Talk about trying to push a river! This morning, at 7:15 AM, Friday, December 24th, I took my son to school. The roads were clear, and the only place brimming with activity was the Yeshiva of Greater Washington. All other schools, including Jewish ones, were on “winter” break. Even though it is woefully inconvenient to have mismatched vacations with the Christian universe, I can’t help but admire the tenacity of schools like the Yeshiva. I have just done a search of Muslim school calendars, and each one breaks a day or two prior to December 25th. Like most Jewish schools they have caved to the bias of the Gregorian calendar.
In principle, much of this has to do with the centrality of study as a devotional enterprise in Jewish tradition. Torah study is not only enriching, but a duty. Even the reconstruction of the Temple would not be reason enough to call off school, so how could one justify putting a fig leaf on a vacation period where Santa Claus, lights, and Jesus play a central role. On the other hand, if one is going to take a winter break at some time, why not do so when families can truly enjoy the time together?
In Israel, this period, save for Christian pilgrimages, goes unnoticed by the general population. Sunday is a school day, and if weekends are gaining traction, they will begin on Friday and end Saturday night. The Hareidi community has for once chosen to be totally in sync with the Zionist entity. The temerity of acting like a dominant culture when nothing could be farther from the truth, reminds us of the perils of exile. My son notices that everyone else is off, and he and his cronies are the only ones who see this as a principle worth sacrificing for. His family now has to take extra vacation days beyond those taken for the Jewish holidays in order to accommodate this principle, while in Israel everyone would still be in school.
During these long nights, and frigid days, these tensions are truly the stuff of exile. When Herzl was criticized for wishing to be a normal nation, surely the critics still dreamed of national holidays being Jewish ones, where a forced homage to another religion was not mandatory, and where the ubiquity of another religion was not the normal state of affairs. In the nineteenth century dreams of such a reality was considered Messianic thinking the substance of which was in Jewish imagination and memory. Little did they know.
The assimilationists have made our exile quite comfortable, as long as we play along. Thanks to Irving Berlin, we can hope for snow on December 25th, and fancy clothes on Easter without having to contend with you know who. We can all thank movie studios for films where brotherhood, generosity and love are emphasized while you know who is nowhere to be seen. In theology, the melting pot is at peak boil for the masses at this time of year, while the theologians stand bemused and marginalized on the sidelines.
This pervasive “if you can’t beat ‘em…” attitude is understandable. What can anyone gain by such an obstinate position that demands school be in session, only because “they” have off. It is, however, a deep and profound reminder that we are in exile, with a calendar and a culture that we really do not share. It mirrors a reality we would rather not face, and of which we may not be aware…until we spend Xmas in Israel.