Just in time for the holiday season — whatever your holiday is this time of year. Rabbi Joshua Plaut, executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, is the author of “A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish” (Rutgers University Press), which he calls “a 150-year social history and contemporary ethnography of the relationship of Jews to Christmas in America.”
The rabbi, an historian, photo-ethnographer and cultural anthropologist, is also the author of “Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983: Patterns of Jewish Communal Survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust” (Associated University Press, 1996).
Q: You’ve probably heard this — or will — a million times: Why does a rabbi write a book about Christmas?
A: Growing up in Great Neck and then Jerusalem, I never faced what was once called December dilemmas. But as a young rabbi in the mid-1980s, I became aware that Christmas evokes strong feelings among Jews in America. For celebrant and non-celebrant alike, there is no hiding from Christmas. Since then, I have extensively researched the topic. I wrote my Ph.D dissertation at NYU on the subject, which became the basis for my book …the first on Jews and Christmas.
What makes Christmas “kosher”?
Christmas is safe — kosher — for Jews (and other non-Christian ethnicities) in America. By “a kosher Christmas,” I mean that Jews have helped to fashion a larger vision of inclusivity for people of differing religious, cultural, racial and ethnic persuasions during the year and particularly during the Christmas season. Jews have enhanced and enriched the celebration of Christmas in America by joining a wide spectrum of religious and social groups in helping to fashion a universally shared message of hope.
You write about “the December dilemma” — Jews in this country feeling overwhelmed by the ubiquitous signs and songs and spirit of the Christian holiday. Is that dilemma waning; i.e., do Jews feel confident enough in their own identity to not feel threatened by the holiday?
The term December dilemma is anachronistic and irrelevant. It no longer describes the condition of contemporary Jews at Christmastime. In its place, a kosher Christmas has emerged — an emblematic December period for Jews in which they positively express and proclaim both their Jewish and American identity through a multitude of strategies: neutralizing the holiday through popular cultural expressions (e.g. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”), volunteering on Christmas Day, celebrating Chanukah as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, creating new traditions (e.g. Major League Dreidel), and, in the case of interfaith families, celebrating a hybrid home holiday called Chrismukkah. In most cases, Jewish responses to the December season reflect pride of being Jewish and American.
Has the prominence of Chanukah — a growing number of menorahs in public spaces alongside crèches — increased in reaction to Christmas? Is this good for the Jewish community?
The increase in Chanukah menorahs in public spaces adjacent to Christmas trees, Madonnas and crèches is attributed to the Chabad-Lubavitch campaign initiated in 1974 in Philadelphia, and later formalized via a formal directive encouraging menorah lightings in public spaces issued in 1980 by their rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with other Americans including Jews who believe in the separation of religion and state, see in this mission a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and have contested the furtherance of any religion in public places.
Where did you plan to be on Christmas this year? In a Chinese restaurant, like most Jews — as Elena Kagan told the Senate on her way to confirmation as a Supreme Court justice — are?
Most years on Christmas I attend popular and alternative cultural events such as Jewish comedy shows on Christmas, festivus parties and music performances. I continue to be a keen observer of popular cultural activities centered on Christmas. This year, however, I will be in England, as a guest teacher at Limmud UK. For 30 years it has been among the largest annual Jewish cultural arts festival worldwide, attracting people from all over the world, and it always takes place during Christmas!