December heralds annual Jewish conniption-fit season

If you walk into my office this time of year, you'll generally find me in a grumpy mood. I'm not depressed by the onset of winter (I prefer the cold to the heat of summer) or afflicted with "Seasonal Affective Disorder" or any other trendy disease of the '90s. I'm just sick and tired of listening to people whine about the "December dilemma."

That's right, the annual Jewish communal conniption-fit season is upon us.

And it is never too early to start working yourself into a state of righteous indignation about the affronts we will have to suffer until the big ball in Times Square ushers in the secular new year.

Don't get me wrong. I am just as appalled as anyone else by attempts to "establish" — in the admirable and elegant language of the U.S. Constitution — Christianity as our official state religion during the Christmas season.

I don't believe the institutions of our republic ought to grant their imprimatur to expressions of any specific religion. And, as someone who grew up being the only Jew in his elementary public school class, I have always disliked the glut of smarmy holiday sentiment that marginalizes Jews at this time of year — even when it is tempered by manifestations of Jewish tokenism.

But for far too many of us, getting our backs up about Christmas trees and carols is what makes us feel Jewish. As if the feelings of exclusion and isolation that life in Christmasland USA provokes in many Jews were the sum total of Judaism. Talk about a continuity problem! That's demographic decline in a nutshell.

A wise local communal leader took me aside a year ago, while we were both suffering through yet another Jewish community "December dilemma" forum. In an almost conspiratorial whisper, this gentleman, who is a certified political liberal, passed along to me an insight that he had learned elsewhere.

"If the Christian Coalition really wanted to do in American Jewry," he said with a laugh, "there is an easy solution for them. All they have to do is shut down the public schools for the entire month of December. That would be the end of the majority of American Jews, because without Christmas programs to protest, they would have no way of expressing their Jewish identity!"

Separating religion and state is important — if only Israel would learn this lesson — but rather than spending December whining about Christmas, we would do better to put more of our efforts into teaching Jews about Judaism.

Just as annoying is the cloying desire of American Jews to participate in the December holiday rush. Though I have nothing against Jewish merchants cashing in on the holiday shopping bonanza, our desire to puff up Chanukah into the commercialized Jewish Christmas merely proves to Jewish youngsters that their parents can be just as superficial as anyone else.

And will somebody please explain to me the need to put a Chanukah menorah next to every Christmas tree in sight? Every time I see this expression of Jewish me-too-ism, I just want to scream! The two holidays have nothing in common and, contrary to those hordes of do-gooders who wish to homogenize all religions into one syrupy glop of interfaith goo, Chanukah is not about goodwill to mankind and peace on earth.

Au contraire. It is about anti-Semites getting their butts kicked from one end of the Land of Israel to the other by Jews who were tired of religious persecution.

Not that I want to downplay Chanukah. I think it is a great holiday and its lesson can reinforce Jewish identity. The problem is, it may take a miracle of the dimensions of the one that brought victory to the Maccabees for Jewish life to overcome the problems that the American celebration of Chanukah has come to symbolize. The emergence of Chanukah as a major holiday is actually as important a manifestation of American Jewish assimilation as anything else I can think of.

Rounding out my December depression will be the annual Christmas in the Holy Land news stories that we can look forward to. After 2,000 years of exile and persecution wherever we turned, the Jews have enjoyed just 50 years of renewed independence in our historic homeland. But each December, we can look forward to news stories showing glowering Israelis guarding Christian holy sites while local Arabs look resentful.

We can also look forward to Yasser Arafat's annual claim that Jesus was a Palestinian, a claim that will go unchallenged. This serves the double purpose of stealing our history and denying the Jewish claim to our land. It also is a deft attempt to identify us with the Romans who were oppressing Jews, not Arabs, 2,000 years ago in Israel.

Which just goes to show that when it comes to the Jews, any distortion is possible.

No wonder I'm grumpy.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer at National Review.