The editors of Jewish Business News would like to wish everyone around the world a very Merry Christmas. And we mean that sincerely.
Today most Orthodox – as well as many non-orthodox – Jews have bitter feelings this time of year. This is especially true for those who live in America and parts of Europe. They feel overwhelmed by all of the Christmas imagery, the gaudy displays all over suburban homes, the public spectacles everywhere, the street corner Santas, the Christmas specials on television and all the Christmas music on the radio.
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And those Jews whose children study in secular public schools, as opposed to private Jewish schools, have a hard time every year trying to compete with Christmas. Their children envy their Christian friends with all the Christmas celebrations.
This is why Chanukah has been elevated to a higher level of importance in America. In Israel it is not an important holiday and while children may get a few days off from school everyone else goes about their business as usual during the week.
Over the centuries, Chanukah had no special meaning or traditions attached to it, other than eating potato latkes in the Ashkenazic tradition and the giving of gelt – small coins – to kids. While there are special prayers added during the week and the lighting of the menorah, the holiday has no extra customs to observe or prohibitions against work as on the High Holidays or on Passover.
But in America today Jews give their children presents to compete with the non-Jews celebrating Christmas, in addition to emphasizing that the holiday last for eight days instead of only one. This need to compete is especially great in a year like this when the first day of Chanukah coincides with Christmas Day.
While the world has changed and Western societies are much more open to Jews and Jewish practices as evidenced by the site of Menorahs in public places over Chanukah, the pain of past atrocities is still carried by many Jews.
Until recently, Christmas was a time of extra attacks on Jews by Christians in Europe. Jews were forced to remain locked in the ghettoes of cities or the small towns where they lived from before Christmas Eve until after the holiday. And Jews were assaulted and even murdered at Christmas time. The celebration of the birth of Jesus was a time to take revenge on the people who were responsible for his death and who refused to accept him as their savior.
It was so bad that among Hassidic Jews a new tradition evolved known as Nittel Nacht. This was the name given to Christmas Eve.
What were Jews to do while the Christian World celebrated the birth of the man whose life led to such horrible persecutions of Jews? Well some might feel that extra Tora study would be called for as a way to say to the gentiles that Jews are not afraid. But this was considered to be a way of acknowledging the day as special and so the opposite custom was adopted.
Any type of celebration was prohibited. No weddings or Bar mitzvah parties and only a bris – ritual circumcision – allowed because the Tora mandates that it be done exactly eight days after birth. And Tora study was actually prohibited. This was an unbelievable step considering the centrality of Tora study to Jewish tradition.
Hassidic Rabbis would actually sit and play cards and chess all night. This is something that on all other days of the year is dismissed as “bittel zman, ” a waste of time that could better be spent studying Tora.
Not only that, but married couples were prohibited from having sex on Christmas Eve because it was believed that apostates like Jesus were conceived on that date.
But this all ended at the stroke of midnight. Once December 25th begins, it’s back to business as usual. But most Jews are already asleep by then.
Nittel Nacht is still observed by Hassidic Jews today. But for all other Jews, Christmas Eve is much different. Secular Jews in America fill up Chinese restaurants as Christians spend the evening at home with their families. And all kinds of Jews can be seen in movie theaters and just about anywhere else that might be left open.
Saturday Night Live even parodied this once with an animated short called “Christmastime for the Jews.”
We certainly understand all of the frustrations and anger on the part of Jews at this time of year. We ourselves are Jews. But the senior staff of Jewish Business News resides in Israel where this is not an issue.
The world has changed. For many people in the West Christmas has become more of a generic holiday and a time for bringing people together.
And next week we will be celebrating a new year. Again, Orthodox Jews do not consider this to be a holiday. It is after all and arbitrary date and Jews have the Rosh Hashanah holiday. But it is still an important event; the end of one time period and the beginning of a new one.
After the divisiveness that the 2016 American Presidential elections caused – not just in America, but throughout the world – and last summer’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and all of the horrible attacks committed by terrorists in Europe, this is a good time for any excuse to bring people together.
When a new year begins, whether on the solar calendar or the Jewish one, people look forward and hope to make things better, to learn from their mistakes from the past year and to move on.
So we sincerely wish all of our readers and everyone out there a happy Chanukah, a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
Now enjoy these two videos. The first is a parody of a famous Christmas song by Mariah Cary which reviews the numerous Jewish celebrities. The second is a performance by Bruce Springsteen of his amazing cover of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.”