‘Tis the season to be merry, and we need a little merriment this season. This year, the passage of time between two holidays of the spirit, Hanukkah and Christmas, is short, focusing attention once more on the Judeo-Christian moorings of America. Every year we honor the ways Christians and Jews appeal to what they hold in common in exhortations. But like so much else in our high-tech, 24/7 media world, differences are magnified and politicized. Political overtones have always influenced how we celebrate our holidays, but not until now has so much attention been paid.
President Donald Trump is alternately admonished and applauded for emphasizing the word “Christmas” in the celebrations, as many Christians think the origin of the holiday is deliberately lost in the generalized wishes of “happy holidays.” His rhetoric is a little sharp for the taste of the secular world, but religious folk have always differed in how they invoke God in their politics. Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the large and influential First Baptist Dallas, even says God was at work in the 2016 election. “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose,” he says.
Many of the God-fearing among us, along with agnostics and atheists, perceive a bit of humbug in such political use of God’s name. They cite former President Abraham Lincoln’s classic touch of the wry at the beginning of the Civil War. “The will of God prevails,” he said. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.”
Despite occasional hyperbole and sometime hyperventilation, there’s an imperfect but growing togetherness between Jews and Christians. They are much closer than in terrible times past, as on the eve of World War II, when Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler faced rationed admission to the United States. Perhaps the most divisive event was the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to accept desperate Jews escaping Europe aboard the ocean liner St. Louis. The State Department, under instructions from the White House, declined to take extraordinary measures necessary to allow them into the United States. The government, reflecting the national mood, opposed more Jewish immigration, and President Roosevelt said winning the war was the most effective way to save Jews. The St. Louis returned to Europe, and many Jews died in the Holocaust.
The uneasy relationship between Christians and Jews in this country has been more cultural than religious, though it finds connection in both worlds. In other countries and other times, Jews often hid or converted.
In America, many Jews preferred to choose either assimilation or imitation. Hanukkah had never been a major Jewish holiday but was promoted to major status because it shares the season with Christmas. In the 1920s, when Jewish immigration was curtailed, Jews expanded Hanukkah celebrations to lighten family spirits in the dark winter nights.
Jews faced quotas for college admission and confronted covenants as obstacles to purchase property in the years after World War II. My parents broke such a covenant when they built a house in Washington in 1947. Their neighbors, including a high-ranking official in the State Department, were not happy about it. But over the years, Christian neighbors brought fruitcakes at Christmas, and my mother, known for her pastries, responded with her prized pecan puffs, almond pastries and cookies formed in the shape of Christmas trees. (She saved the menorah and dreidel cookies for us.)
A good-neighbor policy has thrived in popular culture, with songs like “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” and the hymn-like “God Bless America,” all of which were composed by a Russian Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin, thus cementing the connection that is even stronger today. Berlin’s life has been described as “the Horatio Alger story told in Yiddish,” and the composer, who lived to be 101, has been cited as “capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”
Jews moved up the ladder of acceptance as other immigrant groups moved in behind them. The 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story,” an ill-fated romance between a Puerto Rican girl and an Italian gang member was originally written as “East Side Story,” in which the daughter of a Jewish family falls in love with an Italian Catholic in the season of Passover and Easter. It was revised to avoid being perceived as a dated update of “Abie’s Irish Rose.”
In his Hannukah message to the Jews, President Trump, who has a Jewish son-in-law, spoke warmly of “the Jewish people who shine as a light to all nations” and “the people of Israel, the Jewish State, which has itself a miraculous history of overcoming the tallest of odds.” To challenge the odds again, the Presbyterian president announced that he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Merry Christmas, everyone.