This is the second installment of “Human Resources,” an advice column from The Point written by Anastasia Berg.
Dear Human Resources,
I’m Jewish, and growing up I never felt like I was missing out on Christmas—in fact, I was grateful to be spared participation in it! (We were not one of those Jewish families that had a Christmas tree.) But this year I’ve been invited to spend Christmas with my girlfriend’s family. Even worse: I’m kind of looking forward to it, and interested in experiencing these exotic practices—tree-decorating, gift-giving—that I’ve been culturally bombarded by all my life but never known as an “insider.” But it also feels like a betrayal of how I was raised, like I’ve proven myself unable to hold out against the temptations of American Christian hegemony. What’s more, I’m anxious about the prospect of getting and receiving gifts for my girlfriend and her family, which seems like the ultimate act of capitulation to Christmas commercialism. Is my fear of Christmas cheer legitimate, or should I just get over myself?
—Possibly Over-Rationalizing Temptation to Noël, Oy Yoy
Your fears are legitimate: Staying with a romantic partner’s parents over a holiday can be stressful at the best of times—that is, even without having to worry about possible familial betrayal and moral bankruptcy, or worse, getting exposed as a tasteless cheapskate. These worries should not, however, stand in the way of your embracing the holiday spirit.
Let us begin with the crisis of assimilation. The question of the duties of hosts and guests has received pride of place in Jewish law, which seeks to provide concrete guidance not only in matters of faith and religious ritual, but in every aspect of ordinary life. Indeed, hosting well is so important to Jews that it has been said that the Jewish character of a person can be determined by the measure of her hospitality.
The law discusses not only the various ways in which a host and guest must conduct themselves—hosts should not examine their guests’ food portions, so as not to embarrass them; guests should not overstay their welcome—but also questions about potential conflicts between the duties of hosts and guests and other duties: Should a person break off the Amidah prayer in order to receive their guests? (No.) Should a person on their way to study stay back to perform their hosting duties? (Yes, if no one else can do it.) But the paramount significance of hospitality—what is most gravely at stake—comes through when the law acknowledges that sharing one’s table and roof with others inevitably stages a confrontation with their ways of life: hosts and guests may have different levels of observance; they may not even share the same religion. To host, or allow yourself to be a guest in another’s home, is to encounter radical difference, and to risk your own identity.
The Jewish law does not, however, give in to paranoia. According to the Babylonian Talmud, in the first recorded instance of hospitality in the Bible, when Abraham, recently circumcised, received three strangers— later revealed as angels—into his home, he first took them for idol-worshippers. Nevertheless, it is said, he did well to receive them so generously, despite his own state, and despite the risk they posed to his person and his faith. Accordingly, the duties of hospitality have been determined to be so important that in order to execute them Jews are permitted all sorts of observance violations, even with respect to Kosher laws and Shabbat prohibitions. Generosity—sharing one’s bounty with others, showing kindness to those in need—is determined to be no less important than the necessity of conducting oneself correctly with respect to food, or time.
The importance of showing respect to guests and hosts in these ways is multiplied in cases where the hosts and guests are related—and especially so when they are related by marriage—by the sort of duties that ought to govern relations between children and their parents, spouses and children- and parents-in-law. To this day, observant Jews who turn to rabbinical authorities in order to determine how to handle the odd dinner invitation from their secular in-laws are instructed in how to balance the prohibitions related to the sanctity of the day with those pertaining to showing one’s in-laws due regard. “Explain to the children the problem, and they will not be badly influenced,” one contemporary rabbi concludes his answer to an Orthodox couple who are concerned about the presence of secular relatives at their parents’ Shabbat meal.
Am I saying that Jewish law commands you, PORTNOY, to celebrate Christmas? No. An Orthodox rabbi would strongly disapprove of your celebration of Christmas, as he would of much else in your life. But you were never asking for Halachic approval. From your letter, I sense that your family, as so many diasporic Jewish families, is not observant. Your family has attempted, in its own way, to preserve its identity, by adhering to a set of customs and by various symbolic gestures. It can feel scary to give up on such a custom or a gesture; they can seem, after all, like all you’ve got. What I suggest therefore is that you consider accepting the Christmas invitation not as a giving up of a Jew-ish commitment, but as the taking up of a new one. In joining your girlfriend’s family for Christmas there is an opportunity to preserve a dimension of some of the most fundamental duties that have constituted Jewish identity: the duty to show respect to your partner and her parents, and to give them the chance to welcome you into their home, and, briefly, into their way of life.
But what about all those useless gifts? Here again, we will begin by consulting some Jewish authorities—but worry not, PORTNOY, I will not proceed to argue that commercialism, too, is an integral part of the Jewish identity. For I’m speaking of course about Jacques Derrida!
In Given Time, Derrida explored a fundamental tension between the very idea and the practice of gift-giving. On the one hand, what essentially distinguishes the “gift” from other forms of exchange is that it is given with no expectation of reciprocation. “For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt.” It is “aneconomic,” and it thereby holds the liberatory promise of “suspending economic calculation” altogether. But the actual practice of gift-giving, insofar as it takes place in time, in the midst of ongoing personal and social relationships, always falls short of this ideal. In fact, it contradicts it entirely. Gifts are almost always “in circulation”: friends who alternate hosting one another alternate, too, in telling one another to bring nothing but themselves, expecting wine. Couples announce they do not want gifts next to links to their wedding registries. Gifts for special occasions—births, birthdays, new homes—raise the expectation of reciprocation; they create debts.
The degree to which gifts are deeply embedded in practices of exchange is perhaps most evident during Christmas. Especially for outsiders, the threat of failing to reciprocate the generosity of the various family members in such cases is great. The solution? Give up trying.
In ordinary cases, to attempt participation in a practice is to attempt to participate well: for example, to learn how to play soccer is not to try to run around a field, kicking a ball every which way, but to try to score goals. But if gift-giving is, as Derrida teaches us, an essentially “impossible” feat, there is no such thing as doing it expertly. You cannot, after all, be good at squaring a circle. And herein lies the answer to your worry about capitulating to Christmas commercialism. The gift may not be able to liberate us from economic exchange, but its internal contradiction can liberate us from its heavily advertised rituals of reciprocity. The paradox of the gift frees us from the tyranny of the unwritten norm of trying to give things other people are likely to enjoy. In short, dear PORTNOY, to give gifts does not require trying to give good gifts.
It follows that you are entirely entitled to give them things that you would enjoy them having. If these happen to be things that they will appreciate, all the better, of course. This is no contradiction: in his seminal 1925 monograph, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss concludes that the archaic social practice of gift exchange was at one and the same time both self-interested as well as concerned with others. So ask yourself: Do they like classical music? Can you bring yourself to support the symphony orchestra? Great! Give them concert tickets. Do they like cheese? Can you recognize the right of American dairy farmers to make a living? Fantastic! A cheese subscription it is! But these standards are mere suggestions. You’re free to use your Christmas shopping budget as you see fit. A dish for your favorite vegan food? Sure. A subscription to your favorite lefty magazine? That works, too. Hanukkah-themed Christmas ornaments? Excellent choice. As are absolutely all the books you’ve ever liked.
Wouldn’t such gifts be coldly received? No. Gifts do not free us entirely of the demands of economic exchange, but they are not identical to it either. People do not actually think of their gifts as currency, and while they do expect something in return, the standards of reciprocity are loose. As a Jew with a few Christmases under her belt I’m happy to report that bad gifts, in fact, do just as well (my father in law once gave me a volume of critical essays on Kant’s third Critique—my least favorite Critique!—and I still married his son).
My personal recommendation? A box set of Claude Lanzmann’s 566-minute documentary film, Shoah. It’s the ultimate crossover.