Walking down the street in my neighborhood the other day, I glanced in the window of a shop at their holiday display and saw something that made me stop in my tracks. What was it, you ask?
Ah, assimilation. There’s been a lot about it in the Jewish press lately. There was a huge study that came out a few months back, administered by the Pew Research Center, which noted a few trends in the Jewish population in the U.S. The implications were that Jews are becoming less Jewish; instead becoming more secular, intermarrying, and no longer caring as much about Judaism as a religion. Jewish organizations across the country have been wringing their hands–how can we stop the tide of assimilation? How can we convince Jews to stay Jewish?
Assimilation, according to dictionary.com, means bringing into conformity with the customs, attitudes, etc. of a group or nation. But it also means to take in and incorporate as one’s own. I like the idea that aspects of Judaism have become part of mainstream American culture. I like that Jewish culture, from bagels and lox to Woody Allen movies, are part of the common lexicon in many parts of America. And the idea that us Jews are incorporated as America’s own is incredibly special, especially as I think back on the pogroms that my great-grandparents escaped as they immigrated here. (No, I don’t think life for Jews is all hunky-dory here in the States. There’s certainly plenty of anti-Semitism here too–but it’s so much better.)
We’ve had plenty of debates about the Hanukkah tree-topper here at Kveller. I’m not going to rehash that. I’ll tell you that my main problem with it is in the mishmosh of the two holidays. Something gets lost from each holiday when you try to make them into one big super-holiday (and no, Thanksgivukkah is different for a plethora of reasons, least of which that it’s a national holiday and a religious holiday combined and it won’t happen for another 70,000 years). Assimilation is well and good until it means that a holiday mash-up degrades both celebrations.
So my first reaction upon seeing the Santa Dreidel was shock and horror. As I said, I don’t believe you can celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah as one holiday and still be able to truly appreciate them both. (For more on this, check out Jordana Horn’s piece from last winter here.) I mean, what are the rules for Santa Dreidel? Candy cane, throw one in? Santa, take all? Rudolph, take half? Christmas tree, do nothing? Do you still play with gelt or is there a Christmas-y version of that (Advent calendar candies, maybe)? And no, the instructions for the game were not on the side of the box.
Does the Santa Dreidel mean that Jews have completely assimilated into mainstream Christian American culture? I recently read a piece on Ha’aretz by Rabbi Michael Knopf who asserts that assimilation is actually good for Jews. In some ways, I agree. He writes that, “Jews and Judaism are changing, not disappearing. These changes are the inevitable consequence of being a living community with a living culture interacting with other communities and cultures… Much in these interactions, and the changes they yield, is fruitful and good for Judaism. More importantly, without them, we wither.” I have always believed in a Judaism that changes and evolves; part of being the people Israel is being a people who question and struggle with belief, with God, with who we are, and with who we want to be. The literal translation of Israel is God-wrestlers. Whenever we struggle, we change. So too does Judaism in America change, as we wrestle with how the values, ethics, beliefs, and even celebrations of our neighbors impact us as a people.
The thing about the Santa Dreidel is that it wasn’t in the Hanukkah section of the store display. It was in the Christmas section. Maybe it was just the whim of the store’s owner, but I think it’s more than that. I think it means that there’s something about Judaism and Hanukkah that is wanted by those who celebrate Christmas. Whereas the Hanukkah tree-topper and the Hanukkah stocking are both clearly still ways to celebrate Christmas and throw a little bit of Jewish in there, I think the Santa Dreidel is different.
The Santa Dreidel means that Christmas wants a little bit of Hanukkah. We have something special that can be incorporated into the celebration of Christmas to make Christmas a little bit more fun. Just like the Jews gave America the words chutzpah, schlep, meshuganeh, and kvetch, so too do we share our game of dreidel, with the knowledge that we are continuing to change and evolve as a people. We wrestle with our wintertime holidays, with how we celebrate, and with how we can be good neighbors to those who celebrate differently. With our wrestling, we deepen our commitments to our faith, to our family, and to our friends. And we grow.