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  • Chrismukkah as Happy Ending?The Weihnukka Exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin as German-Jewish Integration Fantasy
  • Cary Nathenson

In the mid-1940s, a little girl on the South Side of Chicago really, really wanted a Christmas tree. This commonplace request was complicated by just one thing: the girl, like most of her neighbors, was Jewish. The temper tantrum must have been ferocious, because the girl somehow got her mother to give in. A tree was procured and smuggled down the alley into the apartment, lest the neighbors get wind of the shande. The girl enjoyed her Christmas tree, alongside her Hanukkah menorah, until one day she developed a fever, and the tree was hastily stuffed into a closet before the pediatrician, Dr. Rosen-bloom, arrived.

The stress of this secret Christmas was ultimately too much bother, so this would be my mother’s one and only “Chrismukkah” celebration. Of course, she didn’t know to call it that, nor did she know that craving a Christmas tree placed her on a historical continuum with her German-Jewish ancestors, some of whom might have celebrated the hybrid holiday called “Weihnukka” (from Weihnachten, German for “Christmas.”) Weihnukka was not an actual holiday but referred instead to the practice of some assimilated—but not converted—Jews who adopted Christmas rituals in the private sphere. In some German-Jewish bourgeois homes of the Wilhelmine era, trees, advent calendars, wreaths and other, mostly superficial trappings of the holiday co-existed, if not usurped, the rituals of Judaism’s winter holiday, Hanukkah. To the extent the term was used at all, Weihnukka was probably mostly heard mockingly by Jews who were embarrassed by this behavior.1 The Christmas these Jews celebrated was less about the birth of Jesus Christ than it was about fitting in with neighbors. Christmas was widely seen as belonging to and defining of the German nation rather than a religious festival, and therefore celebrating the holiday was just something that “real” Germans did, regardless of their religion. While some German-Jews no doubt experienced feelings of embarrassment, even shame, at assimilating Christmas into their family traditions, others achieved what was certainly the main objective: a sense of normalcy as Germans while maintaining self-identification as Jewish. [End Page 57]

For one assimilated Jewish-German child, Christmas was so fully part of his normal family life that the tree in the gute Stube appeared without question each December. It was only after National Socialist racial laws required him to attend special Jewish-only schools that he learned that Jews actually celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas. Not coincidentally, these are the recollections of Michael Blumenthal, a Jew from Oranienburg, just north of Berlin, who would escape fascism and later became Treasury Secretary under U.S. President Jimmy Carter and who now heads the Jewish Museum Berlin.2 The cultural-historical oddity of German-Jewish Christmas celebrations was the subject of a temporary exhibit at the museum. The show, titled “Weihnukka: Geschichten von Weihnachten und Chanukka” (Chrismukkah: Stories of Christmas and Hanukkah), was on display from October 2005 to January 2006. Now, even several years later, it is apparent that the Weihnukka show can be read as a significant moment along a line of the continuity and discontinuity of Jewish, German, and “Jewish-German” identity.

The exhibit mostly featured artifacts and texts documenting nineteenth-and early-twentieth- century holiday practices, explaining Hanukkah for non-Jewish museum visitors, and casting Christmas as a celebration in the German-nationalist context of the era.3 While the fraught navigation of Jewish-German identity in Gründerzeit Germany is at the core of the exhibit, what captured my attention were the elements of contemporary American popular culture used to conclude the show. The museum administration contends that they were included merely to bring this cultural history up to date for visitors.4 This was no doubt their intention, and yet I will argue that these American aspects of the Weihnukka exhibit have important functions and meanings beyond the superficial level of visitor experience. I look back, then, at this exhibit, in order to interrogate its implications for global identity and even the traditional idea of diaspora in the context...


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pp. 57-69
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