My posting is a bit later than usual this week because of the holiday. Yes, that holiday.
After all these years, I think I am still figuring out what it means to be a Jew on Christmas.
Growing up where I did in New York, with a large Jewish population, it seemed that Christmas celebrators were in the minority. I had a few friends who did, but surrounded by family and community and my Jewish friends, we had a nice size population engaging in that Jewish Christmas tradition: Chinese food and a movie. Here in Olympia we do the same, though it seems that the restaurant selections are more limited, and we created our own movie event with the Fiddler on the Roof Sing-Along at the Olympia Film Society.
I find this “Chinese food and movies” cliché funny because it appears to have moved beyond an “alternative” observance to one in its own right. It has become its own ritual, laden with as much meaning for non-Christmas observers as the tree and presents and family have for those who do. (Mind you, I am thinking non-theologically). Now with social media, I saw friends all over posting about which movies they were seeing and “check-ins” or photos of Chinese food dinners.
Why this observance? Aside from the specifics-movie theaters and Chinese restaurants were traditionally open on Christmas-developing an alternative celebration is a natural accommodation to a dominant culture, a theme that goes all the way back to the Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we have the climax of the Joseph story. Joseph, the favorite of Jacob’s 12 sons who had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, has risen to the top of Egyptian society based on his ability to interpret dreams. Having interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as a portend of a famine, he is made a senior official in charge of guiding Egypt through the impending financial crisis. The famine spreads to Canaan where Joseph’s father Jacob and the rest of his family live, so the brothers travel to Egypt to seek food, where food has been kept in reserve. The brothers do not recognize Joseph, and after Joseph puts them through a test to see if they have changed, he reveals himself to his brothers, and a happy reunion ensues. Jacob and his family then move all down to Egypt and are reunited with Joseph.
When they move down, however, there is this interesting episode:
Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell the news to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.’ So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” And selecting a few of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. We have come,” they told Pharaoh, “to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants stay in the region of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “As regards your father and your brothers who have come to you, the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen. And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.” (Genesis 46:31-47:6)
Jacob and his family have to lie to Pharaoh about their true profession in order to fit in. Shepherds are not looked upon favorably, so they present as being cattle ranchers in order to be accepted.
Are they lying? Yes. Are they not being true to themselves? Perhaps. But they are doing something that every minority culture does when it is navigating life in a majority culture: trying to find a way to accommodate mores not their own in a way that respects both their own traditions and those of the majority.
Could the Jewish Christmas of “Chinese food and a movie” be the same impulse? We recognize that the holiday is not our own, yet by living here it becomes ours. So we find a way to navigate it.
I recognize this looks different for different people. There are many people in our Jewish community from mixed-faith households for whom Christmas is a meaningful family observance, sharing the holiday with non-Jewish family members and friends. (I’ve attended Christmas worship on occasion.) Many Jewish families will take on Christmas-like observances during Hanukkah (we have been known to do a lot of decorating in our house). And the Chinese food and movie “alternative” observance has in fact become an “authentic” way of observing Christmas.
What the story of Joseph teaches, and our own practices demonstrate, is that maintenance of Jewish identity and engaging with a holiday not our own are not mutually exclusive. All it takes is some negotiation, openness and creativity.