Ass out of you and me

            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.  

35 responses to “Ass out of you and me

  1. makes sense to me, and no offense taken

  2. Emily, this is so well-stated. Needless to say, I agree completely!

  3. interesting. And yet, although my “religion” might be, by some, considered Christian (and by other it is a cult), our church has no true sponsored Christmas events. A part of this is the fact that really “Christmas” was a compromise on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, because so many of their members continued to carry on Pagan traditions.

    So, what is our family celebrating each winter? It is not the Christian nativity scene holiday, and yet it is still a part of our family’s traditions. In a way, I suppose this akin to secular Jew being a part of the tradition, without the beliefs.

  4. I suspect I’m the “ass”umption maker.

    No offense taken at ALL! The distinction helped me understand the interconnections are still there between the ethnicity and the actual religious tradition.

    In my experience with the Christian faith (Catholic and Protestant), we don’t have many non-believers that attend church faithfully. We have a TON of people who claim they are Christian by virtue of ass-in-the-seat-each week demonstrations of faith, and that’s as deep as their real commitment goes, but that’s not the same thing as actually not believing and still going through the rituals.

    There are two Christmases in my mind. The American-materialist-secular Santa Christmas, which is fun and I could care less who celebrates it and what their ethnic or religious background.
    And there is the Christian-religious time of Advent and Christmas where we are celebrating the birth of Christ. Of course, I mash them up together. But I have Catholic friends who don’t do Santa at all.

    Have you also found that it is uncommon in Christian faiths for non-believers to actively participate in Christian sacraments?

  5. I had never thought about secular Christianity like this. I really like the framework because it is largely how I identify myself. Maybe somewhere in between secular and religious Christianity.

    I do disagree about the “Happy Holidays” type messages though. As a non-practicing Christian, I like “Happy Holidays” because it is a conscious choice not to impose Christmas on everyone. (Although I guess you feel like its effect is the same.) But I think it includes New Year’s, which most everyone in America celebrates. And although Hannukah is not a religiously significant Jewish holiday, it is becoming more significant in secular terms just like Christmas has over the last several decades. So I much prefer “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.” But maybe also because I get so annoyed by the anti-“War on Christmas” crusaders.

  6. This post is so spot-on, Emily. Too often, people forget that Christmas is not the ubiquitous American celebration for everyone.

    I have had the pleasure of knowing people of several different faiths and cultures, and have been invited to celebrate the holidays that were meaningful to them. This experience reminds me to be aware that not everyone is wildly interested in Santa, candy canes, fake pine trees, Nativity scenes, and Perry Como.

    For myself, I do love Christmas, though I fear I’m at best a reluctant Christian these days. It is a combination of the secular aspects as well as the renewal of a belief that something miraculous occurred, long ago and probably in August rather than December, something that speaks of new life and glorious promise and eternal love.

    I just wish it was as easy to believe when the season ends and I’m confronted with yet another rant from my church about how gay people are ruining the world, or some such nonsense.

    It’s a conundrum for me, for sure.

  7. You make some excellent points. I would agree that *most* people here in Canada are secular Christians – myself included.

  8. I think you’ve pretty much captured my feelings exactly.

    My mother, who is a non-practicing Jew, has always celebrated want she sees as completely secular versions of Christmas and Easter. It makes her unhappy that I don’t see it quite the same way and that I don’t celebrate them in my household. (though I do enjoy the celebrations of others).

  9. “The holidays,” IMO, refers to that space of time between the end of November and the beginning of January that usually encompasses Thanksgiving, Eid- al-Adha, Chanukah, Christmas, Yule/Solstice, New Year’s, Kwanzaa and sometimes Diwali (although Diwali tends to usually fall earlier).

    I won’t pretend that I don’t realize that it’s primarily called such because Christmas, either religiously or ethnically, is the default celebration of the majority of many Americans at this time. Certainly it is the celebration which garners most of the attention and to which all television commercials and “holiday” specials are geared. However, I also think it’s called “the holidays” because so many different celebrations from different faiths occur this time of year.

    If I know what someone celebrates, I’ll get more specific when I wish them greetings of the season, but I always thought “Happy Holidays” seems much more polite (and much quicker) than grilling one’s check-out clerk on their specific celebratory preferences.

    Although I class myself as a fairly religious liberal Episcopalian, I’m not at all offended by the idea that Christianity/Christmas is celebrated by many as an ethnic tradition rather than a religious one. You’re absolutely right.

    Wishing you a wonderful winter! 🙂

  10. Your explanation of the difference between religious Judaism and secular ethnicity is exactly what I try to express to my family (generally with minimal success). I was raised Catholic but am most certainly no longer a believer. Now I am married to a Jewish man, who, while in some levels of his heart is a believer, often doesn’t have the time to make the commitment to observant Judaism. We agreed to raise our children in the Jewish faith, yet Christmas is just a holiday we can’t avoid and we have generally celebrated with my family.

    This year is complicated, as we are stuck here on the west coast. So for the first time, despite my promise, we will celebrate a traditionally Christian holiday in our home. Granted, it will be in a secular manner, but a Christian holiday nonetheless. So, while you are so very eloquent in your explanation — could you PLEASE help me figure out how to explain it to a 5-year-old! And how do I explain that I’m not “technically” Jewish in traditional standards, as I have not converted.

    Of course those questions are rhetorical (sort of). I just wish sometimes our lives were simpler in this regard, but I suppose perhaps someday his life will be richer for it.

  11. Complicated, isn’t it! I appreciate your description of secular Judaism and the difference between ethnicity and race – in part because I feel that there is too black-and-white an approach to the concept of race and using the nuances of ethnicity properly helps to clarify and include where sometimes race muddles or excludes.

    I shudder when I hear people say Christmas is an “American” holiday. It’s irritatingly blind in multiple ways – ignoring the many people who are not Christian, assuming that America invented or has claim on the day as “ours,” and usually misunderstanding the history of the whole thing quite badly.

    Personally I think the way my family celebrates Christmas sort of wanders between pagan and Christian – probably what my mother would term heathen. The tree, the greens, the present exchange (Saturnalia), the food and the yule log are all pagan in origin. Most of the music we listen to is older Christian (Robert Shaw and the Tallis Scholars have a series of medieval and renaissance carols that are lovely) but we listen for the voices and the music rather than the message.

    I think the thing that bothers me though is that without Christ in our celebration the values that we attach – peace, family, well-wishing, charitable deeds, selflessness etc – have no meaning. That is the arrogance that truly bothers me, since these things, the root of Christmas, are universal and certainly cannot be limited to a single belief system or one slightly blinkered country.

  12. This is a great way of explaining it. I’ve gotten asked many times how I can consider myself part Jewish, since I wasn’t really raised in the religion. Well I wasn’t raised in any religion really, just the traditions. My dad’s family are washed down holiday Jews. Religion wise, nah they may not be seen as Jews. But they are, I am. They escaped their respective countries to be able to be Jews.

    Just because I wasn’t brought up in a particular religion, doesn’t mean I don’t have spiritual beliefs. I guess it just means, I view beliefs as enough. Where as in any religion, they tend to feel their way is the only way; I’ve never thought any of them were right or wrong.

  13. i have no problem being seen as a secular Christian in the sense you refer to…that religious tradition is a part of my heritage and has informed the cultural practices i hold dear, even if i don’t actually believe in its spiritual tenets.

    i would say, though, that there’s more to the cultural North American (and European…and increasingly worldwide) celebration of Christmas than merely its blatant Christian roots. part of it is that within the secular Christian part of the culture the holiday was cultivated as a time for peace and goodwill – divorced from the religious celebration per se – for many years, with Dickens and all sorts of Jimmy Stewart movies co-opted to play along. thus the holiday signifies MORE than just a religious tradition for many whose heritage is, admittedly, Christian.

    also, capitalism has co-opted Christmas to such an extent that you will find wonderful Santa celebrations in communist China…thus definitely straying outside the secular Christian framework except in the way that secular Christianity has been the hegemonic, globalizing culture for awhile.

    that dominant culture stuff is probably the key to all of this Christmas confusion and weirdness – people who are accustomed to being unthinkingly within the dominant culture assume that Christmas is American, and people in Asia assume that Christmas is American b/c it’s the culture that brought them Christmas – but for those cultures/religions/ethnicities accustomed to NOT being part of the dominant North American mainstream the experience is a very different one.

  14. Your posts on this subject are interesting. I empathize with your feelings, and understand your point.

    Perhaps because I lived in a country with an official multicultural policy (love Canada), I agree completely with Dayna, that wishing someone “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” is an attempt to encompass all of the celebrations that take place at this time of year. I know people who celebrate Eid, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, Yule… My children’s schools (Canadian public schools) were always decorated with symbols from all of these celebrations. I don’t deny that Christmas trappings overwhelm all of these other “holidays” (most of which, really ARE “Holy days”), but I think most people are well-intentioned when they express such greetings.

    I am a little curious – when you lived overseas, did you continue “American” celebrations – President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving etc. – and did you invite non-Americans to share them with you? Did you join in British Commonwealth celebrations (Robbie Burns day, Victoria Day, Guy Fawkes, Remembrance Day etc…) I realize it is a very different situation – an American Jew is not a guest or visitor in the U.S., and the religious component to celebrations at this time of year adds another layer to the issue. And when you are a visitor, people are less likely to make those aggravating assumptions you write about. I find though, since I am currently living in a country with different holidays (even Christmas feels different here) that I have let go a little of our family’s traditional celebrations and learn to enjoy others that don’t hold as much (or any) meaning to us. It’s been quite illuminating.

  15. Excellent post, Emily. Well done! And I like your title. 🙂

  16. When in the UK, I did celebrate Thanksgiving with other Americans, but I also took part in British traditions whenever possible. Again, I LIKE to be invited to someone’s family to participate in their heritage and love to invite non-Jews to be part of ours. That’s very different from being hit over the head with Christmas at every turn.

    My favorite British holiday, btw, is Pancake Day.

  17. what?!? no Pancake Day in the US?

    (obviously, it’s a staple here in Canada too)

  18. amen. (and some of us say Amen without being churchgoers. don’t go assuming)

  19. I agree – it is very different from being hit over the head with Christmas at every turn.

    I suspect I feel the same way about the overwheming dominance of “Americanism” in general in the world. When I lived in Canada, I understood why the U.S. news dominated everything – world’s longest undefended border, Canada’s largest trading partner etc… You were all just THERE – everywhere, all the time. You even co-opted the terms “America and American” away from all of North, Central and South America.

    When I moved to Australia, I didn’t expect that the newspapers, radio and t.v would still be dominated by U.S news. Good example – even after the U.S. elections were finally over this month, all day and night the headlines in Oz were about Obama’s new administration, while I futilely searched for a single sentence about historic Canadian political events. There is an assumption that everyone is fascinated by U.S. politics – and while I appreciate Obama’s achievement, I think Mandela did it first, and by overcoming much greater obstacles. Funny, you didn’t read any comparative analysis about it though, at any point during that seemingly endless U.S. campaign. Sorry – I’m getting sidetracked.

    All to say – I know what you mean. Living with a dominant culture, no matter what kind, requires strength and tolerance.

  20. I wonder if it’s as true now with our changing population that the vast majority of Americans are ethnic and/or religious Christians? Or if that sense is changing with our demography. It’s an important point that the majority see themselves as the default, with no need to specify (or rather, why groups in general do this; apparently when black people talk to each other and describe a third person, they only mention race if it’s not a black person, just like is typical when two whites are talking). It’s very comfortable for me, in the majority (being, as Christopher Hitchens would say, a “Christian atheist”, meaning the atheism that I subscribe to is in lieu of being a Christian, rather than in lieu of being something else), following the same celebrations as most people, and the corporations. This issue of holidays and the expectations and norms around them is one that concerns me for our upcoming move to Sweden, which isn’t vastly different but just subtly enough to trip a newcomer up.

  21. Certainly seems fair enough. I would think of myself as someone who doesn’t believe in a god but who thinks that the ethical principles of Christianity are the ones I would choose to follow as a community member. And that comes purely from growing up in a certain culture. I’m interested in the way people have access to spirituality, but that often has nothing to do with a God-figure, and in many cases nowadays, nothing to do with an organised set of cultural rules, either.

  22. Good points. I say to people that I’m Christian the way that Jewish people are Jewish. It’s my culture. I may not go to church or subscribe to most of the beliefs but I’m still a Christian. I think “secular” Christian is a good category. I would never call myself an atheist although many so-called atheists might share 90% of my views.

  23. Oh my. I’ve started writing & realize I have oh so many opinions on this that it would just be too much for a comment. Have to organize it more in my head.

    Suffice it to say: I agree.

  24. I agree that “the holidays” is a pretty disingenuous expression at this time of year. I mean, all sorts of holidays are celebrated by all sorts of religions/traditions all year round, so why reserve the “happy holidays” for December? I get that people want to be inclusive, but basically when we (Christians and/or secular Christians) do this, we are saying “I am feeling a sense of goodwill/community/joy at this time of year because of Christmas, and I want to share that feeling with everyone regardless of whether or not they share my faith/traditions. ” This is not a bad thing in itself, but I can definitely understand how someone of a different faith/tradition/whatever might not feel any more “included” than if we had just said “Merry Christmas”.

  25. Corey was confused by this concept a while back. His professors told him there is no such thing as an Ethnic Jew. So he went to a Rabbi and she agreed. I will have to direct him here (just to confuse him more, hee hee.)

  26. I love how you explained this! Makes perfect sense.

  27. Just had another thought, not that it adds much to your post…the general consensus seems to be that Christmas has its roots in Christianity. In fact, Christmas has less to do with the birth of Jesus and more to do with a patriarchal christian power base attempting to convert the heathens and pagans to Christianity, by taking one of the pagan celebrations, Yule, and christian-fying it.

  28. Thank you for putting my exact thoughts into words!

  29. Natalie – even more confusing it wasn’t a single pagan celebration but multiple. It’s one of the major moments in the year – when the days are shortest – so naturally most cultures make a big deal out of it. Saturnalia occurred at this time when the Romans had a major seven day celebration, many elements of which were adopted by the Christians (why miss out on a good party just because the gods have changed?). Some people argue that the choice of the 25th was more to do with the recent invention of Sol Invictus (when in doubt, make up your own god!) which was a pretty major cult until paganism was abolished. The 25th was the Sol feast day (birthday of the unconquered sun – hmmmm… sounds familiar?). The theory has been challenged, but it’s certainly an interesting one, and was close enough that the Church felt the need to declare that they were NOT the same. Sorry… historian in me, can’t help it. Anyway, point is that Christmas, from the very start, was a jumble of multiple traditions most of which had nothing to do with the Christian religion – just like today.

  30. word, word, word, dude.
    beautifully said.

  31. I hate to admit it, but I kind of wondered myself about your not believing in God but having such a strong connection to your synagogue. I guess, according to your post, I am a secular Christian. I grew up Catholic but I don’t believe that any one particular religion could possibly be THE true religion. They are all made up by man. I don’t necessarily consider myself an atheist, though. I think there’s a good chance that there is a higher power, force, or goodness in the world. As far as the Christmas thing, however, if someone doesn’t like it, don’t participate. However, it’s truly troll-like to try to ruin things for the majority of people that DO enjoy the spirit of the season. I hate when people have to protest over manger scenes, holiday carols at school etc. We seem to bend over backwards for every other minority group in America.

  32. Well, except you cannot not participate if you are a minority whose taxpayer dollars are supporting the school where the manger and the carols are taking place. You are not permitted an opt-out. Even having to see the decorations in school that is supposed to be for everyone is elevating one religion over the others and giving minority kids the impression they are lesser. It is using taxpayer dollars to promote a religion and it is prostelytizing our kids. For a kid to truly not participate would be to draw a great deal of attention to himself, which is also unfair.
    And, in other public buildings — well, I pay taxes, and until I get to opt out of paying them, I don’t want my public buildings to reflect religion.

  33. Emily, I didn’t mean to imply that YOUwere being troll-like. After I reread my comment it might have sounded like that. It does make me angry that we have to use such stupid euphemisms as “Sparkle Season” and avoid saying Merry Christmas or even Happy Holidays without someone taking offense. It IS in many ways a secular holiday for many people with religious roots. This is just my opinion and I certainly respect your opinion.

  34. I actually don’t mind being wished happy holidays as much as I dislike the phrase “the holiday season.” And I took no offense 🙂

  35. Man, you must be getting a serious dose of Xmas over there!