If you decide to spend Christmas watching the Yule log on television this year, it will be by choice, and not for lack of things to do over the holiday. Comedy shows complete with Chinese dinner, nightclub events, holiday yoga and the annual day of activities at the National Museum of American Jewish History are among the most high-profile examples of what to do as a Jew on Dec. 24 and 25.
The choices illustrate how far we’ve come from the days when Eastern and Central European Jews hid in their houses to avoid being attacked by Christians, and from the 19th-century practice of German Jews decorating their homes for Christmas, complete with tannenbaums.
Mark Leuchter, the director of Jewish Studies at Temple University, says that although Christmas retains its religious import for Christians, it also “has started to move much more into the American civil culture.”
It is that very culture that has sparked efforts to carve out a distinctive place for Jewish expression. Leuchter says that the “cultural competition” that surrounds us — at least three local FM radio stations, for example, are playing nothing but Christmas songs these days — “might be why Jews struggle to do something on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
“They can say, ‘This is an important time of the year for us as Jewish Americans, not necessarily as people who are committed to a particular theology, but people who are part of a particular community at a particular place in a particular time.’ ”
For three decades, the place to find many Jews on Christmas Day — at least among families with young children — has been the National Museum of American Jewish History’s “Being Jewish at Christmas.”
“This will be our third Christmas in the new building,” says Emily August, the museum’s public programs manager. “The program has been running for 30 years, but we haven’t done anything new” with the format in all that time.
They’re changing both the offerings and the target audience this year. While they’re still marketing the program with the same name to the Jewish community, they’ve replaced the “Jewish” with the more inclusive “___” to market it to a wider audience.
This, according to August, is in keeping with the museum’s recent strategic planning initiative to extend beyond the Jewish community to attract more visitors.
The most significant change to the Dec. 25 programming this year is the addition of Baby Loves Disco, the DJ-led dance party for children and their parents. The company, which was co-founded by local entrepreneur Andy Blackman Hurwitz, creates a space where children dance in a nightclub setting to real music while their parents can choose to dance with them or to socialize with each other.
Other planned activities include performances by The Great Holtzie, a comedian voted “Best of Philly” for children’s entertainment, and a hamsa-making workshop with instructors from The Clay Studio. There will also be extra docents on hand to help guide the day’s visitors through the exhibits.
The night before Christmas is a decidedly low-key affair. Most businesses close up early, including bars and entertainment venues.
For those who want to be stirred, though, Warren Hoffman has just the thing.
The senior director of programming at the Gershman Y is responsible for Moo Shu Jew, a night of comedy and Chinese food created by New York comic Cory Kahaney. Now in its fifth year, this amalgam of some of our favorite things has proven so successful that the 2012 version will take over the entire 200-plus seat Ocean Harbor restaurant in Chinatown.
For Hoffman and the Gershman, an event like Moo Shu Jew is a logical way to not only fulfill their mission of bringing culture to the community, but to do so in a slightly irreverent way. “We’re trying to raise the bar on an old tradition by providing a first-class experience,” says Hoffman.“It’s not just any night of Jewish comedy — we bring in some of the country’s top comedians.”
For this year’s event, in addition to the multicourse (non-kosher) menu, the bill of fare includes the talents of Ross Bennett, often called “the No. 1 clean comedian in America”; Lenny Marcus, a regular at New York clubs; and Joel Chasnoff, a regular on NPR.
The success of Moo Shu Jew has not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by comedy-and-Chinese-food events springing up across the country, including the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill’s “Laughter and Lo Mein,” which features a kosher Chinese meal and the comedy of Brad Zimmerman on the same evening as Moo Shu Jew. And the competition doesn’t stop there: Jewbilee and MatzoBall are nightclub-centered social events on Dec. 24 that are big draws to young professionals.
Hoffman says that in an effort to bring in a younger crowd, he’s working with The Collaborative to offer their members a limited number of reduced-price tickets.
Contrary to what you may have heard and experienced for all these years, there are other Christmas dining options. “According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5773,” an unattributed quip begins. “According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4709. That means that for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food.”
Among area restaurants that will be open both Dec. 24 and 25 are: Chima, the Center City churrascaria that offers over a dozen different cuts of grilled beef parading by your table and sliced to order by attendant gauchos; Merion Station’s newly opened Citron and Rose, featuring the talents of Michael Solomonov translated into a refined kosher menu; family-style platters overflowing with Italian food at Buca di Beppo’s area locations; an updated steakhouse experience at Chadds Ford’s Brandywine Prime; and city skyline views to go along with the cuisine of Daniel Stern at R2L.
If you’re looking for sustenance of another sort, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, of West Philadelphia’s Kol Tzedek, has a recommendation. “Something that you can do on Christmas that is really lovely is to volunteer,” she says. For example, if you volunteer in a hospital or a food pantry, she says, “then you’re giving the people who are Christian and work there the opportunity to go home and be with their families.”
Each institution has its own requirements for volunteering, so be sure to thoroughly explore what those are before deciding where to go. There is no readily available compendium of volunteering opportunities on Christmas Day, but the aptly named Noelle Dames, the outreach coordinator for Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, suggests contacting the following organizations to see what you can do to help: St. John’s Hospice (215-563-7763); Feast of Justice (215-268-3510); and Old First Reformed United Church of Christ (215-922-4566).
Finally, Grabelle Herrmann offers an additional bit of counter-programming. “Around this time of year, because Christmas is so dominant, everyone is very sensitive to thinking about their Jewish identity. It’s a great opportunity for people to get together, to connect with each other and be part of a larger community.”
IF YOU GO
Moo Shu Jew
Dec. 24, 6:00 p.m.
Ocean Harbor Restaurant
1023 Race St.
Laughter and Lo Mein
Dec. 24, 6:30 p.m.
$20 to $30/person
1301 Springdale Rd., Cherry Hill, N.J.
Dec 24., 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
1500 Sansom St.
Dec. 24, 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
111 S. 17th St.
Studio 34 “Holiday Morning Align and Flow Yoga”
Dec. 25, 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
$6-$10 sliding scale
4522 Baltimore Ave.
Being Jewish (or –––––) at Christmas
Dec. 25, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Included with museum admission
Fifth and Market Streets