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Shinewald: A Jew on Christmas

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Chinese restaurant on Christmas night in Sacramento. (Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Christmas is around the corner and, for Jews, that means one thing: endless, lame jokes about eating at Chinese restaurants and going to the movies. But something deeper lies behind these shopworn clichés.

Jews began going for Chinese and seeing a movie back when there was nothing else to do on Christmas. Swap out the cold for the heat, and Christmas in Canada was like Yom Kippur in Israel: shops closed, streets emptied and the country shut down completely.

There were, however, two exceptions to this rule: in Canada, Chinese restaurants and movie theatres remained open. They were like little outposts of energy and light in otherwise snowy, darkened cities.

And so, Canadian Jews, facing cabin fever on a statutory holiday, set out for egg rolls and popcorn. Many years ago, on Christmas Eve, I walked into Lee Garden, a now-closed Toronto institution, but the entirely Jewish lineup was so long that I just headed to some other Chinatown spot.

Today, though, Christmas is increasingly like any other day. To the chagrin of Christians, the holiday is frequently more about friends, family and gifts, than Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Many stores still close, but great numbers remain open. A few Christmases ago, I did the whole shebang and walked several blocks from dim sum to a cinema. Along my route, dozens of stores were open, from independent shops to global fast food chains. And that doesn’t even count always-open home entertainment options like Netflix.

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Yet even as it transforms into a semi-secular holiday, Jews aren’t about to celebrate Christmas. Rather than fruitcake and carolling, we happily stick to Szechuan and a movie – no longer for lack of choice, mind you, but because we’re used to it and because it’s fun.

Though it may not be ancient or remotely halakhic, Chinese food and the movies really have become a Christmastime Jewish tradition for many North American Jews. Now, when we go for Chinese and to the movies on Christmas, we do so consciously as Jews embracing a new, offbeat tradition.

Yet Chinese food and a movie are not our first syncretic approaches to Christmas. Many Russian Jews erect New Year’s trees, the very same ones used just days earlier for Christmas. Some Hasidim, by contrast, created unusual traditions for Nittel Nacht, as they named Christmas Eve. To this day, small pockets refrain from studying Torah on Dec. 24, but head to yeshivah just as Catholics begin Midnight Mass.

Seen in this light, our decidedly non-religious custom of wontons and romcoms reveals a counterintuitive truth – that traditions, which ostensibly capture a moment frozen in time, are themselves always changing.

Each time we engage in a traditional activity, we alter it a bit, consciously or not. Ironically, in emulating our forebearers, we change our own subjective understanding of who they were and how they lived, even as we aim to carry on their legacy evermore faithfully.

The only thing constant is change, and yet there is still incredibly deep meaning in our Jewish heritage. Our traditions are themselves a living tree, like the Oral Torah to which they are often, but not always, connected. And our traditions are shaped not only by our ever-changing Jewishness, but also by the broader, ever-changing context around us. That is what makes our Jewish world so wonderfully diverse.

Truth be told, I miss the Christmases of my childhood. There was something wholesome about the world around me coming to a gentle, snow-covered stop.

That world is gone forever, though its traditions live on. So, this year, we still may take our kids for Chinese or to a movie. Maybe one day they’ll take their kids, too, perhaps even adding their own new twist, but still explaining that, though they may not realize why, this is just a part of our Jewish tradition.

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Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto and serves on a variety of communal boards.