My first date with my now-husband was to Radio City Music Hall. He got the tickets on a lark, after I had shied away from a few of his other attempts to ask me out. But, the Rockettes! That was something I couldn’t turn down. As we walked down Sixth Avenue in the chill of a December afternoon, I remember asking what made him think of the idea.
“It’s a Christmas Spectacular,” he said, triumphantly. “No one enjoys those more than yeshiva graduates.”
• • •
This year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve—offering complete enmeshment of two holidays that, even in a normal year, benefit and suffer from proximity. I won’t go into the complicated history—religious, political, civic, and, most of all, commercial—of how The Season emerged, mainly because I don’t find it nearly as outrageous or controversial as hundreds of emailers have by now told me I should. (If you’re interested, you can visit the holiday page of the Tablet site, where some of our most poignant, frustrating, challenging, and heartwarming pieces can be found in the Christmas section. It’s filed under: “A Jewish Boy’s Birthday.”)
But this year’s calendrical burp has me thinking about something that Hanukkah and Christmas have always had in common—something insane and pointless and maddening and also pure and vital and transcendent: Both are holidays that revolve around miracles.
What’s interesting to me about this is that faith is, quite famously, not a vital prerequisite in Jewish tradition. It’s important, yes. But the overwhelming (and often stressful) focus is on actions—what one does and says as opposed to some gauzy, transient, and ultimately unprovable feeling in one’s heart. Sometimes, even though we want to believe, we just don’t; in most corners of Jewish life, when this happens, no one will press you on it. It is this posture—na’aseh v’nishma, do first and you’ll understand (or believe) later—that for some, makes Judaism feel more humane, more candid, more compatible with what we know to be our variable, vulnerable psyches.
It’s in no small part because of this that Jews were a good fit for America, since the specific strain of Protestant Christianity that emerged here—as distinctly opposed to those in Europe—also turned on the idea of justification through deeds. For many Jews—whose other options were whole centuries and regions where the target we needed to hit in order to not be murdered kept changing—it seemed, and still does seem, like Paradise.
Still, it’s a little exhausting, to be honest. Christmas offers everyone a release: an escape from the pressure and anxiety of having to justify yourself through actions that might or might not be sufficient proof of your divine election—and therefore might or might not give you the hope you need to press forward. It’s a warm bath in the idea that faith could be the key to happiness, that abundant rewards (“gifts”) would be forthcoming whether or not we’ve perfectly earned them with our deeds. (The reason there are so many songs about Santa keeping score is because, in fact, he isn’t.)
I thought about this a few weeks ago, when I overheard a Sikh girl on Atlantic Avenue talking to her father about Christmas. “I’m more excited about it than my Christian friends!” she squealed, and she reminded me of … me. She also reminded me of the country in which I was raised, where we believed—ardently, obnoxiously—in America’s ability to conjure up progress, for ourselves and others, sometimes out of thin air. This has led to tragedy, and also to greatness. Rather than focus on specific misguided impulses or ideas, it feels like an insecure America is instead shedding its faith in its own possibility—the very thing that makes it a lodestone and a haven for immigrants and minorities and outsiders.
This country gave us faith in ourselves. Maybe it’s time to give it back—to have faith again in America, however America is feeling about itself.