On the Bookshelf
’Tis the Season
With Thanksgiving behind us, the Christmas juggernaut looms with all of its holiday-themed cinematic treacle, unavoidable musical kitsch, and inedible rum-soaked cakes. Joel Waldfogel, professor of economics at the Wharton School of Business, concentrates on one aspect of the seasonal narishkeyt in Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays (Princeton, November). He argues that purchasing obligatory holiday gifts offends financial logic, as a $100 sweater worth, say, $30 to its recipient represents a colossal waste of resources—especially as that transaction repeats millions of times. Though it could be argued that Hanukkah, with its relatively recent tradition of eight nights of presents, offends in this respect even more than Christmas, Waldfogel notes that wasteful gift-giving was not a part of his childhood: “I’m Jewish,” he remarks, “and I first encountered Christmas through my wife . . . and her very generous family.”
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Lee Eisenberg, former editor of Esquire, would call Waldfogel a “Buy Scold,” a curmudgeonly critic of American consumerism. In Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What (Free Press, November), Eisenberg argues that people spend with reckless abandon because shopping satisfies their fundamental needs—”What we buy confers instant membership in a community or, more fashionably, a ‘tribe,’” he writes, and, by choosing particular brands, we “express our values”—and that’s fine with him. Does it make one a hopeless curmudgeon to suggest, though, that more lasting and satisfying means for building community and expressing values might be located in religion, art, or public service, rather than at the mall?
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Perpetuating a community built upon values is a lot more difficult than building one around a brand of sneakers or handbags, though, because disagreements crop up so frequently among members of the former sort of tribe as to what exactly it is that unites them. As he discusses with Vox Tablet this week, Yale computer scientist David Hillel Gelernter sees this as a Jewish problem: “Unless the essence of Judaism is written down as plainly as can be,” he proclaims, rather dramatically, “the loosening grip most American Jews maintain on the religion of their ancestors will fail completely, and the community will plummet into the anonymous depths of history.” Hoping to prevent this, and speaking from the perspective of Orthodoxy—which he refers to as “normative Judaism”—Gelernter offers up “four theme-images,” each of which “captures all of Judaism from a certain angle,” in Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale, November).
Ask a different Jew, get a different “Jewish essence”: Esther Benbassa, an eminent French scholar of Sephardic Jewish history, proposes in Suffering as Identity: The Jewish Paradigm (Verso, November) that victimhood has perniciously become the thematic core of Jewish personal and communal identity in modernity. That writers and scholars produce such reductions of Jewish diversity to a putative Jewish essence regularly, and in doing so contradict one another, suggests that maybe the sage Shammai got this one right: Jewishness and Judaism just cannot be summarized while standing on one leg.
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Waldfogel notwithstanding, Americans’ irrational holiday spending has some beneficiaries: the young Israelis without work visas, for example, who staff kiosks in middle American malls during the holiday rush, hawking tchotchkes 13 hours at a stretch, six days a week. Hank Stuever’s Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November), which tracks the holiday rituals of Frisco, Texas, includes a brief profile of one such Israeli, Eitan, who admits he’s shocked by the reception a certain bearded gentleman receives at the mall: “I have never seen a Santa Claus,” he remarks. “He is like Paris Hilton here.” As much as the vitality of the contemporary Israeli economy owes to the country’s compulsory military service and a regular influx of Diaspora Jews and their money—as Dan Senor and Saul Singer explain in Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Twelve, November)—the extraordinary work ethic of guys like Eitan, willing to take awful gigs to save up for their post-military R&R trips through South America and India, explains some of it, too.
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Jews’ dislike for Christmas runs deeper than an objection to the holiday’s cheap sentimentality and lousy aesthetics: at times—for example, in Warsaw in 1881—Christmas has served as a pretext for vicious pogroms against alleged Christ-killers. That such Christian enmity could be stirred up against Jews over the centuries is even more of a shame than we tend to think, or so suggests Adiel Schremer’s Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity and Jewish Identity in Late Antiguity (Oxford, November). Schremer argues that rather than defining themselves in opposition to Christians, as has often been assumed, Jews in the first century CE concentrated more on their enmity for the Romans. Early Jews and Christians, in other words, clashed less than their descendants have.
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For all those Jewish parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles unwilling to follow Waldfogel’s counsel and eschew gifts, publishers provide plenty of children’s books as potential Hanukkah presents. Among the new offerings this year, a few charmingly bring the holiday spirit to the animal kingdom. The teddy bear protagonist of Don Freeman’s 1968 classic, Corduroy, encounters the holiday in a board book, Happy Hanukkah, Corduroy (Viking, October, ages 0-2), while rabbits devour latkes in Hoppy Hanukkah! (Albert Whitman, September, ages 2-5), and, in Menorah Under the Sea (Kar-Ben, September, ages 5-9), a marine biologist constructs a hanukkiya out of sea urchins. These are certainly more child-friendly than the violent, apocryphal Books of the Maccabees.
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Finally, here’s a stocking stuffer for folks who’d love to take the Christ out of Christmas: Greg Epstein, a Humanist rabbi, former rock-and-roller, and director of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, insists that you don’t need God to enforce morality. In Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe (Morrow, November), Epstein reaches out to progressive people of all faiths as well as to confirmed atheists, insisting that instead of Christopher Hitchens’ and Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious acrimony, atheists can emphasize the values and beliefs that bind them together. And, by the way, he’s all for Hanukkah: “Celebrating holidays is a natural, welcome, necessary part of human life,” he observes, “and a Humanism or atheism worth its salt does not callously or humorlessly dismiss this need.” Who’s up for some oily HumanLight latkes?
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