Santa Claus and Zionism
One evening last December we were having dinner and the name “Santa Claus” came up (I think we were speaking about differences between Hanukah and Christmas). Then my 12-year-old son Elie said “who’s Santa Claus?” Despite the immediate questioning of Elie’s intelligence provided gratis by his sister Rebecca (“oh come on, are you for real?”), I realized that it is perfectly understandable that Elie has no idea who Santa Claus is. Elie arrived in Israel at the age of two, and since then he has been back in the States on only two occasions—both during summer time. Still, it was a bit of a shock for me since we are American Israelis, and it seems that I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not recognize the name “Santa Claus.”
Elie does not know about Santa Claus because Elie lives in a country without a Christian majority culture. I wonder: is there a person reading this column whose 12-year-old child or grandchild does not know who Santa Claus is? In America, Jews are cognizant of major Christian holidays and traditions—this is fine and only natural given the dominance of Christian culture in America. The problem comes when Jews start to view themselves through non-Jewish eyes, when Jewish holidays and traditions start to seem strange.
Even though I grew up in Brooklyn, a place with a huge Jewish population, my family was always conscious of the fact that Jewish traditions are foreign to their larger society. If, for example, one of the fringes from my tzitzit happened to sneak out of my shirt, my mother would immediately have me tuck it back in, lest anyone see this weird undergarment. And I can remember sitting in our succah eating with my family and my father wondering out loud: “I wonder what Al Siefert would say if he saw us now.” I doubt if my father’s gentile friend ever wondered what Lenny Weinberger thought about this or that Christian tradition, but then again Al is Christian and is part of America’s majority culture.
In Israel, Jews don’t have to measure themselves against a different religious culture. Indeed, religious Zionism’s dream was that in a country where Judaism is the majority culture, Judaism can grow and thrive in ways unimaginable in the Diaspora. This dream, however, has been put on hold. There are two major reasons for this. One is that a large percentage of the religious public, the ultra-orthodox (haredim), is uninterested in what religion can contribute to general culture because it is uninterested in general culture. The haredim have a way of putting “modern” religious people on the defensive. The moderns tend to bow to the haredim when it comes to such things as the observance of the kosher and Shabbat laws, and a huge effort in Israeli religious culture is made towards seeing to it that these laws are implemented in a stringent way. Yes there are religious people concerned about the environment, about animal rights, about nuclear proliferation, but they are usually not active as part of a group of religious people that is exploring how Judaism relates to these issues. Religious parties in Israel create uproars over such issues as highway construction performed on Shabbat. Religious parties in Israel do not create uproars about traffic accidents on those same highways.
The second reason for the religious Zionist dream being put on hold is that for the last four decades a very significant amount of time and energy has gone into settling the territories, often in homogenous religious communities. The notion of interacting with secular Israel was shunted off to the side. Esther Zandberg, Ha’aretz’s architecture critic, could thus write that “synagogues are associated in the consciousness of many people—albeit the majority of whom are secular—with religious and national extremism.”
If religious Zionism is to reclaim its dream of creating a Judaism that is relevant to all aspects of society, it must first reconnect with the secular Israeli public. Though secular Israelis may not want to observe Jewish law, this does not mean, for example, that they are averse to filling their holiday experiences with more Jewish content. Here is where religious Zionism can lend a hand. This may not be as sophisticated an intellectual project as, say, constructing a Jewish framework for organ transplantation, but at this point it’s the job that needs to be done. Happy December 25th Vacation Day.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger