Sarah is acting mayor for ten days. During this time Joe runs over the sign at the town entrance, Sarah gets a new one that has many languages on it – but no English. Yassir is relegated to be the pretty face next to the mayor and launches his own campaign to teach people how to use tools. McGee takes up painting and Amaar has to pretend to like the results.
Fatima: About that sign.
Sarah: Oh, don’t tell me you want Nigerian on that sign.
Fatima: Of course not. I want Yuruba, what we speak in Nigeria.
This episode takes a satirical look at gender roles. Sarah is doing business with the men, while Yassir has drinks with the spouses. We have Yassir behaving irrationally ("like a woman") when Sarah criticizes his campaign and in the same episode have him being the stereotypical man who does stuff with tools. The episode is more comedy than anything and does not provide us with information on how gender roles are viewed in Islam, but I want to talk a bit about gender roles in Judaism.
First off, this is a highly controversial topic and probably many people won’t agree with what I am writing. Traditionally, Judaism is very gendered and prescribes different roles for the two genders. Women and men have different religious obligations. While both are required to pray, only men are required to pray in "public", i.e., in a group. That women are not required to do so, leads to their traditional exclusion from various roles that are reserved for those who have the requirement of public prayer (i.e., men): women do not count for the quorum of 10 men required for a prayer service, women do not lead services, women do not read from the Torah, women do not put on Tallit and Tefilin. Nowadays, this is still the way prayer works in many traditional orthodox communities. In some modern orthodox communities and in other streams of Judasim, women do some or all of the above. And many (non-orthodox) synagogues have practically erased all gender differences in rituals.
The different roles (and probably a good dose of historical discrimination of women and sexism) are reflected in non-ritual parts of Judaism as well. When we look at "preferred lives" for men and women, there is the ideal that women take care of the house and children and men learn Torah. Women are mothers, men are learners. The role of women is not unimportant, the home is the place where lots of Jewish rituals happen. But what if a women does not want or cannot have children? The ideal role of men is different from what Westerners usually associate with traditional male roles (feeding the family). But what if a man is not made to be a learner? And then there is the whole issue of whether it is permissible for a woman to fill the man’s role of learning Torah. Hence the hot debate in orthodoxy about whether women can be rabbis (the non-orthodox movements have long decided that yes they can). If you wonder whether women can learn non-religious stuff – that is usually not a question. Orthodox women are doctors, lawyers, you-name-its. Some circles prioritize men’s learning so much that it’s the women who earn the money for the family and the men learn Torah full-time.
It is a pity that we haven’t seen more about Islam’s vision of gender in this episode, but I would guess that – like Judaism – there is some discrepancy between Western egalitarian values and traditional role models. And while there is definitely a defensible basis in Jewish/Muslim thought and we maybe shouldn’t throw all of this away, the concepts are probably influenced by any number of things besides Judaism/Islam (from traditional sexism to making a statement against the sexualization of secular society). There has been a lot of discussion and change going on about this topic in the last few decades and I doubt that we have reached the end of it.
I am sorry for the long break in posting. Life has come in the way and I simply didn’t have the time or the piece of mind to sit down and blog. I have a list of topics I want to address, but you will have to wait until January to see the first post I suppose. Sorry! But don’t worry, I’ll be back!
I do not claim to have the ultimate answer and at the end each person will have her own preferences, but here are some guidelines on what to consider when chosing a siddur (prayer book). Add your own in the comments!
- Nusach: The first question is which nusach (something like prayer tradition?) you want/need. You will usually want to get a siddur that matches the nusach of the place where you usually pray. Otherwise you will have difficulties to follow, as the differences between the different nusachim can be large, e.g., Sefardim read shir haShirim (the song of songs) on Friday evenings, Ashkenazim don’t. The nusach is usually indicated on the title or the first page of a siddur.
- Translation: The next question is whether the siddur should contain a translation at all or whether it will be all-Hebrew. Or text in Hebrew but directions in a different language. I’ve seed a few weird siddurim that are "mostly" translated, e.g., kabbalat shabat has "bameh madlikin" without translation. In my opinion there is no good reason for this in the age of cheap paper and I’d not buy such a siddur. If there is a translation, every word of the prayer should be translated.
- Transliteration: Many people don’t want transliteration at all. For the others, do you want it for the whole text, or only the passages that are said aloud? This probably comes down to your ability to read Hebrew, but I’d say try to get it for the complete text, as customs vary on what is said aloud.
- Position of the translation and transliteration: The usual placement is Hebrew right, translation left, side-by-side. But you can have the text side-by-side on opposite pages or at the left/right of each page. When transliteration is added, usually you’d have the transliteration side-by-side with the Hebrew and the translation below. Sometimes there are three columns, Hebrew, transliteration and translation. No matter which, if you are not perfect in Hebrew, you will want to skip between Hebrew and transliteration/translation and the easier that is, the better. Pay attention to the line breaks, are they at identical places? Are the lines matched side-by-side or are lines closer together on one side making it impossible to find the lines that correspond to each other? If this is the case, can you at least find corresponding paragraphs and are page breaks the same?
- Directions: By this I mean insertions like "stand here" or "read only on chol haMoed". These direction can be in Hebrew or translation on the Hebrew side. They can be very extensive and cover every movement like standing, sitting, bowing, covering your eyes, the prayer leader reads aloud starting from here, etc. Or just the basic reminders of what to say at which special day. This is a question of personal taste, but be aware that extensive directions usually rely on one specific custom and there are many customs. So your community may not always do what your siddur says. But still, directions can be a huge help to feel more comfortable in the service and also to find your place (where’s the next "stand up"… ah, here we are at the moment!).
- Markup: It is quite common that insertions for special days (shabat, holidays) are printed in a box with a gray background which makes them easily recognizable. Is there such kind of markup? Are there different types for different special days such as shabat vs. holidays?
- Commentary: Some people like to have lots of commentary to get interesting input and explanations for their prayers, others don’t want to be sidetracked. A matter of taste. But if you are getting a siddur with commentary, read a bit, make sure you like the general direction. Nobody wants to get annoyed at the commentary during prayer.
- Font: There are many easy-to-read Hebrew font sizes available, so there is no excuse for a new siddur to use a font where you cannot distinguish letters. There should be vocalization. The font size should be to your liking, both in Hebrew and translation/transliteration.
- Text flow: An afterthought that really should go without saying. The text of all prayers should be in the siddur in the order that it is prayed! If a prayer is repeated, print it again (with the possible exception of the amidah, as it is repeated right away). My community has a truly horrible siddur where mincha is just a list of "check page X from shacharit" and you spend all your time going from page 63 to 41 back to 65 and so on. Again, paper is cheap nowadays!
- Occasion: A final thought concerns the question of "what you want the siddur for". In my community we have quite a few siddurim that are only for shabat, because this is the only time they are needed. It reduces confusion for many people and they are very beginner-friendly and clear. But I accidentally took one of these to a conference once and had to piece together stuff from the shabat services for weekday prayers. Which sort-of works if you know what you are doing, but is really annoying. My favourite siddur includes everything, weekday, shabat and the special prayers for the shalosh regalim (pilgrim festivals), so that I can use it on every day of the year except rosh haShana and yom kippur. But of course it is a much bigger book than the shabat-only one.
I hope you are not overwhelmed by this list, it got way longer than I thought it would. But in the end, I think the best thing you can do is go to your community, have a look at everything they have there and decide on the one you like best. You can always later buy another one. Most siddurim are not that expensive. And sometimes it is very convenient to have the same siddur as everybody else and to be able to follow instructions for page numbers, even if it is not your favourite siddur.
While we are on the topic of privilege: The day I checked my privilege by Sarah Tuttle-Singer at the Times of Israel blogs.
So let’s see. I step forward for having enough to eat, being white, not being disabled, trusting the police, not having to work through high school, not being LGBT* and probably lots of other stuff. I step backwards for not being Christian and being a woman. It reminds me of the game we used to play in kibbutz with the other volunteers about how to marginalise yourself. Left-handed female, Jewish geek is quite ok, but of course being from a first world country gave me serious minus points.
So, today I will acknowledge my privileges. I am thankful for being who I am. I am thankful for all the opportunities I have. I am thankful to live where I live. I am thankful for all the people who are in my life. May it be your will, G-d, that I use my privilege for the good of others.
Ok, today I just want to rant a bit about privileged people who don’t even realize how privileged they are. I know I am privileged too because I have money, work, food, a home, don’t live in a war zone, etc. But here I want to talk about "Jewish" privilege. I have recently met some people from a US city with a large Jewish community. They were kind, open, friendly, and all of that stuff. But totally incapable of understanding how it is to live in real galut (exile). They have everything! And they don’t even realise it!
In my city there is one synagogue. I am not saying "one orthodox synagogue" or "one that I go to". There is this one place. And I am lucky that there is one. Actually, there is this one in the whole state! If you don’t like it – tough luck. There is no kosher restaurant, cafe or shop. There are no hechshers (kosher symbols). There is a list of stuff that the rabbinate deems kosher. [Yes, I know, I’m privileged that my country has a rabbinate and at least some supervision of kosher products!] If I held by kosher wine or bread, I would need to order it over the internet.
The Jewish community is tiny. There are not 1000 activities, camp, clubs, groups of every kind. There is pretty much nothing. Not even a minyan on weekdays and sometimes we struggle to have one on Shabat. What we have is a security guard at the front door and a police car outside 24/7. There are no kipa-wearing teachers, lawyers, politicians. Actually, outside of synagogue or Limmud I have never met anybody who wears a kipa. Or who is even Jewish. I have always been the only Jew in my school, my faculty, my work place. Nobody knows real live Jews or Judaism. Being Jewish is not cool. It’s not even remotely normal!
So, dear US Jews, acknowledge what you have and be grateful!!
Some more or less recent search terms that landed people on my blog:
warthog chews the cud and have a split hooves???
You are right to add three question marks: No, like pigs, warthogs do not chew their cud. But they do have split hooves!
[btw, this is the third time that I have a question about warthogs in a blog about my search terms!]
why does the world care about israel
Good question. I have some thoughts on that in this blog post.
is sexual perversion a precursor to civilizations crumbling
I don’t know what the person was looking for and I doubt she found something relevant on this blog, but I didn’t want to deprive you of this important question. So what do you think?
Amaar thinks that Layla has a crush on him, Baber thinks Amaar and Rayyan are in love. Yassir wins tickets to a concert that both Fred and McGee desperately want to go to so he lets them do all sorts of things for him. Fatima decides to become a citizen of Canada and starts studying for the test with Sarah, which is a bad choice, but despite this she suceeds in the end.
Fatima: You should stop complaining and be more grateful.
Fred: The entire point of being Canadian is complaining about the government! That’s what made this country great!
Fatima: You have no idea how lucky you are! If I were a citizen of this country…
Fred: Hold the phones sister, you’re not a citizen?
Fred: Start paying taxes, then we’ll talk.
Fatima: But I do pay taxes.
Fred: Really? Seems like a ripp-off.
In this episode Fatima becomes a Canadian citizen, but we do not learn a lot about the process or her history (how long has she been in Canada, why did she come?). What is required to become a citizen of a country? You need to live in the country for a while, learn the language, know about the culture, history and political system of the country. You need to adopt the values of the country and identify yourself with that country. The first part (residency, language, facts) can be checked with tests. But how do you check values or whether someone identifies with the country? What does that really mean?
The issue of "values" usually comes up when practices of immigrants or minority groups appear foreign, like wearing a headscarf, circumcision or not keeping the same holidays. At the moment the discussion mostly focusses on Muslims, but Jews have been the subject of many of the same issues. Let’s take the head scarf. Many say that equality of men an women is a Western value. Some say that wearing a headscarf goes against this value, as it is supposed to be a symbol of women’s oppression. Same can be sais of orthodoxy’s refusal to ordain women rabbis or count women in the prayer quorum. But is dressing in a certain way or doing certain religious rituals a "value"? And what about Catholicism where women cannot be priests, isn’t that against Western values? Does this mean that Catholics cannot become Canadian citizens (or citizens of any other Western country)? What about if I value life and am against the death penalty, does this mean I cannot become a citizen of the USA where they have the death penalty? That is pretty ridiculous when many citizens oppose the death penalty. On the other hand, what if I’m against democracy? I do not have any answers here, but before shouting about immigrants and them accepting our values, we should first determine what our values on actually are and to which extent we, the citizens, follow them. And whether these values are connected at all to what we perceive as foreign (clothes, holidays, etc).
The issue of identification with or loyalty to the country is also a hot topic that comes up from time to time. In times of crisis or war, charges of disloyalty have been brought against those with actual dual citizenships (e.g., the US incarcerating Japanese-Americans during World War II) or with an assumed connection to a different state or other power (e.g., German catholics being accused of loyalty to the Vatican). And of course Jews have a long history of being accused of having the wrong loyalties. I cheer for Israel at international competitions – in addition to Germany (my country), Spain (where I have lived), France and Poland (where I have friends) and the Netherlands and Austria (where I have family). I think it is totally possible to feel connected or identify with different places at the same time. That I love Israel doesn’t mean that I won’t defend Germany or that am less loyal to it (if we must use this word).
This post is long enough, so I will stop here. I am sorry that is not so much a point in what I have written. It rather is a series of musings on the topic.
Fred says that Muslims can’t curl (some strange Canadian sport played on ice), so obviously Amaar puts together a team to prove him wrong. Rayyan is very good at playing, but bad in a team, so she changes to Fred’s team, who proceed to kick out Fred, who then gets Rayyan banned for wearing the hijab. In the B-story, Yassir sells Sarah’s clothes to a second-hand store when she makes him pay for her shopping.
Amaar: Sarah, you must know how to curl?
Sarah: Oh, I get it, just because I’m white I must know how to curl, like all white people curl?
Amaar: DO you know how to curl?
Sarah: Well, yes.
It is not really discussed in this episoce, but let’s talk about banning the hijab. There have been such attempts in various countries, for example France, Germany and Turkey. In Turkey it was forbiden to wear the headscarf in public buildings (like schools, universities, courtrooms) from 1924 until 2008 (Wikipedia). In France the wearing of a face covering was made illegal in 2010 (Wikipedia). Germany has seen several lawsuits of headscarf-wearing teachers, lawyers and others, in most cases the wearing of a headcovering was ruled to be forbidden (Wikipedia). And so on. The laws are mainly aimed at Muslim women, but they affect Jews too, because religious Jewish men and married orthodox women cover their heads.
So what are (some of) the arguments? One is, that people think the scarf is a symbol of the oppression of women. This is of course difficult to answer in general, but there definitely exists a movement of strong, independent, educated women who decide to wear the scarf out of their own will. And if we ban symbols of the repression of women, let’s talk about a ban on playboy and I’m sure we can find more.
A second argument is, that a headscarf is a religious symbol and religious symbols have no place in public life. Consequently, supporters of this argument also have to ban the distinctive dress of nuns and monks or the wearing of a cross or t-shirts with religious messages. While many of them will support even that, in my opinion this is a serious misconception about what freedom of religion means. It does not mean freedom from religion or forced secularization. It means that everybody is free to chose and live her own religion – inside the boundaries of a democratic society of course (no, you should not be allowed to sacrifice people because you are a practicer of Mayan religion). And wearing a scarf is after all only clothing, it does not restrict the rights of others in any way.
Third, the claim is that certain people need to be neutral and un-biased (teachers, judges, state officials). This is why they cannot express their own political and religous opinions. While I agree that I don’t want a teacher to brainwash children in class, I don’t see anything wrong with just knowing about her affiliations. Does it really change anything if I know that this particular teacher is Muslim? Or member of some political party? Maybe it is really not appropriate to know whether she supports a particular political or religious position, but in general the party or the religion? I don’t think so. Rather the opposite: don’t we want role models for young women that show that even as a religious scarf-wearing woman you can be whatever you want, including a teacher, a judge or a state official?
Last, people often make arguments from the desired outcome of such a ban. It would lead to more integration – I don’t really understand that, because you can only be integrated if you look like everybody else? People who dress like hippies or rockers are not integrated? People with a different skin-color cannot be integrated at all? Or, it would lead to more rights/education/work possibilities for women, which I honestly don’t see. An oppressed woman who is forced to wear a veil is now because of the law required to take it off at university causing her to be free and independent? Isn’t it more likely that she will not go to university because of the "immoral" environment where women show their hair (and worse!)? And others. Which are after all only speculations, often made without asking the people involved: Women who want to wear headscarves.
To wrap it up, I don’t really see any good point for banning a head covering in a global way (of course if there are actual security concerns, e.g., it can get into machinery, that’s a different story). I have the impression that people are projecting their prejudices upon the discussion and do not really ask the women themselves.
As I am interested in historical linguistics, I have read a bit about the origins of the Hebrew alphabet. Of course most people would find the question odd. There’s a midrash that the Torah text preceded creation, one about why the Torah starts with the letter bet, and one on how the tablets with the commandmends where see-through and the inner parts of mem and samech floated. And probably more. Which are all based on the assumption that the Hebrew script has always been the same as it is now.
But there has been discoveries of Hebrew text written in a different script and there is actually even a discussion in the Talmud about the topic:
Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.
(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b, Soncino translation)
The ‘Hebrew characters’ may refer to Paleo-Hebrew letters. This Paleo-Hebrew script developed from Phoenician script and there are archeological records that it may have been the original way of writing Hebrew until the Second temple period where it was replaced by the Ashuri ("Assyrian") script, what we know as Hebrew script nowadays (Chaim Clorfene: Finding the Original Hebrew Script, Jewish virtual library: History of the Aleph-Bet).
The reference to the "Cutheans" is also interesting. The Soncino translation that I have quoted above contains a comment that "Cutheans" refers to the Samaritans. And actually the Samaritan alphabet for writing Samaritan Hebrew is a direct descendant of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. The Samaritans split off from the other Israelites probably around the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in approximately 721 BC, so it makes total sense that they would not switch to the Ashuri script but continue to write in their version of Paleo-Hebrew.
Although this timeline fits the archeological findings* (and you might think who cares how Hebrew was written a very long time ago), there is a theological problem with it. Namely, that in this setting the Torah given at Sinai would have been in a different script than the Torah we read today!! So what are we to make of midrashim, interpretations and inferences that base themselves on the letters of the Torah?
I am not qualified to give an answer, but I will end with the final words of the article that inspired this post:
My personal reflection on this subject is to avoid the mistake of thinking that if Paleo-Hebrew was the original, then it must be the holier of the two scripts. The fact is that Ezra, the father of Ashuri script, was the author of three books of the Hebrew Scriptures and worked with ruach hakodesh, a form of prophecy. The Hebrew letters that came from his hand contain some of the deepest and most mystical teachings of the Torah. These letters have sustained the Jewish people for 2500 years and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future.
(Chaim Clorfene: Finding the Original Hebrew Script)
* In Sanhedrin 22a a second statement is brought in the name of Rabbi which basically states that the Torah was always written in Ashuri, except for a short period after the children of Israel entered the land of Israel, mixed with the locals, turned to idolatry and also adopted their script. Which was rectified by Ezra who re-introduced the original Ashuri script. Unfortunately, this does not seem to fit the archelogical evidence (Chaim Clorfene: Finding the Original Hebrew Script).
In a not-new-year’s-eve-party our protagonists talk about what they did 5 years ago: Amaar was a top-lawyer who got set up with 15 girls by his parents; Baber just moved to Mercy, made Fred angry at Muslims, and had dinner with his ex-wife; and non-hijjab-wearing Rayyan got invited to a party by her old high-school bully.
Rayyan: Amaar, what are you doing tonight, you want to come to a New Year’s Eve party?
Amaar: New Year’s Eve is not really a big Islamic holiday.
Rayyan: Ok, not a New Year’s Eve party then, just a dinner party that happens to take place on New Year’s Eve.
Yassir: Interesting distinction.
Rayyan: Oh come on, there is nothing in Islam that forbids socializing on the last day of December!
Amaar: Actually, in Islamic calendar, there is no last day of December.
Rayyan: There you go, it will be like it never happened.
For the last episode I wrote about Jews and celebrating Christmas. In this post I mainly want to talk about New Year’s, but a lot of the following can also be applied to Christmas of any other Christian holiday.
So what does Judaism actually say about New Year’s? Nothing. Celebrating the new year on January 1st is not something universal, it is just the start of the new year in the Gregorian calendar, the calendar used since Roman times by Christianity. Like Islam and many others, Judaism has its own calendar. To quote Amaar, "there is no last day of December", because Jewish calender has different names for the months and the months also start at different dates, the first of a month in Jewish calendar does not usually coincide with the start of a month in the Gregorian calendar. So no, December 31st is not a special date in Judaism. [If you are interested in the details of the Jewish calendar, read the calendar page at JewFAQ, or Wikipedia]
Does the Jewish year have a celebration for the new year? Yes, of course, it’s called Rosh haShana in Hebrew and the Jewish date is Tishri 1st, which usually falls somewhere during the months of September or October of the Gregorian calendar. The character is much different from the celebrations that usually take place on December 31st/January 1st though.
So, can a Jew host a dinner that just happens to take place at New Year’s? Well, you can in principal host a dinner any day you like. Even if it happens to be a national holiday. With a clearly purely secular holiday, e.g., independence day, there is also no issue if you make it into a celebration of that holiday. But when the holiday is clearly from a different religion, e.g., Christmas, many Jews are uncomfortable with having a family reunion on that day because this would give the impression of celebrating a holiday of a different faith. Between these two clear cases are other holidays where opinions differ on whether this is a secular or a religious holiday. One case that has generated many discussions is Thanksgiving, another is New Year’s. While the celebration of December 31st/January 1st doesn’t have a religious origin and many people today view it as the purely secular celebration of the year change, it also is a holiday in the Christian religious calendar. So opinions are mixed and accordingly some Jews will not celebrate it and others will. Just like Muslims, apparently.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about appearances and how we put people into boxes based on appearances, especially as it relates to me wearing a tichel (scarf).
Where I live, there are not many observant Jews. So when I wear a headcovering and people see me, they assume I’m Muslim. The word that comes to mind immediately is "oppressed". And of course it clearly marks me as the OTHER, the minority. As a supposed Muslim not so much, but as a Jew, I will most probably be the only Jew they ever meet, and I "represent Judaism" to them. Which is scary and makes me awkwardly self-concious when I do something like cross a red light or complain in a restaurant. So sometimes I am really glad to be able to take off the scarf and just be seen as a regular person. How must it feel if you are discriminated daily because of something you cannot change, like your skin color?
When I decided to wear a headcovering (at least part-time), I was somewhat prepared for the reaction on non-Jews. What I wasn’t so much thinking abuot was how the Jewish crowd would perceive me. In fact, I have been wearing a tichel for nearly a year now and only once to synagogue, normally I go with a headband. Why? Well, when people see me with a tichel, they assume I’m very orthodox with all the negative stereotypes that entails. That I’m oppressed, living in some other century and a religious fanatic. And I don’t want to be put into that box. So I take off my headcovering to go to synagogue. Which is completely absurd.
Is this completely crazy? Am I overthinking this? [the answer is probably yes]
Sarah misses Christmas and decorates the mosque for Eid with Christmas decorations. Fatima walks out and they end up with no food. McGee and Amaar fight over the parking for parallel events at the church-mosque. Layla reads from Dicken’s Christmas carol at the school show against Baber’s wishes.
Amaar [about parking]: Why don’t we just throw it open, first come, first serve?
McGee: First Eid year 600, first Christmas year 1. First come, first serve!
We have already talked about Layla feeling as the outsider at her school. Christmas of course is the perfect opportunity for that. Christmas is so pervasive, it is impossible to escape. And there is no question that many Jews celebrate Christmas in some way or other or at least attend celebrations at work or school. So, what is the limit, what is permissible, what isn’t? The general question is of course hard to answer and basically every individual needs to find a balance that she or her family is comfortable with. What I am writing here is purely my personal opinion, is open to debate and may change in the future as I grow and learn.
So let’s start with the relatively easy stuff, active participation or celebrating yourself. And I’d say that’s a clear "no". I don’t celebrate Christmas, just as I don’t celebrate Ramadan or the Chinese new year. I have my own holidays. So I think a Jew should not attend Christmas service in a church. Because it’s a religious ceremony and of a different faith. Christians don’t go to a Mosque to pray, Muslims don’t attend synagogue services, Jews don’t go to church. If (and there’s a big if) any Jewish individual wants to get to know Christian religious worship out of curiosity or as part of an interfaith/dialogue project, sure, do that, go and have a look – but on a regular day, not on a holiday. Synagogues, Jewish schools or other buildings and organizations should not put up decorations for Christmas. An exception could be if it is outside as part of a street-wide display or something like that. But just as it would be weird to have a booth in a Mosque for Succot, or an Italian flag for the Italian national holiday all over a Chinese city, it is weird to have a Christmas tree in a synagogue. A Jewish organization should also not host a Christmas dinner, hand out Christmas gifts, have a concert with Christmas music or anything similar. It’s just not a Jewish holiday. It’s also not a secular holiday. It’s the holiday of a different faith. I personally also would not do any of the above (decorations, dinner, music, gifts) in my home, but that is a more personal decision and especially in intermarried families there may be other equally valid ways to deal with this issue.
What about participation that is not active celebration of the holiday but more of an acknowledgement that others are celebrating? I’d mostly say "yes" to that, so long as it is clear that I am a guest a someone else’s festival. Just like I go share a Ramadan meal with my Muslim neighbors, I go to the (secular) Christmas party my boss or school throws. In this case, even if of course it is themed (decoration, music, etc), there is no religious component, it is just a party for the staff that takes place in the Christmas season, because this is the time when you have a party for your employees. We also have a party in June. I don’t write Christmas cards, but I know non-Christian people who think it’s a bad business decision not to write them and they send something non-religious, just as a reminder that there is some business contact. I accept Christmas gifts from well-meaning family (even though they should know better, but they want to send me something once a year and they chose Christmas for that), and I give gifts to those who expect them from me. They are celebrating and I as a guest at their celebration I do what is expected and polite to do. My choir has a Christmas concert that I am skipping if enough other people are there, but if they need me I will come and sing so that there is a concert to enjoy for those who celebrate the holiday. I am not so sure what I will let my children do (learn Christmas carols? make decorations? perform in a Christmas show? a church service?), but we’ll see which compromises we can find when the time comes. Bottom-line: I am not celebrating myself, but I try not to spoil it for the rest and my identity is strong enough that I can have fun with them as a guest.
This post is already way too long, there is much more to say about the topic, but in the end every person needs to take her own decision of how much Christmas she lets into her life. Just keep in mind that no matter what, it is not a Jewish holiday.