what’s it like being jewish at christmas?

Speaking to Shari Leibler, a young traditional Jew, about how she navigates (and kind of loves) the Christian holiday.

by Sarah Gooding
10 December 2015, 3:55am

With Christmas approaching it's increasingly difficult to ignore the overwhelming presence of iconography relating to the religious holiday. Non-native pine trees, Santas, reindeers, fake snow, nostalgic-songs-about-Jesus and Christian churches are having their annual moment in the sun but, with an increasingly multicultural Australian society, how do those outside the Christian faith feel and engage? With pundits, particularly in the USA, declaring the existence of 'a war on Christmas' within their communities, there undeniably exists tension around the occasion we celebrate with little question, every December 25th.  

Only 61% of the population of Australia identifies as Christian, but every year many more of us indulge in the religion's tradition, despite relating to other faiths, or none at all. Nowadays Christmas is more of a cultural tradition than a religious one. It's a festive, visually appealing break from work where you eat good food and hang out with your friends and family and this is most likely why people of other faiths don't necessarily feel alienated during this time, but in fact feel comfortable embracing the holiday in their own ways.

In our first piece of this series, young Muslim blogger Wiwid Howat admitted she loves decorating Christmas trees, and in this instalment 25-year-old fashion marketer Shari Leibler tells us she also enjoys the festivities, even though they're at odds with her Jewish faith.

What do you think it is about Christmas that makes people such as yourself take part in another religion's ritual for a day?
We get into the festive spirit. With the number of Jewish holidays that take place on a yearly basis, we are quite the pros. We have big Friday night dinners, which are the equivalent of Christmas, every single Friday night. So I find it funny to see what a fuss people make, because I'm used to weekly dinners for up to 20 people.

That's impressive!
Yeah. After Friday night we all usually nurse bloated stomachs from overeating. The amount of food we eat on a weekly basis is probably one of the contributing factors to the Jewish predisposition to IBS. I'm saying that sarcastically, obviously.

So after all of those festivities, how do you feel by the time Christmas rolls around? Are you exhausted?
No, because we are so used to the big shenanigans. I think it's great. Christmas Day for us is seen as another excuse to be with friends and family. We do our own thing at Christmas, something different each year. If the weather's nice we're all by the pool, eating - which we're good at!

Do you adapt any of the rituals around Christmas to yourself?
I have worn a Santa hat or two in my life, but that's about it! In terms of present giving, we have a festival a few weeks before Christmas, called Hanukkah, and we give presents then.

How would you describe the intensity of your faith?
Judaism is a religion that is multifaceted and there are many different ways to live a Jewish life. It is as intense as you choose it to be. For me personally, I am a traditional Jew and enjoy cultural and spiritual aspects of the religion. For example, the emphasis on family and continuity is something I deeply value. I also keep the sabbath, so I don't use electronics like my phone for 24 hours from Friday to Saturday every week.

The constitution mentions God and Christianity is the main religion in Australia, however many people here aren't Christian and think there should be a separation between the church and the state, but in Australia it feels like Christmas is a state-sponsored holiday. Do you think there should be more of a separation there?
Not necessarily, I think that religion is an integral part of people's lives. The same as Christianity, we believe in one God and there's a connection there. We understand what it's like to be religious, to live a religious life with similar values and morals.

Do you think there should be more recognition of other religious holidays by the government?
Obviously it would be nice, especially when we have to take leave on certain Jewish holidays, but I guess we're all used to it and that's the way it is in Australia. In America it's much more normal - the Jewish high holidays, the whole country has off, which is lucky. But we're not quite there yet.

Growing up, did you ever felt alienated as a Jew at Christmas time?
I never felt alienated in any way. Growing up I never felt like I was missing out on the hype. I celebrate Hanukkah close to Christmas time and we have doughnuts and light candles for eight days. We also have parties with our friends and families. And, just to clarify, there are no holiday armadillos.

Do you know if any of your Jewish friends or family members felt alienated at all?
I went to a Jewish school so I never felt alienated. I don't think my peers did either because we live in a multicultural society.

Do you think people of non-Christian faiths, such as yourself, feel comfortable and enjoy celebrating Christmas because it's more widely accepted as a cultural holiday rather than a religious one?
Christmas is a visually attractive festival and it's something I embrace. I know it's not mine, but it's something I enjoy. Last year I was in London for the Christmas lights on Regent Street and loving the decorations. Every year there is a different theme and the city stops and waits for the unveiling. If anything, Australia needs to get way more into Christmas.


Text Sarah Gooding