Jews, Christmas and Chinese food

I got a cute e-mail the other day, with a photo of a hand-lettered sign: “The Chinese Rest. Assoc. of the United States would like to extend our thanks to The Jewish People/ we do not completely understand your dietary customs . . ./ But we are proud and grateful that your GOD insist you eat our food on Christmas.”  Followed on the bottom, left to right, by a yin/yang symbol, the words Happy Holidays!, and a Star of David.

Have you seen this one too, by any chance?  It turns out to be a made-up cartoon by the writer David Mamet.  One gets so many Jewishly relevant e-mails these days – appeals for money, dire warnings, soothing sermons, angry agendas, evidence of amazing miracles, denunciations of enemies real and imagined, sage analysis, disingenuous disinformation, newsletters, blogs, and jokes, tasteful and otherwise.  Many, perhaps most, inspire prompt deletion, but this one touches the soul, pierces to the heart of the matter, and also tickles the taste buds, at a critical moment in Jewish history.

I know, of course, that in theory We Are One.  The idea of Jewish peoplehood has been my guiding principle since I was taught as a child that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality.  And yet, there’s nothing quite like Christmas to highlight the profound differences between the Jewish People purportedly thanked by the “Chinese Rest. Assoc.” – to wit, those Jews who dwell in what I have referred to, since I made aliyah, as the “Old Country” – and the Jewish people who dwell in Zion, the sovereign State of Israel.

When I was a young journalist in Manhattan, I would attend Christmas parties and feel like a stranger.  ‘Twas the season to be jolly, but I felt blue.  Christmas was America’s holiday, but not mine.  Thanksgiving was nice, and non-sectarian, but Christmas was the real deal, and I didn’t have a seat at the table.

It was not till I moved to the West Coast – where for a decade I worked in the Hollywood dream factory, before relocating to the other Jewish dream factory on the western edge of Asia – that I discovered the antidote to the Christmas doldrums.  In L.A., I would spend Christmas going to movies (sometimes two or three) with other Jews, followed by Chinese food.  Maybe you, dear reader, do the same, joyously partaking of the fare of Asian folks who, like you, are somehow not quite as all-American as, say, the governor of Texas. 

As the “Rest. Assoc.” observed, our culinary customs as a People are diverse and sometimes bewildering.  Some Jews will eat only in strictly kosher or vegetarian Chinese restaurants.  Some Jews keep kosher only at home and not “out”, other Jews believe that anything is kosher if you put soy sauce on it, and many Jews will eat anything, anytime, anywhere.  That’s pluralism for you.

Israel is different.  Chinese food is less plentiful (and not as good), not least because we don’t have many Chinese people in Israel.  We don’t have Christmas here either, not as a nationwide holiday, because Israel is a Jewish country, in even more ways than America is a Christian country – which it undeniably is, certainly on a cultural level.  There is no Church of America akin to the Church of England, whereas Israel has a Chief Rabbinate, and, in effect, a state religion, namely Orthodox Judaism – even though most of its Jews aren’t Orthodox, and more than 20% of its citizens aren’t Jewish. 

In the Old Country, if a Jewish person is intermarried, the so-called “December dilemma” is whether to have a tree or a menorah in one’s home, or both.  Here in Israel, you don’t see Christmas trees (except in Nazareth, East Jerusalem, the YMCA and the occasional contrarian boutique in secular Tel Aviv), and hardly any intermarriage. One reason for this is that there’s no civil marriage in Israel, and legally binding weddings for Jews may only be performed by Orthodox rabbis.  However, tons of Christmas decorations are imported to Israel from China and are used, even by very Orthodox Jews who would never dream of eating Chinese food, to decorate sukkahs on Sukkot.  Go figure.

In the Old Country, for some Jews, another December dilemma is which Chinese restaurant to choose on Christmas Eve – Szechuan or Hunan?  Cantonese, or that new Mongolian fusion place?  In Israel, on the other hand, if you’re Jewish you may not even notice, on December 25, that it’s Christmas, or conceivably, in certain parochial enclaves, be aware that Christmas exists at all.  The State of Israel was created, among other reasons, so that Jews wouldn’t have to deal with Christmas or any of the other holidays that in Europe made them feel like outsiders, often unwanted ones.  In Israel, in the opinion of quite a few Jews – including too many legislators in the Knesset, in recent days in particular – the Jews as the majority population have the right to use the tools of democracy to make other people feel like outsiders. 

In Israel, the holiday marking the winter solstice is Hanukkah, not Christmas.  Here, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, not like the States, where it needs to be a counterweight to mighty, normative Christmas.  Israeli kids learn the ancient stories of military victory and the eight-day oil lamp miracle, but we don’t have the marketing blitz or gift-giving frenzy you have in the Old Country.  In Israel, the IDF fights hostile gentiles, or prepares to fight them, all year round, day and night; while the diplomatic corps fights Israel’s foes on the battlefield of propaganda.  As for miracles, we take them for granted, though many Israelis feel that we probably shouldn’t, especially when planning for war.

I moved to Israel twenty-three Decembers ago, and for me, the anniversary is an annual occasion to ponder the contrasts between my two homelands.  The biggest difference, even beyond Christmas, is that for an Israeli Jew, his or her Jewishness is a full-time, full-strength concern.  And this is also true for Israeli Jews who would make a point of eating shrimp not on Christmas but on Yom Kippur, with or without soy sauce.  In the State of Israel, everybody lives with the consequences of Jewish history, the ups and downs, the yin and yang – everybody, not just the Jews.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.