New Podcast: Joshua Eli Plaut

A Kosher Christmas

A Kosher Christmas

Hear Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut speak about his book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish.

Christmas is not everybody’s favorite holiday. Historically, Jews in America have devised a multitude of unique strategies to respond to the holiday season. Creative and innovative, these responses range from composing America’s most beloved Christmas songs, transforming Hanukkah into the Jewish Christmas, creating a national Jewish tradition of patronizing Chinese restaurants and comedy shows on Christmas Eve, volunteering at shelters and soup kitchens on Christmas Day, dressing up as Santa Claus to spread good cheer and much more. The book, the first on the subject of Jews and Christmas in the United States, portrays how Jews are shaping the public and private character of Christmas by transforming December into a joyous holiday season belonging to all Americans.

Joshua Eli Plaut, an ordained rabbi, holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He is the author of Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913–1983 and has documented Jewish life and popular culture through photography, oral history, and ethnography.

Click to listen (podcast will begin automatically). To download as an MP3, right click and select “Save Link As.”

Plaut Podcast

It’s a New Year, Volunteer!

So much is happening in the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service!

Luke

Those who’ve read my blog postings, part 1 and 2, know that Luke is the name I’ve given to the recipient of my Peripheral Blood Stem Cells. On August 30, I did what I hope will save Luke’s life. What a surreal experience! Now it’s a waiting game. I was told that no news is good news, and that I will be updated on Luke’s condition the first week of October. Cross your fingers (part 3).

Turkey

56 days and counting until we make Everything But The Turkey. It sort of freaks me out to think that in less that 60 days more than 500 volunteers will be joining us to prepare thousands of meals for people that are hungry in DC. I had a meeting on Friday with our partners in crime, DC Central Kitchen, and all of our plans are a go. Sharpen your knife skills (or buy us new ones from our Bed, Bath and Beyond registry) and get ready to register. Registration will open by October 31. Watch the Volunteer View for a go date.

D25 turns 25

It’s hard to believe it but the community service project that started it all here at the Washington DCJCC–December 25th Day of Service (D25)–is turning 25 this year! With only 90 days to go, we could use your help. We’re busy planning volunteer projects and making the day a bit more special that usual (with a fabulous photo exhibit and more) and could use your support. Click on the following and we’ll tell you more about being a volunteer project team captain, donating in kind to D25, or being a D25 anniversary corporate sponsor.

Behrend success story

This is the story of Gloria and her son Shane.

This mother and son moved to DC a few years ago to take care of Gloria’s dying mother. Because of this, they were living on Gloria’s mother’s disability and social security checks while caring for her. Once Gloria’s mother passed the checks stopped coming, and they could no longer afford to stay in the apartment and became homeless. Behrend Builder’s Randy met them in the dead of winter while they were sleeping in an abandoned van. We started giving them blankets, clothes, food, etc. and finally got them into one of the four transitional apartments Behrend had fixed up on Georgia Avenue.  This was the break they needed. Both mother and son have now passed their GEDs, have jobs and just recently got their own apartment.  Sometimes a helping hand and knowing that people really do care can make the difference!

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. Check out our full calendar of projects.

Tomorrow Rosh Hashanah begins. This year, make your mark on the world and volunteer. Shana Tova!

What to do Christmas Day? Volunteer in DC!

by Erica Steen, director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the Washington DCJCC

Volunteer on Christmas DayWhat’s a nice Jewish girl to do at 6am on Christmas Eve morning you ask? Or 5:00am which is when my eye lids actually opened? It is literally 24 hours before my largest event. Tomorrow at this time I will already be at the Washington DCJCC. Santa won’t have even made it there yet (he shows up at 7:45). Anyway, my brain won’t shut off, so blogging to you all it is! Of course this won’t be posted until later this morning but I promise, it’s early, even for me on Christmas Eve.

Do you have any idea what I am blabbing about? If not, it is one of the best days of the year, and I am Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense. At the Washington DCJCC, we in the Community Service Department, put on the most amazing Day of Service you have ever seen. 1000 volunteers, 60 social service agencies, 80+ volunteer projects, we really make a difference in the lives of DC social service staff and their low-income/homeless clients. We cook, serve, paint, visit and put on the best darn Christmas parties you’ve been to.

So if you are considering the traditional Chinese food and a movie or even opening presents from Santa allllll day, consider changing your schedule and adding in a volunteer project (1-4 hours of your day). We know a lot of home-bound seniors who would like your company for an hour or some homeless men that just for a bit want to forget they are homeless. Come, help them out, help us out and spread a little holiday cheer.

Registration  is open today until Noon but feel free to walk in tomorrow (between 8am and Noon), we may still have a few of our 1000 spots left for you to join in on.

So back to the original question, what is a nice Jewish girl to do at 6am on Christmas eve? A lot, that is the answer. If the stores can open at 4am on Black Friday, why not on Christmas Eve? Staples opens at 8am and the bank and Target at 9am so I might as well get myself going and if I time it right I might get to Costco at 10am right when they open the door. If I thought I’d have time later to write I’d tell you how this Jewish girl deals with only 3 hours of sleep while working a 15 hour day, but, I think I’m going to be a little busy.

See you tomorrow! Happy Holidays, whatever and however you celebrate.

Ballet’s December Dilemma and Our Own

I’ve been paying more attention to ballet recently. I don’t have much of a choice since my five-year-old daughter began lessons and has quickly become obsessed with her own pas de chat and rond de jambe. In addition to her classes she spends many evenings (along with her twin brother) watching the DVDs of classic ballets we’ve borrowed from the library. Among her favorites are Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and of course, The Nutcracker.

Ah, the seduction of The Nutcracker — it is indivisible from Christmas and yet when you take a look at the content of the actual ballet, it really has very little to do with the holiday. In fact, there is more Christmas in A Charlie Brown Christmas (which gives a shout-out to the Gospel of Luke) than in The Nutcracker where the meaning of the holiday is confined to trees, presents and winter-fairy type themes. For a Grinch like me, Charlie Brown should be viewed with much more suspicion than The Nutcracker.

So why does The Nutcracker bug me so much? Perhaps because it has become emblematic of a seductive, commercialized, shallow Christmas that seeks to draw us all in through its saccharine allures? You think I’m cynical for seeing it like that? Come on, Tchaikovsky only wrote it on commission and in the end, “really detested the score.” The cynicism is entirely on the part of the product itself. But allowing for a moment of self-criticism, my distaste for The Nutcracker is wrapped up in an internal and ongoing debate I have in which my relationship to Christmas is either that of an alcoholic to booze (even a taste is too much and destructive) and that of an anthropologist (not my culture, but I can learn and grow from observing and perhaps limited participation). Am I worried that my daughter, having danced the dance of the sugarplum fairies will abandon her Jewish identity? Realistically, if I’ve done my job as a Jewish parent, that isn’t very likely. But when your competition for Jewish continuity is an anthropomorphic nutcracker along with a fat man handing out gifts, it’s easy to descend to that level.

So I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one with Nutcracker issues. Sarah Kaufman writing last month in the Washington Post (and re-hashed today in the NY Times ArtsBeat Blog) offers a withering critique of The Nutcracker, not so much as a work of art (though she does accuse it of suffering from “pervading tweeness”), but as Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with American Ballet.

Because “The Nutcracker” can turn a profit, it can account for as much as half of a ballet company’s total annual performances. Chances are, the other, non-“Nutcracker” half of a company’s season relies on a couple of standards and too few new works of consequence. And most companies cannot bring in enough funding to exist without relying on “Nutcracker” sales.

This all sounds pretty Scroogish, but I’ll be straight with you: While I have grown tired of “The Nutcracker,” I don’t hate it. I don’t discount that the ballet brings great happiness to many — even, off and on, to a critic. What I do regret is “The Nutcracker’s” ubiquity, the way it stifles any other creative efforts in dance during the holiday season. Most of all, I regret its necessity as an income source.

All arts organizations (our own included) struggle with the balance between artistic ambition and predictable, profitable product that puts butts-in-seats. But Kaufman argues that the example in ballet is a kind of worst-case scenario in-which one product has become so bankable that it has crowded out the marketplace for anything more ambitious and in the process created a dumbed-down audience that doesn’t aspire to more. The result is that attending The Nutcracker has become more a part of the civil religion of Christmas than the artistic experience for which ballet at its best can become. Most damaged in this vicious cycle, Kaufman argues, are American dancers who can spend an inordinate part of their careers dancing in various Nutcrackers — while their European counterparts work from a broader repertoire that allows them to develop more varied skills that allow them to fill the leading roles, even in American companies!

What brings these two things together is that I want more for my daughter on both counts. If she loves ballet as much in 15 years as she does now, I’d like to think there is an expansive world of artistic possibilities waiting for her. On the same note, I’d like my daughter to have a Jewish identity that opens her up to the world, not sets her apart (as her curmudgeonly father is wont to do). The Nutcracker is no more a threat to Jewish identity than any other part of the civil religion America has built around Christmas. Surely she can be taught to admire that which is admirable and draw clear boundaries between her appreciative observation and participation thereof? If only The Nutcracker weren’t so…Nutcrackerish.

Chanukkah! Chanukah! Hanukkah!

What’s חנוכה really about?

Photo by PugnoM. Used under CC 2.0

I used to love Chanukkah. I grew up in one of those typical 1980s homes where the holiday truly was a worthy competitor to Christmas in the category of gratuitous accumulation of presents. My parents were generous.  My aunts and uncles were generous. My grandparents were generous. What kid wouldn’t love that? The toys that defined my childhood all arrived during one Chanukkah or another. The 2XL Robot, the Atari 2600 game console, the Apple II+ computer and the Kenner Millennium Falcon are all firmly connected to Hanukkah in my memory (along with explaining why I didn’t date much until college). In truth, there was probably only one “big” present like that each year, along with a succession of pajamas, NY football Giants t-shirts and the occassional LP or cassette (Thriller, Born in the USA, Scarecrow, Seven and the Ragged Tiger). I think I vaguely remember being told that we got gifts on Chanukkah because when the Maccabees were hiding out in caves, they put children spinning tops (aka dreydels) at the entrances to throw their pursuers off the scent. You know, Human Shields. It seemed a natural enough progression to me from dreydels, to gelt to a new Walkman™.

In my isolated world of suburban New Jersey, where everyone I knew was either Jewish or Catholic, it seemed to me like Chanukkah and Christmas weren’t competitors. They were equals. This was how it had always been. Right?

Turns-out, not so much.

It didn’t help that my Jewish education was shallow enough that I never picked up on the fact that while Christmas celebrates the birth of Christianity’s messiah, Chanukkah was religiously-speaking, a second-tier Jewish holiday recalling a rare moment of military victory and a remarkably energy-efficient olive-oil burning lamp.

And then I went to a small college in Iowa and Christmas hit me between the eyes. I also got a deeper understanding of Judaism and for the first time met Jews who didn’t care to compete with Christmas. They simply opted out. It had never occurred to me that was an option. I embraced it with militant zeal, after which followed many years of active animosity towards Christmas, and Chanukkahs where I would neither accept nor give gifts. It was during this period that I struggled with the different meanings of Chanukkah. Was it celebrating the unlikely victory of a plucky group of Jewish guerilla warriors who defeated a large empire and rededicated their holiest site? Was it a civil war between traditionalist Jews and Hellenist assimilators that conveniently included a “miracle of the oil” to distract us from memories of an ugly internecine war? Was it just another pagan holiday of light celebrating the winter solistice that we had adapted to our own purposes? In the end, I kind of soured on the whole thing as it became clearer to me that whatever the original meaning of Chanukkah had been, it was far from the consumerist orgy it now was party to.

I’ve moderated a little bit. In part because I have kids of my own now, and well, they have generous grandparents, aunts and uncles who like to give them things for Chanukkah that I’m too cheap to buy them myself. I may not approve of consumerist orgies, but I’m also not going to pretend that they don’t feel good. Plus, I’ve almost got myself convinced that a Wii can be justified as a virtuous purchase. At this point, giving and receiving gifts in the winter is how we all get to feel American–and I’ll just let that speak for itself.

So what exactly is Chanukkah about? What do I tell my kids? We try to make it fun without it getting excessive. We make it a time the family gathers together to perform a particularly pleasant ritual. We sing and eat latkes, jelly doughnuts and other foods fried in oil. We try and make lasting Jewish memories that will outlive whatever gift they are getting. Without getting too far from the original story of the holiday, I think it is a time for children to play, to receive gifts, to hear stories of heroes, to wonder about miracles, to light the Chanukkiah and marvel at the light it throws off. They’ll learn soon enough that playtime ends, that gifts don’t equal happiness, that heroes are fallibile, miracles rare and that the candles go out all too soon.

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