Educator helps December Dilemma feel less painful

“Are you ready for Christmas?” That’s the greeting a Jewish woman from Oakland says she often hears while shopping — and it feels “very isolating” she tells the group.

Another Jewish woman talks about how her daughter’s elementary school handed out math problems illustrated with Christmas ornaments. The teacher “couldn’t understand” the mother’s objection that the examples were exclusionary.

Then again, this is the same mother who as a girl won a contest in her Brownies group for knowing the most Christmas songs.

Shaina Hammerman

And then there’s the interfaith couple that has already begun what the non-practicing Christian wife calls “the annual conversation.” She wants her Jewish husband “to feel comfortable in his own home” during the Christmas season, and he doesn’t want to deny his wife’s enjoyment of Christmas. They’re raising their young daughter Jewish and trying “to find a balance” during the Christmas season.

All of these situations were discussed at the start of a Dec. 13 program titled “American Jews and Christmas.” Held at Temple Sinai in Oakland and co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica, the 90-minute event concluded with program leader Shaina Hammerman showing a picture of Santa Claus and friends lighting a menorah, to which she added the caption: “Merry December Dilemma to all!”

Hammerman, an educator who has a Ph.D. in Jewish history and culture from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, described the above December-based reactions as normal. She said American Jews feel “anxiety, ambivalence, resentment, contempt, irritability and shame” during the Christmas season.

“Jews are always going to see themselves and their practices in relation to the majority culture,” she said. “Christmas is a time when the majority culture really reigns.”

Hammerman said this seasonal anxiety has its roots in Jewish life in Eastern Europe. One folk practice, she said, was for Jews to cover their open liquids and foods on Christmas Eve to protect them from being rendered unkosher by Jesus, whom they believed was passing over them a la the angel of death on Passover.

The Yiddish words for Christmas are telling, Hammerman added. One Yiddish word for Christmas is “Veynacht” (night of woes), and the names for Christmas Eve are “Finstere Nacht” (dark night) and “Moyredike” (fearful night).

After coming to America, immigrant Jews continued to wrestle with Christmas. In 1910, the Jewish Daily Forward declared “the Jewish child in America deserves pity at Christmas because he feels lost, is not in the right place, a stranger among his friends.”

Hammerman also pointed to a 1941 letter in “A Bintel Brief” (the Forward’s advice column for Jewish immigrants) in which a Jewish woman laments seeing a Christmas tree in her son’s home. “My son assures us it has nothing to do with religion,” she wrote. Forward editor Abraham Cahan replied, “Jews should respect the Christmas holiday, but celebrating would be like dancing at a stranger’s wedding.”

Hammerman later showed a couple of TV clips, including a 2005 “Saturday Night Live” claymation short, “Christmastime for the Jews.” To the strains of a Motown-like song, the piece shows Jews participating in various activities on the one day of the year they get the streets to themselves.

Hammerman talked a bit about how Chabad has taken the Christian practice of large holiday displays and “imbued it with Jewish content” by lighting large menorahs in public places during Hanukkah — rituals that previously had taken place only in homes and synagogues.

In conclusion, if Jews feel conflicted by the “December Dilemma,” Hammerman said, “those are Jewish feelings to have. If we can own that as part of the American Jewish tradition, maybe they become less painful.”