Joseph and the Jewish Christmas

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.chinesefoodsign

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.

Merry Christmas

The 12th Man and the 10th Man

Last Sunday I headed down to LA to take part in a spiritual retreat, a wonderfully intense week full of song and silence, meditation and prayer, movement and stillness. It was an experience on which I am still reflecting.

But before the retreat began, there was a moment of despair when I realized that I would be out of town for the NFC Championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. I knew I would miss the excitement and intensity of being in Washington, with the excitement around the Seahawks and their stellar season growing to a fever pitch.

But I dutifully made my way to Seatac airport, but not before purchasing and donning a Seahawks shirt. The Alaska Airlines terminal was fully decorated, including arches of Seahawks balloons lining the path to my gate. Airline personnel were dressed in team colors as well, and upon boarding it was confirmed what I first heard as a rumor–priority boarding is not only given to families with small children, those needing assistance and military personnel, but also to anyone wearing a Russell Wilson jersey.

As I arrived in LA and made my way to the retreat center, a new reality set in: I was not going to be able to see the game at all. I had thought that maybe I would have access to a TV–kickoff was a few hours before the retreat started–but none was available, phone reception was spotty, and I was not going to be able to watch.

While we were supposed to maintain radio silence during the retreat I was able to find out the score. I knew the Seahawks won but no details were forthcoming. It was not until I got home that I was able to watch recaps and highlights, including the spectacular game ending play, followed by the whole Richard Sherman brou-ha-ha. On to the Superbowl. But I still had this lingering disappointment of not having been able to watch the game.

So why the disappointment? I’m not even a huge football fan; my football watching has generally been relegated to the Superbowl and the occasional playoff game. I’ve been to one professional football game, and my affection for the Giants growing up was more of a nod to the local team and did not compare to my genetic devotion to the Yankees. (And I also preferred baseball.)

But I’ve easily adopted the Seahawks as the local team, happy to be counted among the 12th Man.

And it’s this idea that I find so compelling. The 12th Man is the term used by the Seahawks to describe the fan base. Originally used by Texas A&M University, the term refers to the fact that 11 players are on the field at one time for a team, and the fans collectively make up the 12th. What I like about this idea is that the implication is that the fans are not just there to support the team and root them on, but are seen as an integral part of the team. Thus the fans are not just connected to the team, they are a part of it.

On one level this is manifested practically with the tremendous noise and even minor earthquakes generated by the spectators at Centurylink Field, which is said to unnerve opposing teams. But beyond that, it is manifested in a general sense of camaraderie, communal connection and, dare I say, spirit of meaning generated by feeling a part of something greater.

The 12th Man reminds me of another idea, from our Jewish tradition: the 10th Man, or to be more correct, the 10th Person. The number needed for minyan, a Jewish prayer quorum, is 10. Ten adult Jews are required to recite certain prayers, and therefore the number is the minimum required for a group of people to be considered a community. [And those prayers are some of the most vital to the community, including the Mourner’s Kaddish and the public reading of the Torah.] Some consider it a special honor to be the 10th person, to arrive at the synagogue to be the one to “make the minyan.” The 10th person is not a bystander or a supporter, the 10th person is what defines that community. To be a part of a minyan is to be a part of something larger, to transcend oneself. And because the presence of a 10th transforms the entire group, it allows others to transcend as well.

The feeling of excitement and attachment to the Seahawks is palpable. Seahawks gear is everywhere, flags and signs are in many windows, local stores and state offices encourage dressing in Seahawks gear before game day. The other day Ozi, in remarking on the preponderance of Seahawks imagery everywhere, asked, “Is it like this in other cities as well?” The answer I gave is that in a smaller sports market like Seattle and Washington State, with fewer professional sports–and especially with a recently decamped basketball team and a moribund baseball team–the effect is magnified, and the connection felt that much stronger. There is more of a recognition, perhaps, that each individual is a vital member of the community.

As with football, so with spiritual community. Each individual is a vital member. Show up and wear your colors.

Lincoln, Spielberg, Kushner and Strouse

While much of the post-Oscars buzz is about host Seth MacFarlane and charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in his shtick—about what is subverting stereotypes and what is upholding them—there was another moment during the awards show that also got me thinking.

When Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his monumental portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he noted three great men who were instrumental in the creation of the film: director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Lincoln himself. I was struck that aside from Lincoln, the two people instrumental in the artistic vision and narrative of the film are Jews.

And they are Jews moreso than in the strict halakhic sense, or in the heritage-only sense. (Day-Lewis apparently was born of a Jewish mother, but it doesn’t seem that this fact impacts his identity). Spielberg and Kushner are both artists whose Jewish identity impacts their lives and is reflected in their respective bodies of work.

So, then how does this fact impact their work on Lincoln? Or does it? I wasn’t surprised to see that I’m not the only one to think about this question since when I Googled “Lincoln movie Jewish” I found several articles approaching the movie from a Jewish angle.

This one from Haaretz raises some interesting points. Spielberg makes numerous films of “outsiders and rescue.” Kushner and a Lincoln scholar discussed Lincoln as a Moses figure. The story of struggle for emancipation from slavery and civil rights in the movie (focusing as it does on the passage of the 13th Amendment) reflects the Jewish concern for civil rights in modern American history. [This other in Tablet speaks of Lincoln as a “Judaic” figure, also with a tie in to Moses.]

I would add too that as we move now from Purim to Passover, we are reminded that Jewish tradition is enamored of narrative. The heart of both of these holidays are stories, tellings of history that are not meant to recap facts and figures but rather to tell us, the current retellers of the stories, the values which are meant to be important to us, to guide us in our own day and age. Lincoln serves a similar function: it is a retelling of a particular moment in American history which is meant to underscore the values which should be guiding us today: debate and compromise, fairness and equality, decency and humanity, and the ability of the human heart and mind to change, and thus change society. The fact of Lincoln is in and of itself Jewish.

Which touches on another aspect of the movie—the intersection of fact and fiction. Articles have been written about the license taken by the filmmakers in telling this story, what is “true” and what is “invented.” But perhaps the historicity is not what is important, but the telling itself. The actual historicity of the book of Esther and the Exodus are beside the point, and so too with Lincoln. It isn’t a documentary, it is a work of fiction based on fact. Did my knowledge of history increase by seeing Lincoln? Maybe. Was I inspired? Most definitely.

Some ado about the film was made regarding the climactic roll call vote in the House of Representatives on the Amendment. (Spoiler alert: it passes). Having come so far from those days of slavery, it would be shameful to a contemporary audience to be associated with voting “no.” Some contemporary state leaders–in Connecticut, for example–have raised issues with the fact that their state representatives are portrayed as voting “no” when they voted “yes.” This was done for dramatic effect, say the filmmakers, and the actual names have been changed.

But there is one name that wasn’t changed. Another article about Jews and Lincoln complains that Jewish characters weren’t portrayed in the film, even though some had prominent roles to play in the time period. But there was one Jewish character. During the roll call vote, Representative Myer Strouse, a German Jew from Pennsylvania, was heard voting “no.” In this instance, neither the name nor the vote were changed from the historical record.

I’m curious, then, what this means. How does this impact the Jewish sensibility of the movie? And what challenge are these Jewish artists raising for us from our own history in this country?

Steven, Tony—please leave a comment below.

Myer Strouse
Myer Strouse