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Monday, December 18, 2006

The Christmas Glitz

Honest, it's not my title. I took it from a story in the Jerusalem Post on December 17, written by Wendy Mogel. "Why can't David and Rachel enjoy the Christmas glitz?"

Sigh. Why can't I live in the Jewish State of Israel and not be subjected to this kind of garbage in my newspaper?

Dr. Mogel recounts an incident in an American second-grade classroom she recently visited, stating that while the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas, "Sarah" announced, "I don't celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Hanukka. We get eight presents for every night for eight nights."

Dr. Mogel goes on empathetically identifying with poor little Sarah, who clearly is deprived in America because she can't celebrate Christmas. Poor little Sarah's statement was meant to compete with Christmas, but the eponymous Sarah couldn't fool Dr. Mogel because, as our author put it, "I've been there myself, plus I'm a therapist."

I'm not sure what those two statements have to do with each other. Being a therapist isn't a license to impute motives and feelings to others on a short acquaintance, and there is nothing else in this account that shows "Sarah" feels a secret desire to celebrate Christmas or feels like a second-class has-been for not celebrating the same holiday as her gentile peers.

I think the key is the first statement: "I've been there myself."

A little web research reveals that Dr. Mogel didn't have a religious upbrining:

Clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel was not raised in a religious home. Her grandfather was president of his shul in Brighton Beach, but he told his son (Wendy's father) on his deathbed, "This tradition will die with me." He was nearly right. Mogel knew very little of Judaism as a child. She was not bat mitzvahed, her family did not belong to a congregation. Her father went to shul once a year for the High Holidays. San Diego Jewish Journal, The Path To Peaceful Parenting .

Dr. Mogel goes on to denigrate Hanukkah as "a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger." She describes the lighting of the chanukiot as follows: "On the first few nights of Hanukkah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil." She goes on to add that "there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody....and some nights your family might even forget to light the candles." Dr. Mogel laments that there are "only two songs for your holiday" and it "lacks the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium" that Christmas morning brings.

Dr. Mogel then waxes rapturous about Christmas and the decorations. Not only do Christian children get that "huge blowout" of presents on Christmas morning, but they get that wonderful piney-smelling fir tree that they decorate with bulbs and ornaments and tinsel. Oh, and then there's that cute story about Santa and his magic sleigh which brings presents to good children everywhere....

Clearly, Dr. Mogel doesn't have a clue. I would feel sorry for her except for her infuriating smugness in claiming that her credentials give her the right to preach this rubbish to the rest of us.

Let's start with some basics:

Christmas isn't a Jewish holiday. It celebrates the birth of the man the Christians worship as God and Messiah. That lovely Christmas tree is a holdover from pagan German customs wherein offerings to pagan gods were hung on the sacred tree of the tribal area; after the spread of Christianity to those areas, the tree came to symbolize two things: the cross on which their Messiah was executed, as well as the promise of everlasting life through belief in Jesus as God (symbolized by the evergreen nature of the fir branches).

Christians take this very seriously. I know many Christians who are highly offended by the use of the Christmas tree as a Chanuka bush or just a secular holiday symbol. How many of you would like to see Auschwitz reduced to an ad campaign?

Neither holiday is about presents or decorations. In the Christian world, this is one of the most solemn holidays on the calendar. Certain fundamentalist groups of Christians actually forbid the use of trees, lights, ornaments and the exchange of presents, and see this solely as a day of worship and prayer. Christians of all denominations in the United States bemoan the "commercializtion" of Christmas, where it has become not a day imbued with holiness but instead, a month and a half of obscene over-consumption of food and goods.

Nor is this a competition.

The Miracle of Chanuka is a universal story, but also one of particular importance to an embattled minority often struggling to keep their identity in the face of tyranny and oppression. The miracle isn't simply the oil lasting for eight days---the miracle is that the human desire to live as free men in their own country and worship as they pleased led to the defeat of one of the greatest military dictatorships of the time by a band of relentless freedom fighters. Not only is this event something to be proud of in Jewish history, but it has inspired generations of Christians in Europe and the United States who find in their own struggle against religious persecution at the hands of the Crown a sense of identity with the Maccabees. Somehow Dr. Mogel missed this in her off-hand denigration of Chanuka as merely a (no doubt politically incorrect) "tribute to a military victory."

No, Dr. Mogel, it is a tribute to the human desire to live as free men and women, something that to me and my family is worth commemorating and somehow resonates more than the fable of a fat man in a red suit magically flying around to deliver presents to greedy consumers (which most children find out is a lie their parents tell them by first or second grade...so tell me, O Therapist, how being lied to by your parents and how being humiliated when your nasty little classmates tell you how "stupid" you are because you're the last one in your class to know the truth, helps the child psychologically?)

I'm not acquainted with anyone who doesn't know the prayers and the melodies, and for those who might be uncertain, there are books, tapes and CDs as well as a Chabad somewhere nearby to help out; we have several albums of Chanuka music, so I'm not sure why Dr. Mogel thinks there are only two songs. Our children looked forward every year to Chanuka, decorated the house and the front windows with stick-on dreidles, blue-and-silver tinsel strands, eagerly lit each of their own chanukiot and never had the slightest desire to emulate Christmas.

It's all in the raising....at the risk of repeating too much from the last post, raising your children to love Chanukah and not much care about that other holiday is really in how the parents teach their children. Hailing from ecology-minded-to-the-point-of-fanaticism northern California, we pointed out early that it was a shame that all those poor trees had to die each year simply so they could be used for a couple of weeks as a decoration ("tree-killers," my youngest would mutter darkly as we were passed by another Volvo with a fir strapped to the ski-rack); we noted as the kids got older just how much energy the municipalities and individuals consumed to have artificial lights everywhere....unlike our dignified and conservation-conscious use of much more romantic candlelight to celebrate the miracle AND to search for presents. Every night, our kids turned off the electric lights, and by the glow of the chanukiot, searched the darkened house for their presents. This, to them, was much more enjoyable than one morning blow-out of present opening that was over in 15 minutes.

We deliberately didn't do huge piles of presents every night. The kids got mostly modest presents, and one "big" present; one night was reserved for tzedakah--there was one night no one got presents and instead each family member had shopped for a new gift for a child who had nothing. Because, the holiday isn't about presents, and it isn't about competing with Christmas.

We would then turn the electric lights back on and play dreidle for M&Ms while listening to Chanuka CDs and singing along. The competition for M&Ms could get quite fierce, despite having latkes and sufganiyot on the menu most nights.

My son recently amazed his teacher because, despite being an olah chadash with limited Hebrew, he could recount in enthusiastic detail the Story of Chanukah.....because our tradition, besides candlelighting, prayers, presents and M&Ms, was to have the children tell us the story each night before the lighting and the hunt for presents. In this way, we made sure that they understood that this holiday commemorated the human spirit and Judaism's fierce desire to live free throughout the generations.

I'm sorry for Dr. Mogel but I'm also sorry the Jerusalem Post thought this pathetic article merited our attention. Dr. Mogel correctly states "I've been there myself," and it speaks volumes about her unfortunate lack of a Jewish upbringing, her ambivalence towards her own heritage and her pathetic longing to assimilate and be "accepted" by the American Christian culture around her. It's too bad, because Dr. Mogel is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist who apparently feels qualified to tell Jewish parents everywhere that they are depriving their children by not involving them in "the Christmas glitz."

On the other hand, Dr. Mogel makes a great case for aliyah....


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Mogel's, 'inner child' clearly feels wounded and victimized by not having what the other 'children had' (tee,hee, hee,sorry for my sarcasm.) Anyhoo, I can compartmentalize the Pagan rituals and enjoy the holiday lights & Santa, distinguish it from Christ's birth, and honor the tradition of Hanukkah as well each having there own merits. I would agree that the focus shouldn't be on how big of a bounty of gifts one should receive, but on the spirit of giving to those less fortunate or of your time and energy to a worthy cause...giving of yourself is truly the best offering you can give!

Monday, December 18, 2006 at 8:34:00 PM GMT+2  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to know how old the good doctor is. I grew up in the 50's and we had a lovely time "celebrating" with our Christian friends. I vividly remember their tree, the mom's popcorn balls (getting Pavlovian here), and their low-key kindness. But it wasn't our holiday and we had a just fine time with the Chanukiyah and the few gifts. But here is the difference...Christmas used to be low-key, before the nauseating glitz. I spent several years shlepping my kids to Israel at the end of December for them to not get as much of the glitz-o-rama, only to be rewarded with "White Christmas" on the radio on the #9 bus right after "Hinei HaChadashot" and TV stories of Christmas trees being taken from the Jerusalem forest "for those who celebrate." Of course, it drives me nuts that most Christians have no idea that Christmas has no theological basis in their religion, but is, as you mentioned about the tree, a "substitute" for some very heady mid-winter holiday needs in the European pagans. And that many "non-observant" Christians bypass Easter, having no idea that Easter is the sine qua non of their religion. Okay, okay....I'll stop the rant....but you started it...lol. But Jilly is right about Dr. Mogel's inner child being wounded and you're right about the J Post printing all this w/o appropriate comment. Oh, Happy Chanukah!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 10:10:00 PM GMT+2  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

I shipped the article to the good doctor as well, and interestingly enough, she wrote a very nice note back:

"Wow, I read your blog and agree with you ... and many readers ... about my column. Not sure what led me so off base. I don't know if you are acquainted with The Blessing of a Skinned Knee but spreading awareness of the beauty and wisdom of Judaism is at the core of my work. Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I'm thinking about writing a follow-up article but because I wrote the piece for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and not directly for The Post I don't know if you will see it."

This came with warm wishes for a happy Chanukah, so I am feeling a bit abashed -- as all bloggers/writers know, sometimes what we intend in our writing doesn't come out quite the way we meant. I'm looking forward to her follow-up article.....

and ellie's mom--judging from the web site, Dr. Mogel is around our age, a child of the '50s--although I never recall a time when Christmas wasn't a huge commercial blow-out.

The only "Christmasy" thing I've seen here in Jerusalem this year is (1) chorales by various choirs advertised and (2) a quiet JPost announcement that Christmas trees are being made available in the Old City for Christian families. I ride the bus daily and have yet to hear any carols on the radio and so far, there are NO Christmas decorations in the stores. I understand the situation in TA might be different...

jilly, you're able to do that because (1) you're one of the most intelligent women I know, and (2) you're a grown-up....I think as adults most of us can make those distinctions....it's the kids who can't.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 12:25:00 PM GMT+2  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dr Mogel needs to hear the Chanukkah song by Adam Sandler, who takes the whole "christmas envy" "chanukkah consolation" thing into a whole new and hilarious direction.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 9:19:00 PM GMT+2  

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