No tinsel, no Santa, no carols, no nog. Some Jews feel they’re missing out on the fun of Christmastime. Sure, there are alternatives like Chinese-food-and-a-movie or Matzah Ball dances: the ethnic equivalent of artificial snow. These activities capture the season’s festive mood without drawing on its Christian origins.
This year, however, one group has identified an authentically Jewish way to tap into wintertime revelry. According to Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founder and artistic director of the Storahtelling Project, chasidic Jews in Eastern Europe customarily would pass the night before Christmas at home, drinking and gambling. The celebration was called "Nittle nacht," and, unbeknownst to the Jewish revelers, "it was a pre-Christian celebration of the longest night of the year," Lau-Lavie told The Jewish Week.
The 33-year-old Israeli native said he found out about the "obscure and esoteric" tradition of Nittle nacht a few years ago, and then learned that his own father had stayed up playing cards as a child in Krakow, Poland.
This year, Storahtelling is reviving the tradition in "Oy To the World!" Having weathered criticism of the group’s irreverent use of religious symbols (see sidebar), Lau-Lavie is touting Storahtelling’s annual Christmas Eve performance and party this year as an opportunity to celebrate a kind of "cosmic optimism" that recognizes how "every year, darkness is conquered by the light."
Festivals that fall around the year’s longest night, the Winter Solstice, essentially celebrate the return of longer days, Lau-Lavie said. On contemporary calendars, the solstice falls on December 21, but calendars devised before the 5th century CE set the solstice a few days later, on the date adopted by Christians as Christmas Eve, he explained.
Christmas, Nittle and even Hanukkah all respond to the universal human yearning for light in the dead of winter, Lau-Lavie suggested. His research even revealed Talmudic sources that relate how Adam and Eve feared that winter’s deepest darkness would throw their world permanently into chaos and confusion.
Founded in 1998 as a non-profit "ritual theater" group, Storahtelling regularly updates traditional Jewish stories, performing adaptations of Torah readings in synagogue sanctuaries and offering contemporary takes on holiday lore. This February, the group enacted a "preposterous Purim pageant," titled "Transesther 2002," that set the story of Jewish redemption in a gangland milieu, with actors dressed in drag. Attendees at the Nittle nacht event should expect more of the same.
"Oy to the World!" takes place at the Flamingo East nightclub and restaurant at 219 Second Ave., Manhattan, (212) 284-6776. Tuesday, Dec. 24, 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., $10. At 10 p.m., a half-dozen actors from the Storahtelling troupe put on a variety show that promises to "unwrap the reason for the season." Scotty the Blue Bunny, a downtown entertainer known as "the rodent in heels," serves as master of ceremonies. At midnight, Julian Fleischer leads his four-man Goyboy Swing Band in a live performance. Deejays Scribe and JDub spin records for dancing all Nittle night long.
# The seasonal smorgasbord includes offerings all over town. Deck the Halls with Matzah Balls: The Society of Young Jewish Professionals meets for a Matzo Ball at Gustavino’s 409 E. 59th St., Manhattan. (888) 633-5326. 8 p.m. $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Israeli DJ Assaf Amdursky mans the turntables at Matzah Ball 2002 at Vue, 151 E. 50th St., Manhattan, (212) 613-3095, doors open 9 p.m. $20. You take the mic at the Karaoke Matzo Ball at Opal, 251 E 52nd St., Manhattan, (212) 249-7373. 9 p.m. $10, includes one drink. All the Matzah Balls take place on Tuesday, Dec. 24.
# Pasta and a Picture: Film fans can fill up before a showing of Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy classic, "The Producers," starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. Makor, 35 W. 67th St., Manhattan, (212) 601-1000. Tuesday, Dec. 24, 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $30, includes screening and dinner.
# "Not Exactly Christmas Eve": David Broza brings his own brand of cheer to a bilingual performance of Israeli folk rock. 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, (212) 415-5500. Tuesday, Dec. 24, 8 p.m. $45.
# Isle of Klezbos: The all-female klezmer sextet plays an eclectic Yiddish repertoire. Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 18 First Place, Battery Park City, Manhattan, (212) 509-6130. Wednesday, Dec. 25, 3-4:30 p.m. Free with museum admission, $7, $5.
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
# Winter Spectacular: Yeshiva University Museum presents The Hamsa Boys, a quintet that blends Boy Band harmonies, hip-hop and techno rhythms and dynamic choreography with traditional Hebrew and biblical songs, in two performances, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The all-day spectacular includes gallery talks by artists whose work is on display, Vitaly Komar ("Komar & Melamid: The Theory of the Big Bang"), at noon and 2 p.m., and Tobi Kahn ("Microcosmos") at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Crafts workshops for children and adults throughout the day. Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan, (917) 606-8200. Wednesday, Dec. 25, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. $12-$5; includes all-day admission to galleries, workshop and one of the concerts.
# First Annual Tevet Festival: The Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan starts a new tradition feting the Hebrew calendar date that happens to coincide with Dec. 25. The festival features Second Avenue Deli and Chinese food, and screenings of "The Frisco Kid," starring Gene Wilder, and the cartoon "An American Tail." Co-sponsored by the Downtown Synagogue and the Synagogue for the Arts. Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard St., Manhattan, (212) 938-1111. Wednesday, Dec. 25, 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. $9, $6; families $25.
# A Family Celebration: Kids and their parents can watch family films, sing-along with guitarist Joshua Feinberg, listen to live music by The Klez Dispensers, see magic, juggling and balloon art by Buffo the Clown, hear storytellers and gallery talks, and participate in art workshops at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., Manhattan, (212) 423-3337. Wednesday, Dec. 25, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $8, $5.50.