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Schitts Creek Holiday Special Johnnys Menorah Still Lit in Diaspora

CBC s hit show Schitts Creek aired its last episode April 2020 and fans clearly miss it. The show followed parents Johnny Rose  Eugene Levy and his wife Moira Rose  Catherine O Hara  who  with their grown children David Daniel Levy and Alexis  Annie Murphy  find themselves forced from their California mansion to Schitts Creek a small rural town. Over six seasons  the show won scores of awards and was recognized for its deft handling of a range of identity issues particularly LGBTQ  relationships socio economic class and Canadian ness.

The book Best Wishes  Warmest Regards The Story of Schitts Creek by son and father duo Daniel and Eugene Levy co creators of the show  was recently published in time for gift giving this Christmas and  indeed  Hanukkah. As I have argued  Schitts Creek is also fundamentally about Jewish identity and presents one contemporary interpretation of the most central of historically Jewish themes  exile and diaspora. In real life Eugene Levy is Jewish  as is Johnny. Moira is not Jewish. David names his religious identity as a delightful half half situation. In the shows 80 episode run  the Christmas special Merry Christmas Johnny Rose Season 4 Episode 13 is among fan favorites. The episode demonstrates how the omnipresence of Christmas has offered American Jews like Johnny a variety of non exclusive options for handling the holiday season: Ignore or distance themselves from Christmas  embrace at least its more secular aspects and bond with other non Christian groups who may also feel like outsiders.

Johnny s Christmas tree
Eugene Levy writes in Best Wishes that he hoped the Schitts Creek holiday episode would reflect his own real life manic insanity about the holiday. In the holiday episode  Johnny Rose desperately wants a Christmas tree and celebration in his new hometown of Schitts Creek. Moira  and grown children  David and Alexis  not so much. The special shows flashbacks of the lavish  elegant  over the top Christmas parties thrown by the Rose family in their pre Schitts Creek life  a towering decorated Norway spruce tree  guests decked out in their fanciest party clothes  champagne flowing freely and in the background panned over very quickly by the camera a silver menorah  just slightly behind and to the side of the tree.

Jews and Christmas
Just how representative of American Jewrys relationship to Christmas is Johnny s love of the holiday? Orthodox Jews are  unsurprisingly  the least involved in even highly secularized Christmas celebrations. Indeed it might surprise some observers to know that even one per cent of ultra Orthodox Jews reported to the 2013 Pew survey that they placed Christmas trees in their homes.

Many Orthodox Jews today abstain from Torah study on Christmas eve.

Daily Torah study is believed to be a religious obligation. So why abstain on Christmas Eve? The fraught and often dangerous historical relationship between Eastern European Orthodox Jewry and their Christian neighbour shaped the religious practices of these Jewish communities on Christmas. By the early 17th century many Hasidic Jews followed the practice of not studying Torah on Nit tel Natch Nativity night  or as it is called today Christmas Eve.Explanations for the prohibition on Torah study include the practical there was an increased risk of violence against Jews on Christmas Eve so Jews should not risk traveling to their houses of study. Other explanations focus on the the more mystical such as the belief that Jesus is being punished for his sin of apostasy and that the spiritual benefits of Torah study would bring him respite.

Jewish composers of Christmas songs
Liberal American Jews on the other hand, have a long history of not only celebrating, but also helping to create Christmas traditions. The iconic Christmas songs White Christmas Rock in  Around the Christmas Tree Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Let It Snow  Let It Snow  Let It Snow Silver Bells The Christmas Song and Walk in In a Winter Wonderland  were all written by Jews. These Jewish songwriters, children of Jewish immigrants  found the Christmas season to be an opportunity to showcase their talents. Composing Christmas music helped them to enter into the worlds of Broadway and Hollywood while demonstrating their wholehearted embrace of their new homeland.

Some American Jews also enjoy Christmas decor  particularly the Christmas tree during the holiday season The Pew 2013 report found that nearly a third of Jews report having a Christmas tree in their home. Many liberal Jews in the late 19th century decorated their homes with trees including famous Jews like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis  the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court.The practice declined somewhat mid century only to increase once again in the past 40 years in parallel with increasing rates of intermarriage and the arrival of many Russian Jewish immigrants who were accustomed to celebrating the season with a New Years tree.

Synthetic religion?
Are Jews who delight in their Christmas trees embracing a syncretic form of religion  a fusion of different religions beliefs and practices   or signalling their participation in groups such as Jews for Jesus? Overwhelmingly, no. Rather Christmas is embraced by many liberal Jews as a secular American holiday, described by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman a liberal Reform rabbi  as a holiday when Americans are infused with good will toward all. For Rabbi Hoffman however the essence of Christmas remains a feast on the Christian calendar celebrating the incarnation of the son of God. While Rabbi Hoffman writes that he likes Santa  Christmas music  his neighbour wreaths and Christmas trees  he draws the line at celebrating even a secularized version of Christmas in his own home. Whether Jews put up Christmas trees in their homes or not  however there is one practice often shared across the spectrum of Jewish movements today Eating Chinese food on Christmas. At her confirmation hearing in 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was asked by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham where she had spent the previous Christmas. Justice Kagan famously replied You know like all Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.

Menorah travelled with them
At the end of the Schitts Creek holiday special Johnny spots his menorah, all eight candles lit  and moves it away from the garland hanging over it  for fear it may cause a fire and burn down the motel. The menorah, unlike so many other trappings of the Rose family life pre Schitts Creek travelled with them. Neither forgotten nor left behind in the chaos of their exodus the menorah is still with them polished and lit  a miracle  indeed.

Celia E. Rothen berg is Associate Professor at the Department of Religious Studies Master University.

The Conversation arose out of deep seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. Its a societal good  like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead  they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on Flagler Live.

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