By Robyn Faintich
I am not even sure where to start … maybe about what this is actually not about:
If you are an interfaith family, honoring multiple holiday traditions in your home, “separate but equal,” this is not what this commentary is about.
What this IS about is a growing and very troubling (to me) assertion that certain holiday symbols and ritual items are “secular.” It IS about when we try and co-opt each others traditions, each other’s symbols, and ritual items in order to close in the gap of “separate.” It IS about people’s lack of gumption to hold sacred their own holidays and not be be “jealous” of someone else’s.
A Christmas Tree, a Wreath and Santa
At the beginning of November, news began circulating that a community (very close to me geographically) was going to ban “all religious symbols” including a menorah from public display in their city center. At first glance, I am thrilled about this. As a die-hard religion/government separatist, I fully believe in this (and yes, our currency needs a re-haul). But at second glance, we learned:
Though the policy would allow for the “display” of holiday trees, wreaths and Santas…
This of course, launched a community-wide debate on the secular nature (or lack there-of) of these items. The next day, I saw this Twitter exchange between popular Kansas political leader Jason Kander and the former Governor of Wisconsin.
And I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Kander. I wrote:
and in a subsequent tweet to him, I shared what was going on in Dunwoody and explained why this is dangerous. [No response from him.] Of course, many exchanges ensued with people from all walks of life. And another Jewish educator responded with the case that no Jewish institution will ever display a tree, wreath or Santa – because it’s NOT secular American by any Jewish understanding. This is just our reality as American Jews.
Co–opting not Co–existing
Which leads me to the next part: it is our reality as American Jews that the Jewish month of Kislev (and therefore Chanukkah) inconveniently often coincides with Christmas (and sometimes Diwali and sometimes Kwaanza and other religious days). As a result, many people and many businesses have decided that we somehow have to merge these holidays. That they indeed cannot stand “separate” from each other. These are just a few items that can be purchased:
Not to mention the influx of “Ugly Chanukkah Sweaters” – many of which, if you look closely are co-opted adapted Christmas greetings – which ONLY exist because of the calendar colliding of Christmas and Chanukkah.
And this article and accompanying display from earlier this week just makes my point for me of just how inappropriate this entire situation has devolved to.
I don’t know about you, but I am entirely fed up and disgusted with us – with American Jews and Jewish business leaders who have perpetuated this, bought into it (YES LOOKING AT YOU MANISCHEWITZ GINGERBREAD HOUSE! and Mensch on the Bench). And I am disappointed in a large number of Jewish leaders – rabbis and educators – who will not stand before their congregants and learners of all ages and say just how wrong this is.
Years ago I developed a comprehensive curriculum for teens to explore “American Holidays as a Jew.” In addition to talking about Thanksgiving (originally a religious prayer day), Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day, we tackle this annual “holiday season” and the co-opting of religious symbols. We learn about the origins (many of which are Pagan or Nordic mythology) behind Christmas items (wreathes, candy canes, yule logs, etc). Their favorite is that Mistletoe means “poop on a stick.” Inevitably, the majority of teens are “okay” with the Chanukah Bush and Blue/White stockings, but the moment they see a Jewish Star tree-topper, a Santa kippah or Christmas dreidel, they lose it. Pushing them to explore why one construct bothers them more than the other is my role as an educator leading them in critical thinking and self-exploration. So I challenge Jewish communal leaders to find ways to explore this with their learners – children, teens, college students, and adults alike. And I ask Jewish parents to take a hard look at what is motivating them if they are choosing to join in on this co-opting and blending (again: different than multi-faith families observing multiple holidays.)
A Joy–Filled Chanukkah (Hanukah. Hanukah.)
If Chanukkah – a really minor holiday in the Jewish calendar – fell any other time of year, we would simply celebrate a joyous “Festival of Lights” with a plate of latkes and sufganiyot, and a nice game of dreidel. We would appreciate the beauty of the lights, celebrate the Maccabee miracle of defeat (or the oil story), and sing some songs of heroes and sages.
And in the meantime, we must also acknowledge (like this company managed to), that there are MANY more holidays that occur during this time of year than just Christmas and Chanukah. In fact, there are about 30 holidays (some major, some minor) representing at least seven religions that fall from November 1 to January 15.
Robyn Faintich (she/her) has over 24 years of Jewish communal professional experience in areas that include youth movements, day schools, community teen initiatives, early childhood education, congregational family education, and adult education. In August 2010, Robyn launched JewishGPS, LLC in an effort to help guide Jewish organizations in a variety of aspects of Jewish education. Robyn earned her BA degree in Journalism and Mass Communications at Drake University and a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on Jewish Education at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies. She is a graduate of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship with Bar Ilan University’s Lookstein Center which trained Jewish leaders to facilitate on-line Communities of Practice. Robyn completed a fellowship in the Senior Jewish Educators’ Cohort of M²: the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. She has completed the coursework towards her EdD at Northeastern University. Robyn’s dissertation topic is “Understanding How Under-Engaged Jewish Teens Self-Articulate and Self-Express Jewish Identity and Jewish Identification.” She holds a Doctoral Certificate in Jewish Education Leadership from Hebrew College.