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Etz Chayim: Hanukkah, Christmas, and Jewish Theology in a Christian Context, Part 1

Happy (belated) Chanukkah to all you readers!

The winter holiday season is a time when many United-Statesian Jews become aware of their level of visibility. (By the way, I like to use the term “United-Statesian” rather than American to respect our hemispheric neighbors, who also consider themselves American, but don’t live in the US.) We United-Statesian Jews may feel invisible when we are wished “Merry Christmas” for the hundredth time, and we may feel hypervisible moments later if we choose to respond, “Actually, I’m Jewish.” (See Nancy Goodman’s recent post below for stories of Jewish visibility in Idaho during the winter holidays.)

Since I’ve been living in Brooklyn, and avoiding malls and the radio, I haven’t been too overwhelmed by the Christmas behemoth this year. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be reminded at this time of year that I’m living in a predominantly Christian country.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up hearing my mom say things like “Oh G-d, that sounds so Christian,” for example when she encountered certain specimens of contemporary Reform liturgy. Similarly, a Jewish friend of mine (also someone I’ve know from childhood) was recently telling me that she finds it “too Christian” when a mutual Jewish friend of ours says things like “G-d was working through me.” “That Jew is too Christian” — sound familiar? (Not a rhetorical question — please leave comments about your experiences!)

As a community of “Jews becoming white folks” (click here to learn about Karen Brodkin’s excellent book on this subject), I think United-Statesian Jews are understandably jumpy about “sounding Christian.” I also think it’s no accident that the Jews I knew growing up (in Los Alamos, NM) were particularly sensitive to this issue, since many of them were displaced East Coast Jews who were raising children in an overwhelmingly white Protestant community. (Let me not neglect to mention the many Hispanic Christians who were also living in the area. However, due to high levels of professional and class segregation along racial lines, my parents and the other Jewish parents that I knew did not view most Hispanic adults as their peers–nor most Hispanic children as our peers–and thus did not consider Hispanic Christians to be a serious threat to our Jewishness.)

Something that complicated the situation in Los Alamos was that, in my experience, the Jewish community was somewhat spiritually uninspired. From my mom’s mutterings about people and things that were “too Christian,” I knew that I was supposed to hold on to my Jewishness. And, I shared some of my parents’ skepticism about and fear of Christianity (or, perhaps more accurately, of Christianity’s dominance), especially as I began to confront the subtle anti-Semitism and the conservative political leanings of the white Protestant community, who dominated local affairs. Also, my father raised me to be fiercely anti-dogmatic, and I knew well that local Protestant churches were highly doctrinal.

On the other hand, I was always deeply spiritual, and the local Jewish community, where most people seemed to attend “because it would look bad if we weren’t there,” just wasn’t doing it for me. The following anecdote will give you an idea of the extent to which personal practice went unacknowledged: I remember practicing reading the V’Ahavta in my Hebrew school class, at age 10 or 11. I was able to read it quickly, and I mentioned that this was because I recited it twice a day as part of my personal practice. Upon observing my classmates’ expressions, I quickly blushed and said “Just kidding” — because I distinctly felt that by admitting to a personal practice and a personal relationship with G-d, I had rendered myself ridiculous in their eyes, and thus dangerously vulnerable. (To be fair to the Jewish community of Los Alamos, I think there were, and are, many highly intentional and spiritually committed people at the Jewish Center. It is possible that the community was as embarrassed about faith and personal practice as I remember, but it is also quite possible that I grew up feeling so vulnerable about my own faith that I projected my own embarrassment and judgment onto the community at large.)

As a result of all this, I was slowly being drawn into the local Lutheran church, where my best friend (now studying to be a Lutheran pastor) attended services. No, I didn’t believe in the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost, but dang it all, the congregents seemed to be there because they wanted to be there, and because they cared about G-d and about living reflective and generous lives. They might have cared too much about doctrine and blind faith for my taste (although I did try really hard to believe in their G-d, in order to do away with these obstacles), but they seemed to have a level of intention and commitment that I just wasn’t finding over at the Jewish Center.

So I didn’t want to be one of those “too Christian” Jews, but I also was beginning to be attracted to some aspects of local Protestant communities (and I was bombarded, like most United-Statesian children, by the ambient Protestant theology of the mainstream US). What was I to do?

I’m going to sign off for now, but next week, I’ll share some of my questions and reflections about the prevalence of Protestant theology in the US mainstream, and its effects on Jewish theological assimilation.

–Ri J. Turner