Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

Chrismukkah is the reality in modern America: It is what it is ...

It's a question that may pop into the minds of Jewish children at some point when they are little: Does Santa Claus deliver their Hanukkah presents?

The answer must be "no," according to shopping-mall orthodoxy, since the cultural icon called Santa does his thing on Christmas Eve.

Hanukkah gifts have to come from somewhere else and, according to a daring new book for children, that pre-dawn work is done by a Steampunk-styled Jewish hero named Hanukkah Harvie, who flies out of the Statue of Liberty in his Hanukkopter.

But that solution to the presents puzzle raises another tricky question: What happens when Christmas falls during Hanukkah and Santa Claus and Harvie show up at the same house? After all, a 2013 study by the Pew Forum Religion & Public Life found that the intermarriage rate has hit 58 percent for all American Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. Lots of children are growing up in homes that, to one degree or another, are interfaith.

"The reality, like it or not, is that there are a million-plus children that are doing this, who are trying to make sense out of Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time," asked David Michael Slater, author of "Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus."

"Do they have a story? What's that like? … I was trying to walk a fine line, while avoiding having to take a stand on all of these hot-button issues. I guess this book's message isn't really religious at all, but it's about people who are trying to live together with some kind of tolerance."

Hanukkah is already a complex and ironic holiday. This year's eight-day "Festival of Lights" began at sundown on Dec. 12th. The season's symbol is a menorah with nine candles symbolizing a miracle -- tradition says that a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated their temple from Greek oppressors. The center candle is used to light the other candles, with one new candle on each night.

This was once a simple season with simple pleasures.

A growing hole in the middle of American Jewry

There is a Yiddish saying about the mysteries of faith, family and fellowship that, loosely translated, proclaims: "You cannot make Shabbat by yourself." "The point is that you need the presence of other Jews around you to live out the dictates of your Jewish beliefs," said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, of the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College.

Shabbat creates that circle of support. Beginning minutes before sundown on Friday, it involves a day of rest, prayer, ritual feasting and ties that bind. Some of these traditions are defined by faith while others are rooted in ethnicity and culture. But the whole ancient package assumes that Shabbat brings Jews together.

So what does it mean when the first major study of American Jews in more than a decade shows that -- even among Jews who call themselves religious -- only 33 percent believe being part of a Jewish community is "essential to being Jewish"? Only 23 percent of these "Jews by religion" considered it essential to follow Jewish laws.

The results in this Pew Research Center study were, of course, even more sobering among the rising number of Jews -- one in five -- who said they had "no religion at all."

"In theory, Jews who answer 'none' when asked about their religion can still be part of the wider Jewish community. There's nothing new about that," said Cohen, in a telephone interview.

In practice, however, this "none" trend is viewed as negative by many Americans who consider the practice of Judaism to be a crucial part of Jewish identity, he said. Thus, the rising number of Jewish "nones" has many of the same serious implications as the much-discussed national rise in the number of the religiously unaffiliated among people in general.

This national survey of Jews, by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, is the first conducted by an institution outside the Jewish community. Jewish surveys in recent decades have consistently caused controversy because of fierce debates about how to define who is, and who is not, Jewish.

Among its headline-grabbing findings, this survey noted:

* The percentage of adults who are "Jews by religion" has declined by about half since the 1950s. While 93 percent of G.I. Generation Jews call themselves religious Jews, only 68 percent of young "Millennial" Jews make that claim.

* Only 15 percent of those surveyed said being Jewish is "mainly a matter of religion," as opposed to 62 percent who said Jewish identity is primarily about ancestry and culture. Two-thirds said it isn't necessary for Jews to believe in God.

*Among "Jews of no religion," 79 percent have a non-Jewish spouse, compared to 36 percent of religious Jews. This is crucial, since 96 percent of Jews married to Jews raise their children in the faith, while only 20 percent of intermarried Jews do so. And Orthodox Jews continue to have much higher birthrates than other Jews.

In addition to raising demographic questions about the future, the growing divide between secular and religious Jews can cause sparks in daily life, said Naomi Zeveloff, of the Jewish Daily Forward. In a recent article she noted that when Chabad-Lubavitch activists go "bageling" -- approaching New Yorkers to ask if they are Jewish -- they have an unusual way of verifying that they are on target.

One "surefire way" to know someone is Jewish, she wrote, is that "they react to your question with anger," like one subway rider who replied, "I'm not religious" when approached by Jews in typically Orthodox garb.

"If you are a secular Jew, anything goes," said Zeveloff, in a telephone interview. "Many secular Jews assume that religious Jews, especially the Orthodox, don't think they are Jewish enough and that their Judaism is somehow invalid or inferior."

Jewish community leaders, said Cohen, must face a growing hole in the middle of American Jewry as "nones" surge on one side, and the Orthodox hold firm on the other. However, they can take comfort in the fact that Jews have "invented new ways to be Jewish" through the ages.

"You can be Jewish by being religious, but you can also say that you are a Jew because your politics are liberal," he said. "We have Zionists. We have secular Zionists and we have religious Zionists, we have left-wing Zionists and we have right-wing Zionists. ... Judaism has always been a kind of cottage industry."