Sufganiyot and Santa

The dilemma over how to mark Christmas was seen as early as the 19th century, writes Joshua Plaut, whose ‘A Kosher Christmas’ covers two centuries of the Jewish relationship with the holiday.

Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
In 2010, when current US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was being questioned in the Senate as part of her confirmation hearings, one senator wanted to hear her views on the legal issues surrounding the arrest of a would-be bomber on a plane on Christmas the previous year.
“The Christmas Day bomber – where were you on Christmas Day?” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham asked Kagan.
Kagan knew where the senator was heading with his line of questioning, and began her reply: “Senator Graham, that is an undecided legal issue... ” “I just asked you where you were at on Christmas,” the senator responded.
Kagan laughed and replied, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” The room erupted in applause and laughter.
Kagan had struck a chord by invoking a well-known joke about what those of the Jewish faith do when most of their neighbors are celebrating Christmas each year.
In his newest book, A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to be Jewish, which he says comprises 20 years, rabbi and historian Joshua Eli Plaut takes a close look at the relationship between Jews and Christmas over two centuries.
“If not celebrating Christmas, what then is a Jew to do on Christmas in America?” Plaut writes in the book’s introduction.
“How is a Jew to respond? 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. The lure of Christmas entices some Jews to become involved in the non-religious aspects of Christmas and other Jews to reject it as a stepping stone toward assimilation.”
While many Jewish leaders today decry what they proclaim to be the trend of assimilation among community members, Plaut points out that Jewish families were adopting Christmas practices in the 19th century, both in the US and Germany, while retaining Jewish traditions simultaneously.
“Perhaps most surprising,” Plaut writes, is that Theodor Herzl himself had a Christmas tree in his Vienna home.
“In his diaries Herzl wrote, ‘I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when [Vienna’s chief rabbi Moritz] 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 Hanukka tree – or the winter solstice.’” The author also uncovered article from an 1878 Jewish newspaper in Chicago that mentions the Reform Sinai Congregation of Chicago displaying a Christmas tree as part of its Hanukka decorations and gathering around it to sing holiday songs. He also notes that the practice was not without controversy then, with many figures calling for Jews to reject such Christian symbols from their homes.
“Why need we adopt the Christmas tree, ridiculously baptized a Hanukka bush?” wrote one woman in a letter to The Jewish Messenger in 1879.
And while many on the American Right decry a recent “War on Christmas” developing over the past decade, with groups fighting public displays of Christian symbols, Plaut notes that as early as 1906, Jewish parents and children staged a boycott of the closing holiday ceremonies of public schools due to their overt Christmas content.
While German Jewish immigrants to the US often embraced Christmas celebrations, as they had in their home country, Plaut notes that most Jews from Eastern European nations shied away from the holiday due to memories of heightened anti-Semitic attacks around that time of year and a widespread practice of Jews not leaving their homes on Christmas Eve.
Plaut, who lived until age 10 in Long Island, New York, the son of a rabbi, recalls his mother bringing him to sit on Santa’s lap at a department store in the early 1960s.
“Years later, I asked my mother why she took me to sit on Santa’s lap when we did not celebrate Christmas,” he writes. “She responded that she was simply doing what many American parents did for their children. She was never worried about any influence on me as a child because my family was secure in its Jewish identity.”
Plaut explores the Jewish community’s championing of Hanukka from what was once considered a minor holiday to a much-celebrated extravaganza complete with formal balls, popular songs, dreidel-spinning championships and public hanukkia lightings. He notes how the effort to revamp the holiday in the second half of the 20th century focused primarily on attracting and exciting children, the group most likely to be swayed by the glittering allure of Christmas celebrations.
The book wavers a bit from its focus, with sections on the affinity of Jews for Chinese food the other 364 days a year, intermarriage and the boundaries of Jewish comedy, and perhaps overemphasizes the role that the Jewish Irving Berlin played in de-Christifying Christmas with his popular song “White Christmas.”
Plaut also dwells a bit too long on one Jewish Christmas event held in San Francisco – devoting close to a dozen pages to dissecting the annual Kosher Kung Pao Comedy show.
While I can appreciate the focus of his scholarly lens on current events in some instances, it begins to feel a bit silly when he notes the South Park television episode “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo” and entries for “Hanukka Harry” on Urban- – a user-created website known more for its 420 definitions of sex than for a insightful depiction of modern culture. Though perhaps my dismay is rooted in the fact that I hope 100 years from now that this is not how Hanukka in popular culture will be remembered.
Regardless of its various detours, A Kosher Christmas – full of entertaining and intriguing anecdotes and tales of Jews reconciling their traditions and values with the pervasiveness of Christmas culture – is a fast-paced read that anyone who grew up around holiday celebrations of all stripes will enjoy.