McCarter Theatre Blog

A (Jewish) Christmas Carol

Posted by Adam Immerwahr on December 4th, 2009

I just received this blog submission from Jean Hanff Korelitz, a fantastic writer and also one of the parents of a member of our Young Ensemble for A Christmas Carol—and I thought it would be a great addition to the blog.  Got a comment?  Just click the “comments” link at the bottom of the article!
—Adam Immerwahr, Producing Associate

A (JEWISH) CHRISTMAS CAROL

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is my ten year old son’s second year in A Christmas Carol’s young ensemble, where he is soon to portray a much put upon young delivery boy who hauls a massive turkey to the Cratchit family at the end of act two.

Having a kid in a show with a three week run means that you get to watch the show in question many, many times, but I never get tired of A Christmas Carol. The fact is, I’ve always loved Dickens’ story. When I was my son’s age, I routinely viewed every available version on television, from Albert Finney’s Scrooge (still my personal favorite) to the much maligned Mr. Magoo version, and I have continued to reread the novella itself every year. My devotion may be a bit strange, given that I’m Jewish and all, but there’s something about this story of magic and personal transformation, so expertly leavened with real sadness and real euphoria, that always sort of called out to me.

Besides, I figured something out about A Christmas Carol, that ultimate Christmas story, that indispensable part of the Christmas season from Princeton to Timbuktu. A Christmas Carol is…wait for it…don’t laugh…really a Jewish story.

So ok, how can a story with Christ in the very title be Jewish? Well, I’ve thought about this, so in classic Talmudic fashion, let me answer that question with another question: Why isn’t Jacob Marley, the first ghost Scrooge encounters, in hell? I mean, it’s true that the guy’s tormented. He’s wrapped in chains of his own making, wracked with guilt for the good acts he didn’t do while he was alive, and full of regret for his lost opportunities to give and receive love. But in Christian cosmology, people like Marley go straight to hell and start reaping what they’ve sown. They don’t wander the earth, wailing over human suffering and their own inability to alleviate it.

Is this sounding familiar? It should. Marley is a not quite living, not quite breathing personification of tikkun olam, the charge to repair our broken world and a cornerstone of Jewish faith and philosophy. Or, as Marley himself puts it:

“It is required of every man…that the spirit within him should walk abroad among 
his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that 
spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so 
after death. It is doomed to wander through the 
world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot 
share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to 
happiness!”

When Marley departs, leaving Scrooge with the disconcerting news that three further ghosts will soon attend him, the miserly old man follows him to the window and looks out. There, he sees for himself the pain of the broken world and the torture of being unable to repair it:

“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither
and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they 
went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s 
Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) 
were linked together; none were free. Many had 
been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He 
had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white 
waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to 
its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist 
a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, 
upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, 
clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in 
human matters, and had lost the power for ever.”

But Jewish life isn’t all about misery - quite the contrary, and this is where a very different Jewish chime is rung in A Christmas Carol. After the Ghost of Christmas Past has finished with Scrooge, leaving him bereft among memories of his lonely childhood and the fiancée he foolishly lost, a very different spirit enters, spreading the cheer of good food, good drink and good fellowship.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, every inch a mensch (albeit, in McCarter’s version, a female mensch), arrives on a tide of excess, sprinkling the flavor of his own out-sized presence upon all he surveys. He takes Scrooge not to scenes of suffering but to dens of conviviality where they observe amiably drunken miners, genteel party-goers playing games and making toasts, even the humble but happy celebrations of the poor Cratchit family. This ghost is all about pleasure: the hedonistic delights of eating and drinking, the lighthearted pursuits of good company, the joys of family love. His message to Scrooge, who has deprived himself of most human contact and all human affection (given or received), might as well be Life is With People (the title of a widely admired study of Shtetl life in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe)!

Christmas may be everywhere in A Christmas Carol, but Christ himself is curiously scarce. Marley makes a single reference to Christian values, Scrooge attends church services after his eventful night and Tiny Tim hopes people seeing him will remember “upon Christmas day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” That’s it. You’ve got to admit: there’s a whole lot of unrealized potential for Christian instruction here.

Imagine, for a moment, how an A Christmas Carol that lived up to its name might unfold.

Marley takes Scrooge to hell and shows him the torments in store. Scrooge, in fear of eternal damnation, asks forgiveness of his savior and proceeds to fulfill his Christian responsibilities. Perhaps he underwrites a mission to proselytize to the heathen in newly colonized India. Perhaps he undertakes to distribute bibles to the poor in their prisons and workhouses. Certainly, he goes to church a whole lot more often. He still subsists on gruel, dresses in rags and avoids human contact (Marley’s tour of hell, after all, doesn’t prescribe an increase in earthly pleasures!). Bob Cratchit doesn’t get a raise and Tiny Tim succumbs to his mysterious wasting disease.

Charles Dickens apparently knew no Jews himself when he based Oliver Twist’s Fagin on newspaper accounts of a criminal named Ikey Solomons, but four years later, he seems to have accessed some mystical Jewish soul with the writing of A Christmas Carol. Alleviate suffering, entreats this most justly beloved of his works. Take pleasure in what surrounds us. Revel in human companionship. And have the courage to celebrate life. Or, as a re-imagined Tiny Tim might put it once and for all: “God bless Us, Every One. L’chaim!

Posted by Adam Immerwahr, Producing Associate at McCarter Theatre.  Article contributed by Jean Hanff Korelitz, novelist, magazine-writer, and mother of Asher Muldoon, who plays Turkey Boy in this year’s production of A Christmas Carol.

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