I accompanied a group of Israeli teachers on a Partnership 2000 visit to meet their peers in an American Jewish community last week. One of the teachers went shopping with her hostess for school materials, and found some great bulletin-board borders. But you cant buy those, said her hostess, those are Christmas symbols! To which the Israeli responded, But to us they have no meaning; they are pretty and colorful and dont have any symbolic overtones to my students. Their argument became the subject of a discussion among the whole group, which made clear to the Israelis that the colorful, cheerful, happy holiday season is for many Jews and Jewish educators a difficult time, when they feel overwhelmed by a powerful flood that threatens to wash away their own sense of who they (or their students) are. Interestingly, this is not a new dilemma:
R. Gamaliel was bathing in the bath of Aphrodite in Akko. Proklos ben Philosophos [a non-Jew] asked him: It is written in your Torah, Let nothing forbidden stick to your hand [Deut. 13:18] so why are you bathing in the bath of Aphrodite [Venus]? He said to him: One must not answer in the bath house. When he went out, he answered: I didnt come into her turf, she came into mine: one doesnt say, lets build a bath house in honor of Aphrodite, but rather, lets make an Aphrodite to decorate our bath house.
--Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 3:4
The head of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical leader of the Jewish people in Israel in the first century, sees the statue of the pagan goddess adorning the local health club as merely a decoration, with no religious symbolism. Even his non-Jewish fellow-bather is surprised by his position. On the other hand, we know of rabbis who refused even to look at a coin that had the image of the emperor on them, not wanting to give the appearance of showing respect for a graven image. So the question of when a symbol loses its meaning is never simple.
For most non-religious Israelis, Christmas and especially New Years Day are simply universal western observances without religious meaning; and since Christians are all of 2% of the population here, we are not exactly under pressure, or in danger of submerging our identity. Today I noticed a poster advertising a Christmas disco party at a nearby kibbutz pub. And New Years Eve parties have been big business here for years, just like in the rest of the west. It is not called New Year, though, but rather Sylvester, which ironically brings the problem to the surface: December 31 is St Sylvesters day in the Catholic saints calendar. Pope Sylvester I lived in the 4th century it is said that he baptized the emperor Constantine. In Germany, his day was traditionally celebrated with music and dance, food and drink, at a Sylvester Ball. Until the rise of secular society in the past two hundred years, the civil new year was probably not a term with any meaning: the night of December 31 was indeed a religious holiday in Christian Europe (note that January 1 would be the day of Jesus bris, too). Not many Jews in the middle ages were wondering if it was OK to celebrate.
The fact that the day is called Sylvester here is an attempt to remind us of its origins. Thus, for example, in some years and some cities, the rabbinate has threatened to revoke the kashrut license of any restaurant hosting a Sylvester party, which to most Israelis sounds absurd. Who gets to decide the meaning of a symbol? What about Halloween in American Jewish schools? Is there anybody in America for whom Halloween is a religious holiday aside from the Jews who make a point of not celebrating it because it is a religious holiday? But if Halloween is OK, then what about St. Valentines day? And what about candy canes and colored lights and even a December holiday tree? Its a slippery slope, and even in Israel one can lose ones footing.
Its not what you know; but its also not who you know or even where you live. Its who you are.