacted to their exclusion from a country club---by building a better one of their own. However, in so doing, Jews have demoted both Christmas and Hanukkah, mixing both in a popular culture concoction that asks little of each holiday and begs only that those who participate have fun and laugh at their own seriousness." (Pg. 114)
He recounts of some modern interfaith homes, "Christmas and Hanukkah could cross the threshold of interfaith homes with the same ease that juxtaposed the two holidays in shopping malls and civic ventures. Within the American interfaith home, Christmas and Hanukkah would be complementary holidays; their symbols could carry an overlapping message of joy, peace, and goodwill... In the popular parlance of the 1990s, this hybrid form of celebration was cleverly dubbed 'Chrismukkah.'" (Pg. 137) He adds, "The emphasis for these couples is not on differences but on similarity and connection. Each representative symbol therefore not only functions equivalently but is also viewed, in the interfaith world, as arising from teh same blended holiday viewed from slightly varying perspectives." (Pg. 150)
This is a fascinating, very thought-provoking cultural study, that will be of equal keen interest to students of both Hanukkah AND Christmas.
Nonetheless, it added a richer dimension to the personal and sociological aspects of the December dilemma, especially the information about its foundations in Eastern and Central European communities before 1900. Written in a very readable style.
Highly recommended for anyone who has ever thought about the broader implications.
I will use some of the early chapters in my work as a history museum educator, and am pleased to have it in my library. I'm also pleased to see good ol' Joshua Plaut produce such wonderful work. Proud of this Beloit alumnus!