Am I a “bad” Jew? I love eating Chinese food for dinner on December 24th. I try to see a movie on December 25th. I grew up in a very Christian area so I know the words, not just the tunes, for most of the songs playing in stores. I like to drive around to see the light displays in neighbors’ yards. These traditions are an integral part of my American Jewish identity. I generally feel “more” Jewish when I engage in any or all of these activities. Besides, what else is a Jew without non-Jewish family supposed to do for Christmas?
In contrast to the usual narrative of Jewish assimilation and loss, it turns out someone like me ought to be doing much more. As a Rabbi Without Borders fellow, I am not supposed to “worry . . . about dilution, or work from a narrative of erosion.” At our gathering last week, I was struck by how easy it is to work from that narrative; most of the language around my work at Hillel, and in the pulpit, has been about bolstering Jewish identity through positive memories, a sense of community, acquisition and retention of Jewish knowledge, and Jewish self-confidence. By and large, I believe my success has come not from fighting against erosion but rather from rejecting the idea of “good” or “bad” Jew altogether. I have favored the advice my students have articulated: “Be the Jew you are, not the Jew you think you should be.” Starting from a place of positive identity allows for paths of growth to open wide.
In other words, I am a “bad” Jew if I buy into that negative frame of reference. I am the Jew I am AND . . .
And it turns out that Jews have, in recent years, made a mainstream move of accretion (the opposite of erosion). December 25th has become a day for movies AND mitzvot (commandments, often translated as good deeds). I know programs around this idea, not to mention individuals volunteering on their own, are something that has been happening for years. With my Rabbis Without Borders lens, however, I am reading the story differently. Just as there are many more public Chanukah menorah lightings across the country, so too are there many more programs like this one at my local JCC:
From canned food donations to feeding the homeless, Jews are going beyond a day off for alternative habits toward a day on for doing good in this broken world. Dare I say, Jews are, in increasing numbers, bringing Christmas cheer.
In the spirit of accretion, then, I propose that we go one step further. Let us fight against the consumerist narrative of the winter holiday season, which is creeping right up to Halloween. Let us, Jew and non-Jew alike, extend the good feelings and good works of the 25th at least one more day. Please, on December 26th, go to stores and restaurants that are open and thank the workers, each and every one you can. You don’t have to buy anything, just say thank you so that our common humanity is the dominant theme. If you are working, appreciate that in our current economy sales really make a difference for those who cannot afford full price and for those small businesses that must clear inventory. The redeeming theme: “We are all in this together.”
Which brings me back to the date: Dec. 26th. The symbolism this year is not lost on me. 26 has new meaning in our country often the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Please, extend your #26acts of kindness to Dec. 26th. I plan on building up the narrative of caring by doing Jewish mitzvot of loving-kindness on Dec. 25th (before a movie), and doing more on Dec. 26th. In doing so, I am choosing a narrative of accretion, perhaps even ascension. I invite you to join me. Leave a comment with your #12-26acts or tweet it.