Last month, as others wrote about the holiday season, I focused on Ariel Sharon’s strength and courage as he broke out of Israeli institutional politics and formed an alternative third party, refusing to accept that there was no place in the political spectrum for a hawk-turned-dove. Now that the media seems focused on the Prime Minister, I am turning my attention towards the echoes of the Christmas controversy which reached those of us in Israel and the world over from the United States. The media reported policies eradicating the word Christmas from the American commercial vocabulary and we watched, amazed.
This triggered memories of my mother’s campaign to have our vacations renamed from Christmas and Easter vacation to Winter and Spring break when I was in elementary school in Gloucester Township, New Jersey in the 1970s. While my mother was successful, Winter vacation still coincides with Christmas and Spring break occurs during Easter. There is still a Christmas tree in our public school and while Hanukkah songs are sung, the annual holiday concert is still dominated by Christmas carols.
Despite the legendary separation of “church” and state, Christianity dominates American culture and a less denominational religion intervenes in many government institutions – from the “In God We Trust” engraved on US currency and in the courtrooms, to the invocation recited by a member of the clergy at state ceremonies.
Attempted changes in the vocabulary this past holiday season do reflect a sensitivity and awareness towards those not observing the dominant culture’s celebrations, but this will not create a secular society out of the United States of America which according to the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence was born out of what the founding fathers considered God-given rights.
It was clear to me at a young age that living in the United States of America is living in Christiandom.
As a Jew, part of me was a foreigner in America. My history is bound to Jewish history and my celebrations are reflected in the Jewish calender. Coming to Israel, among the first elements of the society one notices as being unique is the country beating to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar: On Fridays, the country slows down with many people working half-days if at all, in order to prepare for Shabbat; the day of rest is on Saturday, a time for families to come together; Sunday is the first day of the work week; one does not need to take off of work on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur; cleaning products go on sale for Passover as the whole country prepares for simultaneous family gatherings on seder night; and costumes are sold on Purim, not Halloween.
However, just as there is a tension in the United States between being “one nation under God” and providing “liberty and justice for all,” Israel also wrestles with the contradiction between being a state born out of the need to be a home to those persecuted because of their religion and being a democracy for all of its citizens.
I recently had a discussion with some friends who fear that the proposed Israeli constitution will secularize Israel, taking Judaism out of the Jewish State. While it is true that a country of Jews is no guarantee that there will be Jewish culture, I have no doubt that the dominant culture, even of civic religion, in the State of Israel will remain Jewish just as Christianity will remain the dominant influence in American culture.
Just as state religions are steeped in European democracies, Israel’s Jewish identity is nothing to be ashamed of and should be celebrated with pride.
Once again this year. as my children spun their dreidles with the Hebrew letter pay, symbolizing the Hebrew phrase “A great miracle happened here” instead of the shin on diaspora dreidles, representing the declaration “A great miracle happened there.” At the time of our national rebellion against Hellenism and the rededication of our Temple in Jerusalem, I am reminded that I am living in the country of my people. My children have been to Modi’in where the Maccabees lived and each day they see the site where the Temple stood as we drive by a spectacular view of Jerusalem’s old city on our way to school. For my children, Hanukkah is not a holiday that commemorates some ancient event that happened in a foreign land long ago. It is a celebration of a victory when heroes from a town not so far away defended our people in our land and rededicated our Temple.
America is an oddity, hiding the role religion has played in its history and culture, pretending that it can separate religion and state. Thinking of the Christmas controversy in commercial America this year, I can not help but feel a little sad and even a sense of loss that America is losing Christmas. After all, since it’s a national holiday why can’t Americans wish each other a merry Christmas just as Israelis wish each other a happy Hanukkah?