To tree or not to tree.
For years, that was the question for assimilated Jews when December rolled around. As Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut learned in researching his new book, “A Kosher Christmas,” once upon a time plenty of American Jews went all in when it came to Christmas, with all the trimmings.
Yet far more went in the opposite direction, magnifying Chanukah into a major holiday and creating uniquely Jewish paths — including eating at Chinese restaurants and doing community service on Christmas — to dodge reindeer and sleigh bells.
“It’s like Jews had their noses stuck on the window pane outside looking in,” Plaut said, paraphrasing another scholar on the cultural dominance of Christmas. Ultimately, he says, “[Jews] made America safe for any group that does or doesn’t celebrate Christmas.”
The New York–based author will make three Bay Area appearances to share more of what he learned: Oct. 12 at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, Oct. 13 in conversation with j. editor Sue Fishkoff at Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and Oct. 14 at Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom.
Based largely on research Plaut did for his doctoral dissertation, “A Kosher Christmas” reveals that American Jews have pondered the challenges of the Christmas season since the early 19th century.
Locally, in the decades after the Gold Rush, San Francisco’s prominent Haas family annually held a large Christmas party, attended by other Jewish elites, with nary a hint of December dilemma. As Plaut explains, 19th-century German Jewish immigrants brought with them the customs of their homeland. “Since emancipation in Western Europe,” he said, “they celebrated a secularized form of Christmas, then came to America. It doesn’t sound like they had a dilemma.”
Plaut traces the rise of Chanukah from a minor festival on the Jewish calendar to a major holiday competing with Christmas. The commercialization of gift giving and holiday card exchange increased for both Jews and Christians at around the same time. Topping it off was the now-common ritual of public menorah lightings, which further elevated Chanukah to an unofficial national Jewish holiday.
Not only did Jews put Chanukah on near-equal cultural footing with Christmas in the U.S., Plaut describes how, intentionally or not, they helped speed the secularization of Christmas. For starters, they wrote most of the songs.
From Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” to the most popular of all, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Jewish songwriters had a knack for calling the holiday tune. “Part of it was that Jews were active in Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley,” Plaut explains. “It was the era of the great American songwriters. We contributed enormously to the popular cultural sentiments.”
Jews also invented new traditions to help themselves make it through the holidays.
It took San Francisco Jewish comic Lisa Geduldig to blend Chinese food with standup comedy and devise a new tradition: Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. Plaut, who flew in from the East Coast five consecutive years to attend the event, devotes much of one chapter to Geduldig’s innovation, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
“She really created a template for this whole notion of Jewish comedy on Christmas Eve,” Plaut says. “Lisa created not just an evening. One year she got up and said ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ To me that was very powerful.”
With a master’s degree in folklore and mythology, Plaut is also an expert on Balkan and Sephardic Jewish history, and author of a book about 20th-century Greek Jewry. He received his ordination at Hebrew Union College and a Ph.D. in Judaic studies at New York University. He currently serves as executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center.
Plaut admits the subject for his latest book interested him largely because it afforded an underexplored topic for a dissertation. But there was a personal reason, as well.
“My grandmother was born in a shtetl in Russia,” he relates. “She used to tell me on Christian holidays the Jews were targeted. They would release the dogs to attack Jews. That’s why she never liked having a pet at home.”
And, he adds, “Every American Jew has a Christmas tale to tell.”
Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut will speak at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. services Oct. 12 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F.; 1 p.m. Oct. 13 in conversation with editor Sue Fishkoff at the Magnes Museum, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free. www.magnes.org; and 9:15 a.m. Oct. 14 at Peninsula Temple Sholom, 1655 Sebastian Drive, Burlingame (free for temple members, small donation requested for nonmembers). www.sholom.org.