Friday, December 25, 2015

Nittel Nacht

Translate that, Nittel Nacht, it would be . . .  well, I don't know.  I know that Kristallnacht is the night that the Nazi's broke every Jewish storefront in Germany. 

But on
Nittelnacht Jews play cards and watch Elf. Or maybe Titanic. Or Meet Me in St.Louis

The rabbis forbid learning Torah on Christmas Eve. Except to learn about why it is forbidden to learn Torah on Christmas Eve. Learning is what observant Jews do, or wish they did, most nights, most days, in their discretionary time. It is one of those pastimes that keeps on giving.

So you would think that learning is definitely something Jews should do on Xmas eve. But no. We'll get to the reasons.

Last night FD finishes the last slice of pizza, 47th Street (New York) pizza, but made in Iowa, sold in Chicago. He asks me if I want to join him, walk over to the synagogue to hear a shiur (she-your, Hebrew for class) about the origins of nittel nacht.
Nittel Nacht 47th St Pizza

Nittel Nacht Movie teev
This is enticing, but no thanks. "You go. Take notes.*"

Nittel nacht (pronounced knit-tell nah-cht.) is hard to translate, but it amounts to goofing around, playing chess or poker, eating Chinese food. Why would I go to a class?

This is an underground holiday, isn't even on the Jewish calendar. The reason for the camouflage is that Jews, historically, needed to be hidden, needed to avoid attention. In Europe, if caught learning Torah, they were likely to be victims of violent crimes. On Xmas Eve, especially.

We're still thinking about old history, movements like the Crusades (Kill the Jews!) and the Spanish Inquisition, (Chop off their heads!). Whose heads?  Guess. Theology as an excuse to murder is something of a trigger to our collective annihilation anxiety and PTSD.

Because we're a tiny minority, perhaps there are 13 to 16 million people who identify as Jewish in the world today, compared to 2.5 billion Christians,  1.5 billion Muslims, we're hardly a threat to anyone.

But I worry. Do people still believe in blood libels? Can such rumors, excuses to kill, still make press? There are so many ways to propagate misinformation.

For most us (I'm always asked) Christmas is pretty much just another day. But the true sentiments of the holiday, the whole idea of giving, selflessness, makes me happy. And patients want to give me gifts, but I have to say No, warn them in November.
No gifts, please, it is unethical (see this version of professional ethics) for therapists to take stuff from patients. You pay us, it's enough. And please, no cookies.
I used to be tempted to say, Merry Christmas to patients who told me they celebrated the holiday. But now, that is just wrong. We're completely bamboozled, paralyzed by political correctness, so we don't know what to say. Chanukah is over, so Happy Chanukah makes no sense, even when the patient is Jewish, and Happy Holidays seems so lame. But that is the preferred, politically correct, substitution.

There's a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, The Year Christmas Died, about Fifth Avenue. The high end retail stores in New York no longer let Santa and the elves into their windows. We've seen the last of the red and white, all is now white and electric blue. The only references to holidays are seasonal snowflakes, windows that aim to evoke a winter wonderland.

As if any of us really want to see snowflakes, seriously.

Although I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, Christmas was a seasonal part of my childhood, window shopping downtown, driving out to the suburbs to see the lights and decorations. Cars lined up for blocks in the better neighborhoods.

A father like mine, at the end of the season (the retail season), after he passed out the last of the end-of-year bonuses, wanted to kick back and relax. We had a big dinner, a turkey or a roast on Christmas Eve. Why not? They give gifts, we sell them. It's is a win-win!  Kind of like the celebration of Chanukah. They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat.

Then, after dinner, we settled in and watched Its a Wonderful Life.

Because it is, you know.

Here in the United States, gratefully, we have the freedom to worship however we choose, we celebrate that we have the option, that our country is diverse and everyone is different and we can all learn from one another, the original melting pot. Which is exactly why the stores are methodically eliminating Christmas. It is a retail nod to the new paradigm: Christmas is no longer assumed, and we don't have to listen to that music for months and months and months anymore. We're not bombarded with reindeer, either, although I miss them.

And yet, last I looked, Christmas is still a national holiday, a bank and U.S. mail holiday. Most of us aren't going to school, or to work, except maybe to keep the hospitals going, make sure people on the street are safe, not so easy anymore, but it never was.

Maybe to balance it out, other religious holidays should become national holidays. Let's take off for Kwanza, Chanukah, Ramadan (that's a lot of days), all of them!

Or maybe they should just call December 25 something else, something we all can join in on.

Nittel Nacht?

Happy holidays, friends.


*FD told it over, the shiur, but the only thing I remember is that Jesus studied under Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia, best known for the idea that we should all give one another the benefit of the doubt (1st perek of Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers).

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