Suzanne Fields

BERLIN -- A cold dampness hovers over the streets and the skies turn bleak and dark early in the afternoon. Nevertheless, 'tis the season to be jolly. More than 50 Christmas markets celebrate the season, and none is as unusual as the one here at 14 Lindenstrasse behind the provocative new Jewish Museum, lit by a huge Hanukkah menorah and traditional Christmas decorations celebrating an exhibition titled "Chrismukkah."

 Here, Christians and Jews gather to share a warm glass of Gluhwein, the seasonal spicy wine, warming the hands and lifting the spirit, or to nibble a potato latke or a stollen, the Christmas cake studded with dried fruit. The strains of "Maoz Zur," the most popular Hanukkah song with lyrics set to the melody of "Rock of Ages," soar over the gathering. The notes hark to a 15th century German folk song incorporated into chorals of Christian faith by Martin Luther.

 Germans, like Americans, argue over the politically correct language of the season, but the Jewish Museum puts things into perspective, tracing the origins of the religious, cultural, commercial and political images associated with both Christmas and Hanukkah. A display of Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas" album is displayed at the entrance with a photograph of der Bingle, and the old crooner’s distinctive voice wafts through the hallways as a reminder that "White Christmas" was written by Israeli Isidore Baline, better known as Irving Berlin, who spoke Yiddish before he spoke English. Someone once asked him how a Jew could write the signature secular hymn of the Christian holiday, and he replied: "I wrote it as an American."

 The exhibition is filled with such ironies, revealing the way traditions can lift the spirit or plunge it into despair, depending on who’s in charge of the message. A photograph from 1932, taken from inside the window of a rabbi’s home, depicts a graceful menorah with its candles lighting the windowsill and, beyond it, a Nazi swastika hanging from a rooftop across the street. A cartoon depicts a menorah morphing into a Christmas tree, satirizing the customs of German Jews whose assimilation could not save them from the "final solution." On display are Christmas-tree ornaments decorated with swastikas and other symbols of the Third Reich, wooden angels transformed into "winged end-of-the-year figures" of the socialist German Democratic Republic, and an American menorah made with tiny replicas of the Statue of Liberty as candleholders.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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