Jewish Americans and Thanksgiving

While some are wondering how to include native Americans in this day’s preparations and festivities, David Swartz reminded readers that Southerners were not so comfortable with a holiday rooted in New England’s heritage:

In his book The First Thanksgiving, he writes, “White southerners associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes.” If he’s right, sectional rivalry explains why these old articles from Kentucky seem so strange and ahistorical, as if Thanksgiving comes out of nowhere. Southern narratives eliminated Pilgrims from the holiday’s history because they were from the North.

Indeed, northerners often encouraged the association of their region with antislavery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, politicians endorsed the abolition of slavery in their Thanksgiving proclamations. Antislavery societies sometimes took up collections at Thanksgiving services. Abolitionists from New England connected the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid in Virginia.

One frustrated writer in Richmond, Virginia, complained that “it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

When I think of Americans who are ambivalent about Thanksgiving, my thoughts run to Jewish Americans. Barry Levenson captured the awkwardness in Avalon:

Then Christopher Guest ran into trouble with making a movie called “Home for Purim” that needed to be rebranded as “Home Thanksgiving.”  Why?  Because marketing a Jewish holiday movie is impossible:

Leave it Woody Allen to be the Jewish-American most comfortable with the Yankee holiday in “Hannah and Her Sisters”:

Forget football. See a Jewish-American movie about Thanksgiving.

When Did Christians Forget their Jewish Roots?

Maybe when Constantine tempted them to think that Christendom meant the end of exile and alienation?

But it sure would help if Christian-Americans thought about American society more the way Jewish-Americans do than the way people who used to be the Church of Scotland think.

Imagine if Rod Dreher had grown up not mainline Protestant but Jewish:

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

The answer, by the way, to Millman’s question is that Christians who read Peter know that Christianity has a set-apart dynamic:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Pet 2)

And then imagine what it would mean if Christian America was as fantastic an idea as Jewish America:

[Christian traditionalists] are more likely to win space to live according to their consciences to the extent that they are able to convince a majority that includes more liberal Christians and non-Christian believers, as well as outright secularists, that they are not simply biding their time until they are able to storm the public square. In addition, they will have to develop institutions of community life that are relatively low-visibility and that can survive without many forms of official support. The price of inclusion in an increasingly pluralistic society may be some degree of voluntary exclusion from the dominant culture.

There is no doubt that this will be a hard bargain for adherents of traditions that enjoyed such immense authority until recently. . . . The basis for coexistence must be a shared understanding that the Christian America for which some long and that others fear isn’t coming back—not only because it was Christian but also because it involved a level of consensus that is no longer available to us. There are opportunities for believers and nonbelievers alike in this absence.

Not Morality but Decency

What if Christians talked more about decency than morality, about what is normal than about what is righteous or God glorifying? Sure, we have churches to talk about the demands of God’s law and how believers glorify God. But, as 2kers are wont to point out, persuading non-Christians to embrace Christian morality sans regeneration or the means of grace seems to be bass ackward.

Does that leave us without a case for those sexual and family aspects of public policy or social life that so animate religious conservatives? It certainly leaves us without a moral high ground. But it’s not as if that high ground doesn’t look to non-Christians like a moral high horse.

So why not take a page from Joseph Epstein? His first collection of short stories about Jewish life in Chicago included one that revolved around a non-observant Jewish businessman meeting his daughter, who had just had an abortion, for dinner to express his disapproval. Part of dinner conversation went like this:

“Daddy, did you really expect me not to sleep with anyone while I was in college?”

“No,” he said, “I guess I didn’t really expect that, but I wouldn’t have minded if you hadn’t. I would have minded a hell of a lot less than I do about what has happened.”

The waitress set down their food. “Enjoy,” she said.

“You still haven’t told me why this bugs you so much, Daddy. Do you think your daughter is now, somehow, damaged goods?”

“I don’t know as I would put it that way, baby, but maybe I do. But not in the way you might think.”

“How then?”

“I think it’s a goddamned damaging thing for a girl to have had an abortion at nineteen,” he said, more emphatically than he had intended. He looked across the aisle at the two old broads and the expressionless face of the senile old gent, and hoped they hadn’t heard him.

“Look, Deb,” he said, talking more softly now, “if you’ve had an abortion at nineteen, what’ve you got planned for twenty-four, or thirty-one, or forty-two?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that, for the first time, as a result of what’s happened, I can imagine a terrible life for you. A life of confusion and sadness and heartbreak. And it terrifies me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Maybe an abortion is a solution to the problem of a pregnancy, but I suspect that it brings its own problems. It isn’t as tidy as it sounds; I suspect that it takes its toll. Once you undergo something like this, your opinion of yourself changes, maybe in small little ways, but it changes. Maybe, because of something like this, you no longer think so well of yourself. Maybe it becomes easier to do more foolish things.”

“I don’t think that’s true, Daddy.”

“I hope it isn’t, sweetheart, I really do hope it isn’t.”

“But what could I have done?”

“You probably did all that you could do, but I think you may be making a big mistake if you think you got away with it. An abortion, anyhow one of this kind, is a dreary and common and pretty crummy thing.”

“What do you want, Daddy?” She had only been picking at her food, but now she gave up even doing that. Tears were in her eyes. Harry remembered her in braces.

“What I want you can’t give me, Deborah. What I want isn’t even reasonable. I want you back the way you were before this happened.”

“What I am supposed to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. The world is slipping away, my sweet girl, and there’s evidently not much any of us can do about it. But I don’t have to like it. And I especially don’t have to like my kid becoming a part of it.”

If we can join with all (how many?) those people who think abortion who think not that it is a violation of the sixth commandment but “crummy,” would social standards be higher? Maybe.

How Others Hear Us

So if Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, want a Christian society or commonwealth or polity, what does that mean for non-Christians? That seems to me the question that most critics of 2k fail to answer. It is also a question to which 2k supplies an answer that 2k critics reject.

But consider this contribution to the Commentary magazine forum of the First Things symposium on “The End of Democracy”:

Years ago (how many, I do not remember) I was on a panel with the late Russell Kirk, the doyen of the paleoconservatives, and sitting behind him when, at the podium, he outlined his plan for a Christian commonwealth. Rather rudely, I must admit, I interrupted him by asking, in a voice audible throughout the room, “What are you going to do with us Jews?” The question obviously took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it had never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.

Having raised the question, I felt obliged to point out that the Constitution provides a better answer: by separating church and state, I said, the Founders intended to provide (in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) a haven “for all sorts and conditions of men,” and the foundation of this haven—safe for the Jews and safe for the rest of us—was not Christianity, and certainly not the church of that prayerbook, but liberty of conscience, a liberal principle whose provenance was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

Sure, a secular society has limitations. But so do Christian societies.

So why can’t we all get along and be thankful for the United States of America?

Who Created Christmas?

One answer looks either to fourth-century emperors who devised December 25 to compete with pagan holidays or to popes who established Christmas as a festival for the western church. Another might point toward the tradition of Lessons and Carols which have become a Protestant (Anglican) way to observe the festivities.

But the point of the question is to wonder why people like Barry Manilow, a Jewish-American, feel so comfortable with Christmas that they can’t wait to record another holiday album. After all, many of the Christmas “standards” came from the pens and pianos of Jewish Americans who found the way that Christian Americans carried on during December so inviting that they could compose a song like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”:

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
It’s the hap -happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap – happiest season of all

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near
It’s The Most Wonderful Time
It’s The Most Wonderful Time
It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

That song, by the way, came from Edward Pola (nee Sidney Edward Pollacsek) and George Wyle (nee Bernard Weissman). Wyle also gave us the theme music for Gilligan’s Island, a tune to which Amazing Grace, I hear, can also be sung. Talk about inter-religious synergy.

This is a wonderful song and captures much of the experience of many North Americans during the last half of December each year which finds citizens of the United States observing Christmas as a national holiday.

But can you imagine, as I attempted last night, non-Muslims writing songs to communicate a sense of Ramadan festivities. We watched two holiday movies to take advantage of the respite from a work schedule. The first was The Bells of St. Mary’s (and boy, Bing Crosby was pretty engaging; Ingrid Bergman was fetching even in a habit), a Christmas movie that was remarkably successful with all Americans at a time (1945) only four years before the most successful anti-Catholic polemic ever written, Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power, a book that was a best seller and offered through the Book of the Month Club. Here was a story of a priest and a nun who disagreed over the running of a parochial school. It was, in some ways, insider Roman Catholic baseball stuff. And yet it is a very charming movie that once again underscores how congenial Christmas can be.

But imagine if the movie makers had created a film about a Muslim school which featured a conflict between a female teacher and an Imam during the observance of Ramadan. How endearing or inviting would that be? If you were part of a Protestant minority living in Quebec City during the 1940s, the parallels between the Roman Catholic observance of Advent and Christmas might be akin to the experiences that Christians (Protestant or Roman Catholic) might have in Baghdad during Ramadan. But again, Christmas invites non-Christians to join the festivities and create holiday expressions that although lacking in explicitly Christian content warm the perhaps sentimental hearts of Christians.

The other holiday movie we watched was Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football, a documentary about Dearborn, Michigan’s high school that is staffed and populated primarily by Muslim (Arab) Americans. The movie follows the coach, players, and family members as they prepare during the fasting and feasting of Ramadan for THE game against Fordson’s arch-rival, Dearborn High. It is the closest I could come to a movie made in the U.S. that featured a holiday foreign to either Christians or Jews. Well worth seeing (and only 55 minutes).

But the aspect of Christmas that most Americans find so inviting has next to nothing to do with the birth of Christ — if it did have much to do with the incarnation, I can’t imagine Barry Manilow lining up to sing those songs. It is a time for families to gather, for cooks to cook and trenchermen to eat, for givers to give and receivers to decide how to negotiate wrapping paper. In other words, it is a time to consume. Even more, it is an important cycle in the business year of many merchants. Lots of religious folk may not care for the commercialization of Christmas but that doesn’t keep the Puritanically minded from spending and eating (no drinking, of course) even if in a less than crass way.

As much as the commercialization of Christmas may seem foreign to Christianity, Protestants should be careful in getting huffy, not in the ways that Rev. Kev. suggests, but for the reason that Presbyterians like John Wanamaker, the owner of one of Philadelphia’s largest department stores, played a huge role in cultivating a holiday atmosphere that appealed to lots of people who didn’t care a wit about the baby Jesus or his reason for taking human form. (The best book on the commercialization of Christian holidays remains Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites.)

So once again, as I enjoy a break from responsibilities and look forward to a festive meal and time with friends, I enter yet another holiday with great ambivalence. With classes behind and grades in, Christmas is indeed one of the most wonderful times of the year. As someone who leans heavily against the liturgical calendar (other than fifty-two holy days a year), I am not all that upset by a secular Christmas. But it does give me pause that the First Advent can be so easily domesticated. It was not so with Herod who tried to snuff out the babe in the manger and all infants doomed to be born near that day. I don’t know exactly how it will happen, but the Second Advent will likely not invite such merriment (at least for those in the First Adam). So I wonder if Christians, if they are going to invest some religious energy in Christmas observance, should spend a little more time considering that the First Advent leads ultimately to That Great Day.