Jewish and loving it...
A frenzy of Christmas envy past and present
Commentary from Larry Solway
I call it Christmas Envy. It comes back in a frenzy every year at this time. Awash in Chanukah, we Jews (some of us) try desperately to compensate for our lack of Christmas and trees and Santa and gifts and wassail and holly and Wise Men.
Alas - all we have is a minor holiday, actually a festival, as opposed to a "Yom Tov" which defines a sacred day on the Jewish calendar. Unlike Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, or even the Sabbath, we are not asked to abandon our cars. We are not commanded to hire a "Shabbas Goy" to light our fires or take out the cat. (Only the truly devout still do all that stuff anyway.)
In a media paroxysm of ecumenism, Chanukah is everywhere
The media, striving to be Christmas-politically-correct (can there be such an expression?) always go overboard. And they are egged on by the Jewish community because we have to get as close to the Christmas spirit as we can without actually having to articulate the Savior's name.
When I was a boy in a school I dutifully sang Christmas carols even though I sort of mumbled the word "Jesus" when it came up. Even then I couldn't accept being invisible. The school I arrived at in 1936 had so few Jews that even today I could still name all of them. That school became the magnet for the upwardly mobile Jews who were escaping from the environs of Spadina and College and moving "up the Hell." (Don't ask me why we pronounced "hill" hell.) I point with some pride to the fact that my father was one of the stalwarts who fought restrictive covenants that until the late 40s, kept Jews, with a few exceptions, in a kind of geographic downtown ghetto.
But back to today and the "Christmasizing" of a minor holiday. The Menorah has risen to Christmas tree stature. The little dreidl (a spinning top) has also been elevated to something more than a toy.
I am as guilty as anyone. My grandchildren celebrate Christmas because my daughter is married to a Roman Catholic and my son is married to an apostate Catholic. Both families have trees laden with tinsel and good will and strewn beneath with toys. Perhaps for my sake they do not adorn the top with a plaster Jesus. But my wife and I dutifully attend the ritual, giving and receiving of presents with a zestful glee that would put a pilgrim to shame. To cover our tracks we wrap our gifts in Chanukah wrappings and enclose Chanukah cards. Even this is pandering to our "Christmas envy." Who ever heard of Chanukah wrapping? We have to kind of "saw it off," that balance between what we believe and the society our grandchildren are growing up in. My incredulous g'kids listen to me tell how the most I ever got was some "Chanukah gelt" (money) but it was never wrapped and we certainly didn't get cards.
The humble latke is elevated to the status of plum pudding and other Christmas comestibles (with absolutely no grounding in Christian faith)
But we DID eat latkes (potato pancakes). Which by the way, brings me back to the blurring of lines between Christian and Jew, between Christmas and Chanukah: the latke is suddenly elevated to the status of plum pudding and wassail and turkey and the other Christmas comestibles which, by the way, have absolutely no grounding in Christian faith. But you knew that.
So what didn't you know?
Let me set the record straight. If it were not for the fact that Chanukah coincides with the Christmas season, no one would be making a fuss. Chanukah also falls on the 25th day of the month. Unfortunately the month is Kislev, which in the lunar calendar hops all over the place. It should be remembered, not only by Christians trying to make us feel better, but by Jews who should know better, that there are at least five holidays that are more sacred and holy than Chanukah. The national media makes no fuss over Shavuoth (when Moses handed down the Ten Commandments) or Succoth, when Jews commemorate our wandering in the desert, or Simchat Torah, or Sh'Mini Atseres or... had enough? They are all bigger days than Chanukah.
Television, newspapers, radio - all the media are in an absolute paroxysm of ecumenism. Chanukah is everywhere. I love the Internet. I get to read The Washington Post. They are stunning in their Chanuka-itis. Awash in a ecumenism, the Post told readers to visit all the events. Catch the lighting of the National Menorah. Meet singles at the Chanukah Kickoff Party and the Chanukah Happy Hour and the gefilte fish party!
Chanukah (or Hanukah for those who can't make the throat-clearing ccchhh sound) has become a symbol of fellowship and make-believe Jewishness. The Matzo-ball - appropriate for Passover is now a symbol of being Jewish. Even the august Kennedy Center throws a sing-along.
It seems to me that Americans have led the way in making Chanukah an antidote for Christmas. Not that there is anything wrong with Christmas. It is not only holy, it is wholly fun. It is a joy, not just to Christians, but - as the carol says - to the world!
I always thought that we Canadians were a little more reserved, a little a stiffer about celebrations rooted in our dominant Anglo-Saxon-Anglican-Brittannic history. But I am wrong.
Last year I remember Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton scolding the Premier for calling an important meeting that coincided with the beginning of Chanukah. Our mayor is Jewish, but I somehow don't think he will be closeted in reverent prayer. The fact is, he has his hands full in another matter, but that is not for this page to discuss, sleazy and juicily mouth-watering as it may be.
I enjoy Chanukah for what it is. I make latkes, which - because they are fried in oil, are the only true Chanukah food. (If you missed it - oil is the icon since it was a day's supply of oil that, with divine intervention, burned for eight days after the rededication of the Temple, after the Macabees defeated the Syrians. There will be no matzo ball soup, no kreplach, and certainly no pastrami sandwiches.
The popularization of things Jewish is part of the Americanization of Jewish tradition. Harry Golden, the Charlotte North Carolina-based publisher of The Israelite, once said that if everyone would eat chopped liver anti-Semitism would disappear. The late Leo Rosten deplored, with good humor, the Anglification of Yiddish. He didn't mind that "goniff" or "chutzpah" were part of American-speak. But he deplored the mispronunciation of kibitz with the accent on the second syllable, and the growing use of the word "putz" which Anglos (and now Jews) rhyme with "guts" instead of pronouncing the letter U to rhyme with the O in forward. Too hard for you? Think how I feel about seeing a Chanukah bush.
Last year I was in Paris over the holiday. Walking through the Jewish section of Le Marais, I looked up at an apartment window, and there, for all Paris to see was "Joyeux Chanukah." Merci and a Joyeux Noel to you.
- What do you think of Chanukah and Christmas envy?
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