The Yiddishkeit of Bacon


My friend the brain surgeon has a complex attitude to his Jewish identity. He claims that whenever he eats a fried bacon breakfast it actually strengthens his feeling of Jewish culture because he says to himself, “Wow, I’m Jewish AND I’m eating a fried bacon breakfast.” I think his point is that for him, his Jewishness goes beyond the dietary restrictions traditionally prescribed by the Jewish religion. For him, Jewish identity works in a secular and cultural way.

I was reminded of the good doctor whilst decorating my first Christmas tree aged 30, at my parents-in-law. As a nice Jewish boy growing up I had not seen many of these trees in real life, and had stayed clear of the tacky and ignorant “Hanukkah Bushes” that were occasionally to be seen at friends’ houses. My parents-in-law are totally non-religious–and certainly have no Jewish ancestry–if they were to profess anything it would probably be a form of secular humanism. This seasonal decoration though, this “pagan superstition” (to quote my father-in-law!), was their one reflection of the general Christian culture of the West.

The digital photo of me placing the star at the top of the tree (I am a foot taller than my in-laws, and handy for high places) showed me grinning, and was emailed to my Jewish parents in England. My parents were happy I was having fun, and they love my wife and her family–still, I didn’t feel as though they were going to show the picture much beyond the immediate family. Differences between customs can be interesting and exciting but, beyond a certain point, they also become worrying. For our wedding we had explained the cultural, practical, and slight religious differences between our Jewish wedding in New York and the weddings in my parents’ community with the catch-all phrase “They do it differently in America.” This had the virtue of being accurate, but it blurred the differences between Jews and non-Jews, Americans and non-Americans. Now the differences, although hardly threatening, were somewhat more stark: clearly a Jew placing a star at the top of a Christmas tree was not a part of progressive Jewish practice even in the United States!

Despite the increasing homogenization of the global upper classes (known in the UK and the US as the middle classes) there are still significant cultural differences between different nationalities–even within the Anglophone world. These differences can be a drawback to a relationship or a boon; an obstacle to hurdle or a reason to celebrate. In the case of myself and my wife, the differences between our Jewish family and our secular family, our English family and our American family, our urban family and our rural family, are things we celebrate–a diversity to revel in. Five years ago I would never have dreamt of fishing and shooting in the Ohio countryside, nor would my father-in-law have pictured himself coming to a New York wedding for some sweaty Jewish folk dancing, nor would my wife have imagined herself discussing midrash with a rabbi over a Friday night meal. But all of these were fantastic opportunities through which both we, and the people who invited us in to participate, grew.

My wife and I hope to have children. We hope that they will go to both sets of grandparents and both sets of aunts and uncles to join in their festivities as open-minded Jewish children from a diverse extended family. I hope that they will go to my parents-in-law and have as much fun decorating the tree as I did. I hope they will be able to explain to their Jewish friends why they are decorating the tree, and to their non-Jewish friends why it is that they have to think, “Wow, I’m Jewish AND I’m decorating a Christmas tree!”