A Kosher Christmas: Rabbi Joshua Plaut (CBC Radio, December 2012)
The Joy Cardin Show (Wisconsin Public Radio, December 2012)
The Jewish December Dilemma (Interfaith Voices Radio Interview, December 2012)
The Hybrid Holidays: We Can Celebrate Together, Faiths Aside (HuffPost Live Video Interview (Decmeber 2012)
Video News: Hanukkah Celebrations in NYC [interview begins at the 2:08 mark in the video] (Jewish News One, December 2012)
WABC Radio Podcast [interview begins at minute 67] (NYC, December 2012)
Sufganiyot and Santa (The Jewish Week, December 2012)
Have Yourself A Jewish Little Christmas (The Jerusalem Post, December 2012)
Jewish Christmas: Beyond Chinese food and the movies (Metro, December 2012)
Christmas and Jews: A time for appreciation, not appropriation (Haaretz, December 2012)
’Twas the Day After Christmas... (Jewish Ideas Daily, December 2012)
Kosher Christmas at the Historic Haas-Lilienthal House (SF Weekly, December 2012)
The Jews Who Wrote Christmas Songs (Interfaith Family, December 2012)
Redefining the So-Called "December Dilemma" (ReformJudaism.org, December 2012)
Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 12 14 2012 (Congregation Beth Israel, December 2012)
Chow, Fun! Chinese food and Jewish comedy on Christmas — what’s not to like? (JWeekly, December 2012)
Whonukkah? (Message in a Bottle - Island Books, December 2012)
Who’s Got Hanukkah Envy? (Tablet Magazine, December 2012)
"A Kosher Christmas" - Yes, Really! (ReformJudaism.org, December, 2012)
Shining a new light on the Jewish response to Christmas (JTA, November 2012)
Can Christmas Be Kosher? (Moment Magazine, October 2012)
Then and Now: Yuletide, Jews & aristocracy converge in SF (JWeekly, October 2012)
Congregation Beth Israel Blog (October 2012)
Jewish Christmas (Tablet Magazine, December 2010)
Without Irving Berlin, Christmas would be a silent night (US News, November 2002)
December Holiday Rituals: A Multitude of Jewish Responses
From: City Book Review
by Claude Ury
This book looks at American Jewish responses to Christmas; as a non-Jew, it is pointed out one can do a number of things on Christmas such as seeking love at a Jewish singles dance, laughing at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, celebrating Jewish culture at a Jewish museum, going to a movie, or perhaps eating at a Chinese restaurant for Jews, all of which one finds as an example in San Francisco, California, where this reviewer is based.
Jews in America have played an important role in popularizing Christmas and composed many Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. For example, let’s look at some songs such as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Walter Rollin’s and Steve Fletcher’s “Frosty the Snowman,” and recently Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” It appears that for the non-Jews as well as the practicing Jew, these latter songs denote peace, good will, and generosity.
Many Jews, it can be pointed out, volunteer on Christmas day in churches within the San Francisco area, for example the Glide Memorial Church, or other churches helping the homeless to have a nice meal and share thoughts together.
From this outstanding research it is shown that San Francisco Jews began celebrating Christmas in 1870 when it was declared a national holiday. It is felt by this expert that the exchange of gifts became part of all aspects of society such as school, office, home, and the business world.
It is interesting to note that Theodore Herzel, the founder of modern Zionism, brought a Christmas tree into his Vienna home. Vienna’s Chief Rabbi Moritz Gudemann visited the Herzel home and was perplexed to find a Christmas tree in the household, with the visit occurring on December 24th.
Hanukkah, it was interesting to learn, reached outer space when from December 2-13, 2003 U.S. Astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, who is Jewish, celebrated the occasion by bringing with him a dreidel and menorah. It can be stated that in twenyty years, the San Francisco Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has meant for Jews in America a new and very humorous way of celebrating Christmas.
From: Holiday Harbour
by Linda M. Young
Not only was this the most interesting book I read this Christmas, but it was one of my favorite books of the year, a discussion of the Jewish experience with the Christmas season in the United States. I was quite intrigued by the opening chapter about Jewish immigrants' experience with the pervasive holiday in the late 19th and early 20th century. Apparently German Jews celebrated the secular trappings of Christmas (trees, parties, gifts) as it was part of the society they came from; the more persecuted Eastern European Jews wanted nothing to do with the holiday, as any member of their congregation who stepped out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in Europe was likely to be beaten up and possibly even killed by revengeful revelers who still blamed them for the death of Christ. Once here, many Jews picked up those secular customs to fit in, while others eschewed them. Another chapter addressed the "Chinese food on Christmas" trope. The most involving chapter is about how the minor festival of Hanukkah was remade to cope with Christmas: I knew that earlier it had been a minor festival only, but I didn't realize how extensively it had been "made over." Apparently the original gift-giving time at Purim was transferred to Hanukkah so that Jewish children would not feel left out when their Christian friends talked about Christmas gifts. The final chapters talk about Jewish people doing mitzvahs (good deeds) by helping out their Christian counterparts during the holiday season, and how "mixed holidays" like "Christmukkah" and secular holidays such as "Festivus" are appealing to modern interfaith and non-Christian families. Well-written with a lot of food for thought.
From: Jewish Book Council
by Eliyahu Rosen
Christmas v. Chanukah, also known as the “December Dilemma,” is the almost inevitable duel that confronts many American Jews each December. Should we, as Jews, participate in the contagious cheer of Christmastime, or do we shun it? Should we feel guilty for enjoying the magnificent lights and festive nature of the “holiday spirit” in America?
Through its exploration of modern December customs – such as why we give gifts on Chanukah, and the origin of the Christmas tree – A Kosher Christmas attempts to answer these questions by systematically tracing the evolution of the Christmas and Chanukah customs we are familiar with today. And in the process, Joshua Eli Plaut illustrates how American Jews have developed “distinctive strategies to thrive and survive” in twentieth century America. Throughout the book Plaut develops his theory that Jews not only helped shape the public observance of Christmas, but they also helped redefine the public and private nature of Chanukah by turning December into a joyous holiday season for all religions and faiths.
Do not be fooled by the light-hearted cover and title of this book; A Kosher Christmas is a scholarly work that presents a detailed account of the way both Christmas and Chanukah observances have developed over the past 160 years in America. Through extensive fieldwork Plaut presents a robust and vastly detailed analysis of December trends – both old and new – by looking at everything from White House parties to interviews with Chanukah postal stamp enthusiasts. He traces the traditions of Jews from Germany to San Francisco to New York City, as he explores the roots of American Jewish pop culture.
A Kosher Christmas is a unique observation of American Jewry and the ambivalence Jews face as we simultaneously try to integrate ourselves into American culture, while, according to Plaut, helping to shape aspects of it at the same time. Although slightly humorous at times, this book is recommended for readers looking for an academic study of American Jewish cultural traditions.
From: The Jewish Star
by Alan Jay Gerber
Christmas may not be universally accepted and observed by many Americans, however, it is America’s only national holiday founded on religious beliefs. Its hold on many, whether through its theological and biblical message or through its musical tradition is overpowering.
Thus, any literary work that seeks to analyze this unique festival from the perspective of those who do not accept its observance should prove to be most interesting. One such work is “A Kosher Christmas” by Joshua Eli Plaut [Rutgers University Press, 2012].
This work presents in a serious and academic format, laced with a good sense of humor, a full presentment of how American Jews came to adjust to either their observance or non-observance of this most glorious of Christian religious festivals.
From: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
The book chronicles the history of Jews and the Christmas phenomena over a span of about 300 hundred years. Plaut presents some fascinating historical anecdotes of how our grandparents and great-grandparents behaved at this awkward time of the year when everywhere you go—you see Christmas!
In summary, I must say, reading Joshua Eli Plaut’s “A KOSHER CHRISTMAS: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish” was pleasure. You may not like the name of the book or its cover, but Plaut’s history of the Jewish experience of Christmas is a compelling read.
From: Haaretz (12/10/2012)
by Chemi Shalev
“Bar Refaeli Does Santa Claus” was one of the provocative headlines given this week to reports on a picture posted by the famous Israeli supermodel on her Instagram account, in which she is seen wearing a Santa suit – or half a Santa suit, to be exact – in order to promote her underclothing firm Under Me.
Refaeli, already in hot water with zealous Israelis for daring to express regret for innocent victims on "both sides" of last month’s Gaza conflict, was once again castigated for showcasing the overtly Christian Santa rather than posing with a Hanukkah dreidel or menorah or some other Jewish holiday. “Why don’t you just convert?” wrote one of Refaeli’s irate fans.
But while dressing up as Santa might be considered an intolerable aberration in increasingly insular Israel, in America it has turned into what can almost be described as a Jewish tradition, or a “Christmas Mitzvah," as Dr Joshua Eli Plaut so entertainingly details in his new book, "A Kosher Christmas: Tis the Season to be Jewish" published by Rutgers University Press this month.
Though the newest flap with Refaeli occurred after the book came out – and may not have been what Plaut had in mind when he wrote it - his book devotes a whole chapter to the growing phenomenon of Jews who volunteer to dress up as Santa for the benefit of their Christian friends and neighbors. “The main motivations for playing the role of Santa are to make children happy and to spread holiday cheer and goodwill,” Plaut writes, which certainly holds true for Refaeli, at least among older children of the male variety.
Christmas, as Plaut shows, has become an occasion for Jewish volunteerism in a wide variety of areas, most notably feeding the hungry and providing other charitable assistance to the poor and homeless. In an inversion of the Jewish colloquialism “Shabbes goy”, the term used for non-Jews who performs duties forbidden to Jews on Shabbat, many Jewish Americans now volunteer to become “Christmas Yids”, as Plaut puts it, performing a wide range of volunteering tasks on Christmas day and thus allowing many Christians to celebrate the holiday with their families.
Christmas, as renowned historian Jonathan Sarna notes in a foreword to the book, has changed over the years from being a religious holiday that minorities are not a part of, to a national holiday that can encompass all Americans, Christian or not. “If, as a famous advertisement once declared, ‘you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye’,” Sarna writes, “then by analogy you don’t have to be Christian to love Christmas.”
In addition to the brightly lit streets, ornate shop windows, Christmas songs and holiday cheer that appeal to many, American Jews have developed their own distinct “rituals” for Christmas day, including celebrations of Jewish culture at museums and galleries, Christmas day singles dances, going to the movies, enjoying a night of comedy or, most famously, going out for Chinese food. Tracing the long history of Jewish fascination with Chinese cuisine back to the teeming immigrant tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side a century ago, Plaut shows how eating Chinese on Christmas has become “a sacred tradition” in which even the Orthodox partake. And this Jewish culinary tradition has spawned its own particular branch of Jewish humor, known as “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy”, which started in Jewishly-frequented Chinese restaurants but has now expanded to Jewish community centers and other arenas throughout America.
Plaut, an ordained Reform rabbi who is also the executive director of American Friends of the Rabin Medical Center, devoted his doctorate at New York University to the issue of Jews and Christmas and is now considered a foremost American expert on the subject. He and his wife Lori also maintain a running blog on Jews and Christmas.
In this short, informative and illuminating book, Plaut traces not only the changing attitude of American Jews to Christmas but the holiday’s symbiotic influence on Hanukkah as well. The eight-day Jewish festival has evolved over the past century and a half from a relatively minor holiday to becoming one of the most important landmarks on the Jewish year and a permanent feature of America’s national calendar. Ever since President Jimmy Carter participated in an official menorah lighting ceremony in 1979, the presidential ceremony marking Hanukkah has assumed ever greater public prominence, moving inside the White House under Bill Clinton, turning into an annual reception for Jewish leaders under George Bush, and culminating, for the time being, with an official presidential proclamation which Barack Obama issues each year, in both English and Hebrew.
In his book, Plaut recalls the American clash between 19th century German Jews, who embraced Christmas and placed Christmas trees in their homes – even Theodor Herzl’s home in Vienna had one, it turns out – and the early 20th century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe for whom Christmas was a day of dread and fear of Christians seeking to take revenge on the “Christ killers”.
Eastern European Jews not only refrained from mentioning Jesus’ name explicitly, but they also resorted to euphemisms for Christmas day itself, the most famous of which is “Nittel Nacht” - for which the etymological source is uncertain. The Satmar Hasidim, for their part, call Christmas Eve “Bittel Nacht”, from the Hebrew word denoting “idle”, because on Christmas, Orthodox Jews stop learning the Torah and play cards or dice. The historical and theological reasoning, Plaut tells me, is their fear that by studying on Jesus’ birthday, pious Jews might inadvertently be carrying out the Jewish custom of praying for the ascent of his soul to heaven.
In any case, Jewish children have come a long way since the Forward newspaper complained a little over a century ago that “there’s nothing sadder than a Jewish kid at Christmas.” Jews were quick to absorb the Christmas tradition of gift giving and actually turned things on their head by instituting not just one, but eight days of gifts during Hanukkah, making Jewish kids the envy of their Christian friends.
Hanukkah itself was fortified by the symbolism of the Zionist struggle, now cast as latter-day Maccabees fighting for independence and liberation from oppressors in Palestine, and by Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War, which boosted the self-confidence and “tribal identification” of American Jews.
At the same time, however, and increasingly in recent years, the “Festival of Lights” has also become another symbol of a universal battle for democracy and religious rights, as Obama noted in this year’s message in which he described the holiday as “an opportunity for people of all faiths to recognize the common aspirations we share.” The wholesale massacre of Hellenists by the Maccabees, of course, has long been cast aside and forgotten.
In much the same way, Christmas itself has been depleted of its theological underpinnings in the public arena – unlike the churches and homes of devout Christians - by the separation of church and state, by the commercialization of the holiday and by what anti-Semites may describe as a devious Jewish plot. The most popular Christmas song, after all, is White Christmas, written by Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin and described by author Philip Roth as a song that “de-Christs” Christmas and “turns it into a holiday about snow.”
I was surprised to learn in the book that two of my other favorite Christmas songs were also written by Jews – Johnny Marks wrote “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”. Thus, not only was a Jew responsible for Christmas in the first place but Jews have now come around full circle to embrace Christmas by turning it into a holiday entirely of their own, one in which they share the holiday spirit with Christian Americans but do so in a way that expresses pride in their own identity.
Gone are the days when Jews felt left out of the festivities while Christians around them celebrated. In Israel this might be viewed as assimilation, I tell Plaut, but he believes that it’s not about assimilation at all but about “overcoming Jewish marginalization”. One way or another, it is a trend which fully deserves that traditional blessing – “Only in America”.
by Elinor Lipman
Vos iz dos — “A Kosher Christmas”? Might a reader expect a heartwarming hybrid, perhaps President Obama lighting candles with Rahm Emanuel? Not here, where there is no anecdoting of the Sedaris kind, but a scholarly examination of the December dilemma: How Jews cope with “the only American national holiday rooted in a specific religious tradition that a significant minority of Americans fail to share.”
The author, Joshua Eli Plaut — see the future rabbi at age 7 sitting on Santa’s lap at the start of the book — combines history, Jewish studies and sociology in something of a kitchen-sink compendium. Beginning with urban-bourgeois Jewish émigrés from German-speaking countries who decorated trees, exchanged presents and sang carols in “a family festival devoid of religious meaning,” Plaut moves forward to describe how modern Jews elevated the once-minor holiday of Hanukkah to its big-time status as Christmas’s partner.
Are there digressions? Yes. We venture into things Judaic that are only tangentially Hanukkah-related. There are chapters on intermarriage, on holiday cards designed for blended couples, on Jewish composers of Christmas songs. Plaut’s sentences tend toward the unleavened. Those German-American Jews, we are told, “ate customary Christmas foods, particularly sweets like stollen, lebkuchen and pfefferkuc (although they prepared the treats with butter instead of lard).” He explains that “Jews flock to Chinese restaurants on Christmas not only because they are open while other restaurants are closed but also because Jews regard eating Chinese food as a special occasion.”
But all is forgiven. Plaut means so well and covers so much ground. Read why Jews, before or after their Chinese Christmas dinners, hit the movies. In the first decade of the 20th century, we learn, 42 nickelodeons were located in the Lower East Side of New York, more than anywhere else in the city, with 10 more uptown in what was branded Jewish Harlem.
Workmanlike prose aside, much is fascinating: Who knew there were dreidel-collecting clubs in the United States and, beginning in 2007, the Major League Dreidel championship, played on a board called “the spinogogue”? At times, one senses that Plaut’s Google searches have been a tad overzealous. The “Seinfeld”-inspired holiday of Festivus and the “hybrid form of celebration” Chrismukkah, “incorporating symbols from both religions, each complementing the other while drawing from the same holiday fervor and cheer,” together get an entire chapter.
Plaut reports on the tradition of Jewish volunteering, the Christmas mitzvah — something to do when the rest of the world has the day off. Jews feed the hungry, fill in for Christians at work, donate toys, play Santa. These are activities, he says, that allow “Jews the opportunity to participate in Christmas, but in a way that does not detract from their Jewish identity; in fact, their volunteerism reinforces their Jewishness.” Boldly stated: “America’s Jews have reacted to their exclusion from Christmas in a manner similar to how they have reacted to their exclusion from a country club — by building a better one of their own.”
The introduction to “A Kosher Christmas” does the book no favors, reminding us of its university press roots with sentences like: “We encounter in the following chapters a multitude of distinctive strategies that portray how Jews survive and thrive in American society and how they transform Christmastime into a holiday season belonging to all Americans.” And if some topics feel like filler, still, why not cover all things remotely Hanukkah-genred? Not interested in crossbreed holiday greeting cards? Skip that section and move on to “Menorahs Next to Madonnas” and the campaign that in 1996 resulted in the United States Postal Service’s release of a Hanukkah stamp.
After 207 pages, I am a Hanukkah maven. Ask me anything.
The book is a look at the history of American Jewry regarding Christmas. We read how both Christmas and Chanukah are dealt with in various locations and by various people. We are made more aware of those who are trying to make Christmas into a non-religious holiday and we revisit the songs and stories of all religions as pertain to the holiday season.
Plaut brings history, Jewish studies and sociology together in his book and it is quite a fascinating study. We learn that it was the German Jews who came to America had decorated trees and swapped gifts and sang songs about a holiday that had no religious agenda. Later, other Jews decided to make Chanukah, a minor holiday, into a major holiday. While the writing style is not the best prose, it is easy to understand what the book says. However, there is a great deal of information here and it is all very intersting.
From: JTA (11/30/2012)
by Penny Schwartz
From Kung Pao kosher comedy to a swinging Mardi Gras version of the “Dreidel” song, two new Chanukah season releases explore the intriguing, delightful and sometimes perplexing ways in which American Jews have responded to Christmas.
In a book and an audio CD compilation, the holiday season known as the “December dilemma” is seen and heard in a new light. An added bonus: the covers of both are enticing and entertaining.
In the book “A Kosher Christmas” (Rutgers University Press, $22.95) subtitled “'Tis the Season to be Jewish,” Joshua Eli Plaut offers a richly detailed, page-turning read that draws on historical documents and ethnographic research sprinkled with often humorous images and photos.
In his introduction Plaut, a rabbi and scholar, admits to a lifelong fascination with Christmas. The son of a rabbi, he recalls as a young child growing up on Long Island in the 1960s that his mother dutifully took him to sit on Santa's lap every December.
“She was never worried about any influence on me as a child because my family was secure in its Jewish identity,” he writes.
Plaut paints a historical portrait of the shifts in American Jewish attitudes toward Christmas -- the only American holiday founded on religion, he notes.
Jews have employed “a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation,” he writes, adding that Jews actually have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas by composing many of the country's most beloved holiday songs.
Plaut treats readers to a chapter on the popular Jewish custom of eating Chinese food on Christmas, a tradition that surprisingly dates back more than a century to Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York. One photo shows a sign in a Chinese restaurant window that thanks the Jewish people for their patronage during Christmas.
In the 1990s, comedian Lisa Geduldig hosted the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy evening of Jewish stand-up comedy in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Two decades later the event is still going strong and being replicated in cities across America.
On a more serious note, Plaut reveals a long history of Jewish volunteerism on Christmas, serving the needy and working shifts for non-Jewish co-workers, allowing them to spend the day with family and friends.
Plaut also covers the challenges faced by intermarried families at Chanukah and Christmas. He addresses as well the subject of public displays of religious symbols, with Jews on both sides of the issue.
Jonathan Sarna, the American Jewish historian who wrote the foreword, cautions that the book should not be read merely as a story of assimilation. In a phone conversation with JTA, the prominent Brandeis University professor argues that if that were the case, the book would be about how Jews observe Christmas.
Rather, Plaut chronicles how Jews demonstrate their Jewish identity through alternative ways of acting on Christmas that show them to be Jewish and American. Most significant, Sarna asserts, “A Kosher Christmas” is important because it portrays how two religions are transformed by the knowledge of the other.
Plaut (Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913–1983), explores how the meanings of the Christmas holiday have become Americanized and changed, in particular by American Jews, both secular and religious. For American Jews, the holiday has always presented a kind of dilemma: does one assert one’s own separate religious identity, develop a means of paticipating in Christmas celebrations as a Jew, or seek to change the meanings of the holiday? Plaut shows that Jews have responded to Christmas in a variety ways, including fostering the tradition of going out for Chinese dinner that day, a means of outsiders becoming a group of insiders. Plaut covers this approach in its own chapter. Other chapters address the evolution of Hanukkah into a larger than traditionally established Jewish December celebration; remaking Christmas into a secular time of giving; and Jews’ contributions to the American popular culture of the Christmas holidays, e.g., the Christmas songs written by Jews in support of Christmas as representing family, peace, and joy.
Verdict This book is a clever look at the dilemmas presented to us at Christmas, whether in fact we are Jews or not. It is academic in tone (its title, subtitle, and cover may mislead) but nimbly written. Many readers will be likely to enjoy it.
Christmas is our only national holiday founded on religious beliefs, and Plaut, a rabbi and Jewish studies scholar, describes the multitude of creative rituals, activities, and responses Jews have developed to counteract feelings of marginalization and “transform Christmastime into a holiday season belonging to all Americans.” American Jews have succeeded in getting broad recognition of Hannukah with postage stamps, a White House menorah lighting, and the Empire State Building set alight in blue and white. As individuals, Jews embrace the season’s family focus, but avoid Christmas-related activities, visiting Jewish museums, watching movies, and flock to Chinese restaurants on Christmas—a tradition that has spawned many parodies as well as San Francisco’s Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, a highly popular evening of Jewish standup comedy at a Chinese restaurant. Volunteerism on Christmas has become an established tradition, with Jews distributing food, clothing, and toys to needy non-Jews, filling in for colleagues at work so they can celebrate the holiday, and even donning Santa suits at stores, hospitals, and other venues. Although traditionalists may see this book as a cautionary tale on assimilation, Plaut offers a quirky, provocative, yet solid study of contemporary Jewish behavior and emerging new forms of popular culture.