Awhile back, someone asked how I can consider myself Jewish without believing in God. Indulge me, please, while I respond.
I am a secular Jew, which means that I am ethnically Jewish but not necessarily religiously. Note that I do not say “racially” Jewish. Race is about biology, and Judaism is NOT a race. That kind of thinking led to some nasty behavior in Germany in the last century. While Judaism is not a race, it is most surely an ethnicity, much like Italian-American or African-American is an ethnicity. (To add to the confusion, there is a racial component to African-American ethnicity, in that African-Americans are usually black, but not all black people are African-American. This is just a road I don’t want to go down.) As an ethnic group, Jews share many elements of cultural history. A large part of that culture is synagogue-related, as the shul is the center of the community life. So, a secular Jew may go to services to be a part of the tradition, the community, the history, and the values of Jewish life without actually believing she is talking to a higher power. Perforce, there is a lot of crossover between the ethnic elements of Judaism and the religious elements.
This distinction is clear to most modern (non-orthodox) Jews, but it may seem confusing to outsiders. After all, there is no such thing as an ethnic or secular Christian, right?
Or is there?
Many of you responded to my post about Christmas by saying you are not Christian but you celebrate the holiday. I would wager, however, that those who feel this way are of Christian descent. People whose families are historically Christian and who enjoy the traditions and history of the holiday while not subscribing to the religious aspects. That is to say, secular Christians.
Ethnic Christianity is so pervasive in this country that it has come to be seen as the default, the absence of ethnicity. It is seen as a neutral state of Americaness, as in, “I am an atheist, but I celebrate Christmas because it is an American holiday.” Well, no, it is not an American holiday, it is a Christian one that has both religious and secular aspects. The vast majority of Americans are either religious or ethnic Christians, so much so that their ethnicity disappears and they become a sort of baseline. Those who are not Christian at all are then seen as having this different religion plopped on top of that neutrality, which is why people often see a Jew or a Muslim as “ethnic,” but do not see a WASP as such.
I imagine there will be those who are offended by this concept. Non-believers will be annoyed at being called Christian, while believers will feel it cheapens their faith. But, as long as people are going to insist that upon Christmas being both a secular and a religious holiday, there is no other way to look at it.
That being said, let me clarify a few things. I do not dislike Christmas and am always honored when invited to join in with a friend’s celebration. I don’t mind hearing about how much others love Christmas, as long as it is not the only topic of conversation in December. I like Christmas decorations on houses, just not in publicly funded places like schools, although when I taught at a Catholic university I had no issues with it. I totally get why everything is closed on Christmas, although it is a bit annoying.
What I don’t like is the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas, which then marks those of us who don’t as aberrations. I don’t like the term “the holidays” because it is a euphemism for Christmas; if you are going to talk about Christmas, call a spade a spade. I don’t like being treated as though my ethnicity is abnormal, which is exactly what you are doing when you claim Christmas is American.
You cannot assume everyone is married or married to someone of the opposite sex. You cannot assume every woman wants children. You cannot assume all mothers have a choice whether or not to work. And you cannot assume that everyone celebrates Christmas, just by virtue of being American.