There’s a lot that’s Jewish about Christmas. It’s the birthday of a Jew (Jesus)–okay, it’s probably not his real birthday, but it’s the day that most people celebrate it. And, in the contemporary Western world, Jews have accrued so many makeshift Christmas traditions, from going out for Chinese food to filling movie theaters to establishing strange Hanukkah-Christmas hybrids, that dealing with Christmas has become its own form of Christmas observance.
Our favorite tradition, though, comes from the Chabad Hasidim in Crown Heights–and it’s a chess match.
Some Jews try to avoid studying Torah on Christmas Eve as a way of mourning for the many Jews killed during pogroms that occurred during (or as an indirect result of) Christmas. Indeed, many Yiddish speakers call Christmas “Nittlenacht,” a pun that means “nothing-night.” Some yeshivas and other learning institutions simply shut down. But in Crown Heights, at the mammoth headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the tables are cleared of Torahs and Talmuds, and students play chess in a nightlong loosely-structured tournament.
Chess might seem an odd choice, but it’s a perfect fit for yeshiva students–it keeps their intellect sharp, but it avoids directly interacting with potentially Torah-related topics. By morning, the books are restored, and the Hasidim are back to their normal studies. But for one night, a few lucky students can become champions of the yeshiva.