Monday, February 4, 2008

Jews with Christmas Trees

I've long been pondering (as those who know my other blog, Cafeteria Rusticana, will know, especially by the posts on Mike Leigh's play Two Thousand Years) the influence (or lack of it) of Tradition and Religion on secular and assimilated Jews such as my enormous extended family. According to family legend, we didn't take religion seriously back on the shtetls, and we rather looked down at than up to the local rabbis there. Once the Yohalems reached America (1886 et seq), our passion to be American as quickly as possible (a common feeling among immigrants here, of all ancestries) left us ever less involved in religious rites. And yet we were Jews, and knew it, and never thought of being anything else, and did not intermarry till after World War II. And of course we kept, and were proud of, our Torah-sourced surname: Yohalem.

Last night phone call from Naomi, a woman I did not remember from summer camp; she had grown up with a distant cousin of mine and had recently dined with still another. We each knew an unknown half of the other's stories. And this is an unfamiliar take on Christmas trees:

When she and Mimi (my cousin) were girls together, and best friends, they used to save their pennies and purchase a small Christmas tree, which they would set up and decorate in some corner of Naomi's house where it would not be visible outside. Naomi's mother did not have a tree, and did not want one to be seen by the neighbors - who were often not Jewish. She did not want Christian neighbors to see the tree and think either (a) that her family was also Christian, or (b) that they were pretending to be Christian to "pass," or (c) that they weren't proud of being Jewish even though they were not in the least observant. It would be interesting to ask (but I gather Naomi's mother is no longer ask-able) what the logic was. I can easily imagine forbidding a Christmas tree because one is not Christian (though we always had one in our house, and like all small children, I adored it) or calling it a Hanukkah bush (though I deplore that, and my parents would never have sunk so low), or even having one and concealing it from Jewish friends and neighbors because it might seem to be yielding to the popular culture (though we certainly wouldn't have cared what anyone thought, and never tried to hide our enormous and handsome tree from our many, mostly Jewish, friends).

But to conceal the tree from non-Jewish neighbors who might be shocked by the practice of this non-Jewish - and actually quite secular and, in fact, pagan - custom is mysterious. Think it through: do non-Jews (except the ones who are interested in Judaism, usually from a most sympathetic standpoint) even know enough of Jewish custom to be sure this doesn't qualify? I suspect Naomi's mother of terrific self-conscious neurosis and would love to know just how she felt about things Jewish. (Naomi says the family was barely observant, and was more into being Communist.) People who insist on their identity so loudly, and who wish to control the perceptions of that identity on the part of others are, in my interpretation, doubtful about it, or at least about its acceptability.

We had a Christmas tree, and Christmas dinner (at the home of my one Catholic greataunt, though everyone else at the table was Jewish), and it seemed no more religious to us than Thanksgiving (at our house or some aunt or uncle's) or, the first autumn holiday, my grandfather's birthday (usually at his house). Yom kippur meant a day off school, but fasting was not an option. (The holiday was explained to me and I had the option of fasting, but no one else did it, and I didn't see the point.)

Christmas in the U.S. is the holiday of commerce (the national religion); it has no religious content so far as I can detect. Even Clement Moore, an Episcopalian clergyman, left the religious content out, and on a recent trip to (Muslim but with a secular ruling class) Turkey I noticed Santa in shop windows. My hostess told me they give presents at New Year's Day - Gregorian New Year (same as ours), not Muslim New Year (which goes by a lunar calendar and is two weeks earlier each solar year, creeping slowly backwards). Thus they give gifts because they got the bug from the West, which Ataturk's Turkey admired above all other identities. Beside the Santa figures and masks, by the way, were masks of Dracula - these are the two American (Dutch/Irish/Romanian if you will) icons that rule the world, exported via Hollywood. They cross all cultural boundaries. They are the New Manichaeanism: Santa is the God of Light, Dracula the God of Darkness - but the Manichees believed all the material world was the work of Darkness, of Evil, of Damnation, and the God of Light was the God of spirit, the soul, the immaterial. Plainly Santa has broken that ancient prejudice down.

For doth not the Madonna say, "We are living in a material world" ?

1 comment:

Susan said...

I thought Material Girl was Cyndi Lauper. Shows you what I know.

My mother might have done just as your cousin's mother. She lives in fear of being talked about. Not that she wants to neighbors' approval--she's quite asocial--she simply doesn't wish to be noticed.