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Deck the halls with chanukiahs!

With its turkey, tinsel, and trees, no Christian holiday seems to fascinate Jews more than Christmas. The promise of pudding and presents captures our imagination. With the commercialisation and proliferation of Christmas growing every year, bearded Santa Claus starts to look more like a rabbi to some, albeit sporting an unconventional red gaberdine.

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Religion

JORDAN MOSHE

With Chanukah falling at the same time (this year starting three days before Christmas), it’s little wonder that the two festivals have developed a curious relationship, even inspiring a pop culture following in the form of the portmanteau holiday, Chrismukkah.

Though they couldn’t be more different, their overlap has generated a rich culture that is not actually a millennial creation, but one which goes back centuries.

Every year, Christmas falls on 25 December of the solar calendar, with Chanukah also falling on the 25th of the month – but of the Hebrew month of Kislev. However, by the time the events of the Gospels took place, Jews had been celebrating their holiday for almost two centuries already, commemorating the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the ruling Hellenistic Greek empire of the time.

Although the two holidays were celebrated at the same time, Jews were initially wary of Christmas. According to Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, the author of A Kosher Christmas, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe once feared Christmas-time, a reflection of how they felt about their status in society.

“In Eastern Europe, Jews weren’t very assimilated,” Plaut told Vox in 2018. “Christmas was a night of possible pogroms and violence, with so many celebrants, often drunk, going from house to house. Jews didn’t go to the synagogue to study. They stayed at home for safety reasons.”

However, in Western Europe, notably after the French Revolution, Jews were more assimilated. For the Jewish elite, holiday symbols such as the Christmas tree signified secular inclusion in society. As Plaut explains, these Jews had more freedom to ask questions like, “Do I bring a Christmas tree into my home? Do I have a holiday meal? Do I give out gifts?” In fact, affluent German Jews often posed for portraits in front of elaborately decorated Christmas trees, even bringing them into their own homes.

Viennese socialite Fanny Arnstein was among the first Jews to introduce a Christmas tree into the home, as was early Zionist Theodor Herzl, who had a Christmas tree in his salon and recorded in his journal in 1895 that he met Vienna’s chief rabbi with the tree in full view. In Berlin, Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas “with roast goose or hare, a decorated Christmas tree” and featured “an aunt who played the piano and treated our cook and servant to Silent Night.”

The Christmas following amongst Jews grew, with some Jews celebrating Christmas as a secular festival without religious meaning or transferring Christmas customs to the Chanukah festival. In fact, 19th century German Jews developed Weihnukkah, a combination of Weihnachten (Christmas in German) and Chanukah. The extent of the crossover is shown in the Jewish Museum of Berlin’s exhibit on the subject, which features a vintage picture combining an image of a menorah and a Christmas tree. In reality, Weihnukkah never had a colossal following, and just about disappeared when Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany.

With time, Christmas began to change from essentially a religious to a secular national holiday, particularly in America. The process was accelerated by commercialisation. With Christmas presents beginning to loom larger, Jewish parents, not wanting their children to feel deprived, took to giving their children gifts at Chanukah.

American Jewish families also hosted their own celebrations on the night of 24 December, some of them giving balls and banquets and developing their own traditions, including supping on Chinese food on Christmas Eve. Even Jewish songwriters became involved, with many iconic Christmas carols, from The Christmas Song to Silver Bells being written by Jews, such songs de-emphasising the religious aspects and celebrating family and simple pleasures.

As celebrations became more centred on presents, grand meals, and general festivity, the perception of two very different holidays began to merge in popular thought once again, and the spirit of the earlier German hybrid holiday once more came to the fore.

Weihnukkah has been revived in our time with the creation of Chrismukkah, a term which found its way into pop culture in the early 2000s. In 2003, the popular television series The O.C.’s character, Seth Cohen, who came from a multifaith Jewish and Christian household, decided to combine Christmas and Chanukah instead of choosing to celebrate both festivals separately or only one of them. Chrismukkah was thus coined, and the hybrid holiday re-introduced into the world.

As writer Julia Métraux points out, The O.C. continued to have annual Chrismukkah episodes until the series was cancelled, generating its own traditions along the way. These included the creation of a “yamaclaus”, a yarmulke designed to match Santa Claus’ clothing, and the appearance of a Chanukiah above Christmas stockings on the mantelpiece.

Chrismukkah went beyond the silver screen very quickly, and as with all holidays, became considerably commercialised. In 2004, Chrismukkah.com was launched by Ron and Michelle Gompertz, a Jewish-Christian intermarried couple in Montana in the United States. The site sold humorous Chrismukkah greeting cards, peddled detailed mythology about the fictional holiday, and ultimately drew considerable criticism from Christian and Jewish religious authorities alike for “insulting” religious tradition.

In December 2004, Chrismukkah was listed in Time magazine as one of the buzzwords of the year, was reportedly added to the authoritative Chambers dictionary, and in 2006, was described by USA Today as the “newest faux holiday that companies are using to make a buck this season”.

Many American Jews and non-Jews alike continue to celebrate it as an ironic, alternative holiday, continuously developing hybrid customs drawn from Christian and Jewish traditions. For those who prefer not to mix cultures, American Jews have also carved out a place for Chanukah as a standalone holiday in pop culture, with comedians like Jon Lovitz and Adam Sandler creating sketches and songs to perpetuate the Chanukah spirit in the modern age.

Ultimately, there’s something for everybody to celebrate this December, whether you’re an adherent of Santa, Satmar, or something in between.

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Religion

Why we refuse to forget

Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

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Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.

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Religion

Strength in diversity

The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

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Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul

Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.

The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”

The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.

In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.

The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.

And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.

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Religion

Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health

There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)

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Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy

The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?

The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.

What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?

Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.

Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.

Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.

In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.

Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.

The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.

Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.

Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.

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