Christmas is when secular Jews go crackers

When I happily drink a seasonal toast, my lack of belief is different to that of a gentile

By John Nathan, December 23, 2009

A question for secular Jews: Which festival makes you feel most Jewish? It is hard to beat the piety that comes with the abstinence of Yom Kippur. But piety, surely, is more a Christian concept.

What about Rosh Hashanah? For me, the elemental call of a ram’s horn ushering in the new year sends me at the speed of light back to Rosh Hashanahs of my past. And to one in particular.

I was in that period of ostentatious observance common among Jewish boys in the run-up to barmitzvah. I laid tefilin, I asked questions. In synagogue, I sang loudly. It didn’t last.

In shul, holding a handful of fringes from my talit, I nudged my dad and whispered: “What are these for?” Though he came from an observant family, my father, now dead, believed in no god. And though shul trips were rare, he found the Liberal synagogue we attended too lightweight. You would think, for a secular Jew, the lighter the better but, like his whisky, he preferred religion undiluted.

Perhaps it is the case that the fewer demands a religion makes, the harder it is to reject. In any case, by this particular Jewish New Year, we had moved to a Reform synagogue. Its minister, Rabbi Silverman, was fond of imparting ancient wisdom by means of modern similes — life apparently being like a set of traffic lights.

“They remind you of the commandments.” My father’s reply to my talit query was delivered in a low-frequency rumble, his version of a whisper. I separated one thick, twined, knotted strand from the others. “Which commandment does this one remind us of”, I asked.

“I forget.” As we silently laughed, the shofar sounded.

Perhaps this is why, whatever I feel on Rosh Hashanah, however powerful, it is not Jewishness exactly. It’s more familial than that. The same is true of Passover. Chanucah, I find, rouses national rather than religious Jewish feelings. Perhaps this has something to do the way we used to sing Maoz Tsur at home, like an anthem, with gusto — and gust — enough to blow out the candles.

No. The festival, more than any other, that makes me feel Jewish is Christmas.

You see, for a secular Jew such as myself, the idea of being culturally rather than religiously Jewish is not held without a sense of guilt (what else?). We know very well that it is the observant faithful who keep Judaism going. Secular Jews reap more than they sow, extracting a little humour here, a little pickle there. Or, as Rabbi Silverman might say, at the ATM of Jewishness we withdraw more than we deposit.

There is not much that can be done about this. We have about as much control over what we believe as whom we love. But Christmas is the only time of year when the double standard of my Jewishness tilts towards someone else’s tradition.

I do all of the consuming and none of the believing. The same could be said of many gentiles. But polls on these matters regularly reveal that this is a country of, to borrow a Brendan Behan phrase, daytime atheists. Deep down, they believe. Deep down, I believe I don’t. Yet every year I give and receive presents, many to and from Jews. (And, no, these are not Chanucah presents). I charge my glass and say Merry Christmas. What a fraud I am. Like in synagogue, only more so. Nothing makes me feel more Jewish than Christmas.

John Nathan is the JC’s theatre critic

Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010


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