The year was 2010, and the Senate Judiciary Committee was carrying out its Constitutional responsibility of conducting a confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for the US Supreme Court – a responsibility, I might add, which the Senate has now defiantly shirked for the better part of this past year. But in 2010, the nominee was Judge Elana Kagan, a New York jurist. In an exchange about the shoe bomber airplane incident, which happened over Christmas in 2001, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Judge Kagan in a rather off-handed way, “Where were you at on Christmas?” And in an equally off-handed way she replied, “You know, like all Jews I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” Great laughter ensued.
During the laughter at Judge Kagan’s response, Senator Chuck Schumer explained that Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas Eve. And while that may be part of the explanation, there may be a deeper one as well, offered by Jennifer Lee, producer of The Search for General Tso’s Chicken. Lee explains that at the turn of the century (19th-20th), two of the most populous immigrant communities in New York were the Eastern European Jews and the Chinese. There were Italians and Irish too, of course, but on Christmas Eve, they were usually at home celebrating Christmas. And if an isolated restaurant happened to be open on that holy night, it most certainly would contain Christmas trees, images of the Virgin Mary, of the Christ child, and mangers galore. But the Chinese stood as much outside these traditions as did the Jews, according to Lee. So, in a natural coming together of outsiders, the two groups just kind of came together, to share being “inside” on Christmas Eve.
But what began out of practicality has grown into a beloved tradition for many Jews on Christmas Eve. Christmas is a sacred time for our Christian friends. It’s a time for families and friends to be together. As Jews, we recognize and respect the sacredness of that time. For some of us, though, in an effort not to feel left out, we have figured out this rather wonderful alternative: Chinese food, often coupled with a movie. What could be bad?! Of course this particular year provides us with a built-in reason to gather together – the first night of Chanukah! So, we can have our latkes, and Chinese food too, and as we will do at the temple, we’ll gather together for a movie as well!
An important note. . . Often I have been asked about the propriety of interfaith families celebrating Christmas Eve with their non-Jewish relatives. I have always made it clear that it is vital for families to gather together for beloved celebrations. While it’s much less confusing for Jewish homes not to have Christmas trees themselves, I would never tell anyone not to spend Christmas at the homes of their relatives who have trees, as long as the distinction was made clear. Certainly, the reverse is also true. I would hope that non-Jewish families and friends would be delighted to come to their Jewish relatives’ homes to celebrate Chanukah. This year, of course, is quite anomalous in the confluence of the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve. What I would urge us all to remember is that the only similarity between the two holidays is that they both occur around the winter solstice, the darkest and coldest time of the year. It is understandable then, in an anthropological sense, that festivals involving lights and fires gained popularity in the ancient world. For Christians, the Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. For Jews, the Festival of Chanukah celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian oppressors, and the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel. Add to this historical event the folklore of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, and we’ve got a magnificent celebration that has always been one of the most popular of our entire liturgical calendar. As Chanukah holds deep historic and religious significance for Jews, so does Christmas hold deep historic and religious significance for Christians. For us, the challenge of the season is to rejoice with each other, while not confusing the two.
Ultimately the aim for all of us during this season of celebration is to realize and assert our own integrity and uniqueness, even in the pressure of all the hype that surrounds us. This will be particularly important as we head into a time of great uncertainty. The forces of bigotry and intolerance have already begun to rear their ugly heads, and we will have to stand strong and resolute. And so my wish for our community is a Chag Urim Sameach – a joyous Festival of Lights. And my wish for all of us and our families – most of which probably are multicultural to one degree or another – is a season of love and warmth, and mutual respect, and a future of security and peace, for us, and for our world.