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’Tis the season. Excitement fills the air, decorations fill the eye, and public squares throughout the land are awash in bonhomie and good cheer. The Yuletide spirit is irresistible, as American Jews know all too well. Their relationship to Christmas is a holiday tale all its own.
By the time the 1950s and ’60s rolled around, Christmas had long been shorn of its overt Christological associations. Once mangers had migrated from the church to the department store, and theological imperatives had given way to shopping expeditions, there seemed little to fear in Christmas and everything to applaud: fellowship, good cheer, and mirth, a singularly attractive concept alien to Judaism but now seductively within reach of America’s Jews.
What was there not to like? Besides, the cultural emphasis that postwar America put on neighborliness—a phenomenon documented at great length by Will Herberg in his landmark book Protestant, Catholic and Jew (1955)—suggested that extending a warm welcome, or, at the very least, a tolerant, smiling one, to the Christian festival was nothing less than a civic gesture.
There were limits, of course. American Jewry’s guardians, those vigilant keepers of the First Amendment at the American Jewish Congress and on the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action, kept an eye out lest Christmas celebrations cross a line, transforming neighborliness into proselytism. While school prayer, Bible readings, and daily recitations of the Ten Commandments set them on edge, they were inclined to give Christmas a wide berth.
It fell to literature to take a step back, to caution, to hold out the possibility that beneath all that mirth lurked an agenda that, perhaps, was more coercive than congenial. I’m thinking here of Grace Paley’s celebrated short story “The Loudest Voice.” Not for nothing was it published in 1959. Its spare, Yiddish-inflected sentences, whose power accumulates, bit by bit, tell the story of Shirley Abramovitch, the American-born daughter of two immigrants who, blessed with the ability to project, is chosen to play Christ, to give voice to his words, in her elementary school’s Christmas play. The tension between belonging and not-belonging is deposited forthwith onto the family table where Shirley’s father, Misha, thinks there’s nothing wrong with her participation (“Christmas. What’s the harm? Does it hurt Shirley to learn to speak up?”), while her mother, Clara, grumpily, disagrees. But after her daughter acquits herself beautifully, she has a change of heart. When a neighbor takes Shirley and her classmates Abie, Ira, Lester, and Meyer to task for assuming roles that, rightfully, belong to the Christian kids in the class, Clara retorts: “You think it so important they should get in the play? Christmas … the whole piece of goods … they own it.”
Early in the 20th century, when thousands of newly arrived East European Jewish immigrants first encountered the American version of Christmas on the street, in the marketplace, and, most especially, in the public schools—whose halls were decked with holly, mistletoe, and images of Santa, as well as a towering Christmas tree—it was hard not to fall under its spell. “Benighted children taught to celebrate Christmas,” enthused a writer for Leslie’s Weekly in December 1905, describing how, thanks to their exposure at school, this year the “Christmas tree will be found in thousands of East Side homes where twelve months ago, the name ‘Christmas’ was barren of meaning.”
It didn’t take long before perspicacious immigrant Jews, especially the parents of these benighted young children, understood that all that greenery and good cheer came at too great a cost. When their young’uns told of being exhorted by their principal to “be like Christ,” or came home singing the words to the “Birthday of a King” (‘In a little village of Bethlehem, there lay a child one day …”), they realized what was at stake. Mordecai Kaplan, then a freshly minted rabbi just coming into his own, spoke for many of his co-religionists when he pointed out how the “shrewd Christians have at last caught us napping. … They know very well that they can best implant a love for Christmas and Easter by surrounding [our little ones] with holiday gifts and memories.”
That disturbing realization, coupled with increasing political confidence, born of the awareness that in the United States, separation of church and state was a constitutional guarantee, inspired immigrant Jews in New York to assert themselves and make some noise. Appealing first to local school boards and then, when their members proved unreceptive, taking their case to the city’s Board of Education, they clamored for the elimination of the Yuletide spirit in the classroom. The singing of hymns and the tree and Santa Claus were anything but jolly, they charged. “Pernicious,” was more like it, for these practices sought to “inflict” Christianity stealthily and subtly on their unsuspecting charges.
Not all Jews agreed. It’s quite harmless, said some, like Abraham Stern, chair of the beleaguered Board of Education’s Elementary School Committee, unmoved by his co-religionists’ entreaties. Others thought it might be a good thing for Jews to be exposed to the beneficent side of Christianity, hastening their integration into the body politic. Still others, including several Reform rabbis, among them Samuel Schulman of Temple Beth-El on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, sermonized about “Judaism and Christmas” from their pulpits in 1906, encouraging their co-religionists to share in the holiday spirit with their Christian neighbors or employees by wishing them a “merry Christmas” and giving them gifts, but to refrain from participating in it themselves. “In our houses, in relations as Jews, we must refuse listlessly or frivolously to adopt peculiarly Christian customs,” Schulman declared from on high, his intent clear despite his fuzzy choice of adverbs. For good measure, he threw in a reference to the Christmas tree as an invention of the Druids, noting how that fact counted for little amid its current incarnation as a Christian symbol, but setting the record straight all the same.
Things came to a head in late December 1906, when, on the Monday before Christmas, then a school day, thousands of immigrant Jewish children stayed home in an act that some contemporary observers likened to a strike and others to a boycott. Though several doubting Thomases chalked up the students’ absence to the wintry weather, the chill in the air was cultural and political rather than meteorological: a “battle for civil rights,” keyed-up participants called it.
A public display of resistance had been simmering for a while. Tired of its concerns being minimized or, worse still, ignored by the Board of Education which, by some accounts, had postponed a hearing on the issue at least 10 times, only to decide at the very last minute to leave things alone, the Lower East Side immigrant community called for dramatic action. “Far be it from us to stir up race strife or feeling,” the Morgen Zhurnal explained, as the daily, and several of its competitors, encouraged parents to take a “manly American stand” by keeping their kinderlakh at home. All that we’re doing is to offer a “striking rebuke to a narrow-minded school board.” Thousands heeded the call (they didn’t need much persuading), prompting the Yidishe Tageblatt to report triumphantly that Jewish children “shunned the Christmas tree.”
The New York Times took note. Though the goings-on fell considerably short of the paper’s traditional, warmhearted Christmas fare, it made for good copy, generating a headline that read “Thousands Kept from Schools by Hebrew Anti-sectarians,” that very designation making the protesters seem like some kind of extraterrestrial entity, or, at the very least, a strange and exotic tribe. The body of the text supplied the interested reader with a wealth of details, including the fact that at P.S. 62, between Hester and Essex Streets, 20% of the student body was nowhere to be seen, while at P.S. 35, on Chrystie Street, “33 1/3%” had gone missing.
The Jewish community’s triumph was short-lived. After months of dancing around the issue, the Board of Education eventually came up with a recommendation that placed the singing of hymns as well as the writing of holiday-themed compositions out of bounds. Everything else associated with the December festival—the decorations, the pageantry, the holiday assemblies, the tree—was left intact.
A win-win? Not exactly. But it enabled America’s Christian majority to make its presence felt and its Jewish minority to feel its voice had been heard. While this particular showdown faded from view soon enough, it left a legacy whose imprint shaped America’s celebratory culture of the 20th century and into our own day: yes to the Christmas spirit, no to its theology, and “Happy Holidays” to one and all.
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.