The “December Dilemma,” or, Fear of a Dominant Culture

This d’var torah was delivered at Congregation Am Haskalah on Shabbat Vayishlach, December 1, 2017.

When I was growing up, one of the major conversations in the Jewish world revolved around the “December Dilemma” – the question of how interfaith parents would
handle the holidays of Chanukah and Christmas. At the time, the common wisdom was that raising a child with two religious traditions was ‘confusing.’ So my interfaith
family stopped celebrating Christmas in our house.

We would still drive up to my great-aunt’s house in Connecticut on Christmas Day. And there were Christmas traditions that remained special in our household. My
mom would always hang up holiday lights, and in the weeks before Christmas, ribbon candy – a childhood Christmas treat – would always show up in our house.
When I was beginning my rabbinical studies and feeling slightly left behind because of my background, it was a point of pride that I was the only person present with
enough experience to help my classmate, the child of rabbis, string lights in her sukkah.

My son, Daniel, turned three last week, and he’s at an age now where he is beginning to ask questions about the world. Since Thanksgiving, he’s been noticing with awe the
Christmas decorations popping up all over. He’s excited to point out “Santa!” when he recognizes the guy in the red and white suit. On Wednesday, as I was walking him to
school, he pointed to a large ornate wreath and said, “look at this big circle, Jake!” (His calling me by my first name is a different story)

In spite of my upbringing, that deeply ingrained Jewish fear of assimilation, of being seduced by the allure of the dominant culture, persists. I still feel anxious at times when Daniel comes home from his (progressive, wonderful) Christian school singing songs about baby Jesus that he is learning for his Christmas pageant. But I also know that he loves to sing Hinei Mah Tov and Modeh Ani. He has enough positive associations with Judaism that as he grows up and celebrates Christmas with his friends and family, I hope that he won’t feel left out.

One of our important decisions as parents was not to give Chanukah gifts. We know that Chanukah can’t – and shouldn’t – compete with Christmas.  There is something wondrous about the festivity of the “Christmas season.” And though it can often be frustrating – I have an intense memory of sitting in Penn Station on January 3, wondering when they were going to stop playing Christmas music  – there’s still something beautiful, and transcendent, in the messages of the season – themes of love, hope, appreciation, and family.

We drive up to Ottawa each year at Christmas to spend the week with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and nephews. It’s wonderful for Daniel to have a week of uninterrupted time with his cousins, especially given the distance. And we celebrate Christmas together.

When our children receive Christmas gifts, they each receive one big present from Santa. But they receive many more from family and friends. The emphasis is not on what they have received, but the loving support of people who care deeply about them.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are extremely rational people – scientists. Non-religious atheists. And yet, they love their Christmas traditions – movies, music, food. In the tradition of JRR Tolkien, and in keeping with a tradition from my brother-in-law’s family, my nephews receive a long letter each year from Father Christmas. My wife, Jill, grew up in a secular home and loves being Jewish – but she still loves Christmas music – especially the really religious songs. And the appreciation of traditions is not a one way street. My nephews know the Shabbat blessings, and love to light candles and play dreidel.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares to encounter his brother Esau for the first time in years. Jacob had seriously wronged Esau twice during their
youth – first by selling Esau a bowl of stew at the cost of his birthright and secondly, by disguising himself as Esau to receive their dying father’s blessing. As the camps come closer, Jacob is rightfully afraid. Esau is approaching with 400 men.

As Jacob approaches Esau, Esau runs towards Jacob – and hugs him. Esau and Jacob have both grown enough to see each other as peers, to respect each other as individuals, to appreciate their differences. In spite of their youthful clashes, Esau holds no bitterness towards Jacob. He has his own future, his own gifts, his own people, the Edomites.

In the Talmud, Edom is the codename used by the rabbis to describe the excesses and abuses of the Roman Empire. You would think that it would be confusing, given that
there actually was a land of Edom, southeast of the Judean kingdom. By the rabbi’s time, though, there was no people called the Edomites. The Hasmonean high priest Yochanan Hyrkanos, Judah Maccabee’s nephew, had conquered the land and forcibly converted the people to Judaism. What a terrible irony that within a generation, the zealots who fought so fiercely against assimilation turned around and used the power they had acquired to force others to assimilate. The rebellion against empire quickly became an imitation of empire.

Today in America, Chanukah is a story of anti-assimilation that has been reduced to imitation. It is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar whose importance has been puffed up so that Jewish kids don’t feel left out of the December celebrations and good cheer. Its major symbols – dreidel, sufganiyot, latkes – are all borrowed from European cultures. And they are still beautiful.

As Reconstructionists, we recognize that Judaism has always been evolving – always influencing and being influenced by neighboring cultures. We recognize that the problem with a dominant culture has never been the culture – it’s the domination that’s the problem. We know and trust that, secure in our own traditions, faiths, and communities, we can recognize the beauty of other traditions and be influenced by them, while holding fast to our own beliefs and identities.

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