Defying 'Silent Night' in Pennsylvania

Special to 'Post': How a Jewish family fought its own private Christmas war.

maltz family (photo credit: )
maltz family
(photo credit: )
I must admit that I never knew the lyrics to "Silent Night," that most famous of Christmas songs, until I was well into the prime of my life. There was no reason I should have, though. Growing up in a tightly knit Orthodox community in New Jersey, I attended Jewish day schools and Jewish camps and was active in Jewish youth movements, as insulated from the Gentile world as anyone could possibly be. My first real contact with non-Jews came during my college years in New York, but even then, most of my closest friends were Jewish, and my Christmas experiences, if you could call them that, were limited to an occasional sip of eggnog at a dorm party. Most of my adult years were spent in Israel, also among Jews, though not necessarily Orthodox ones. Then, a few years ago, my husband, Amit, was offered a faculty position at Penn State University, with an adjunct position for me thrown in as part of the deal. It sounded like the perfect antidote to our crazy lives in Israel: a quiet college town surrounded by mountains and streams, endless kilometers of bike paths, a three-minute commute to work, great public schools with an average of 18 to 20 children per classroom. Without deliberating much, we packed up our possessions and four kids and headed out to rural America for our little adventure. The truth is that after living so many years in Israel, we didn't give much thought to what Jewish life would be like out there in central Pennsylvania. We knew there was a small Jewish community centered around the university, one small synagogue with several hundred members, yet no full-time Jewish schools. But that was fine for us. After living so many years in Israel, we thought it would be a good idea for our children to experience something they could never experience in the Jewish state: feeling what it was like to be part of a minority. James Carville, the political consultant and former Clinton aide, once said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between. This Alabama is precisely where we landed in the summer of 2004 with four Hebrew-speaking children who had never seen snow, sung Jingle Bells or heard Silent Night. But not for long. Right after Thanksgiving, when the neighbors began decorating their homes with Christmas lights and trees, we were able to confirm what we had suspected from the start: that we were the only Jewish family on the block. Next to all the brightly lit and ornamented homes, many of them featuring Nativity scenes on their front yards and giant Santas on their roofs, our own unlit undecorated house stuck out like a sore thumb. Our third child, Iddo, then five years old, pleaded with us to dress up our house like all the others. Those lights are for Christmas, we tried to explain to him, and Jewish people don't celebrate Christmas. "Not even one teeny, tiny light?" he begged. If that's when we learned we were outsiders in the neighborhood, our children had already discovered that they were not like everyone else in their respective schools. Matan, then in fifth grade, and Tamar, in third, turned out to be the only Jewish children in their public school. Iddo had one other Jewish child in his. It was at about this time last year, when our children had their first exposure to Christmas, that we received an invitation to an evening event at their school called the "Holiday Sing." All we were told was that the children would be performing songs for their parents that they had learned in their music classes. How could we have known what we were in for? It all started rather innocently with the children singing what we have since learned are called "secular Christmas songs" - an oxymoron if there ever was one. Granted, the name of Christ was not mentioned in these songs, but watching my little Jewish children up there on the stage with their classmates singing Christmas classics like Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer did make me cringe. And that wasn't the worst of it. After the children had finished performing, a group of parents handed out sheets with the lyrics to all the songs that would be sung in the next part of the event, the group sing-along. That's where I was introduced for the first time to the lyrics of Silent Night. To say that I was stunned to find myself in an American public school surrounded by parents and children singing out verses like, "Christ, the Savior is born," "Son of God, love's pure light," and "Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth" would be an understatement. The auditorium was so crowded that Amit and I were forced to sit at opposite ends. Somehow, though, we managed to exchange horrified glances across the room. Silent Night was followed by several other religious Christian songs, and then, as if to add insult to injury, Dreidel, Dreidel, I Made it Out of Clay - a silly Hanukka song popularized in America. After we came home and put the children to sleep, Amit and I stayed up late talking about what we should do, feeling rather sickened by the entire experience, but thankful, at least, that our children were still not fluent enough in English to understand what had been taking place around them. What was clear to us was that singing songs glorifying "Christ, the Savior" in our children's school was a no-no. But as the new Jews on the block, we asked ourselves, should we share our concerns, risk ruining everyone else's Christmas party and having ourselves ostracized in the community, or should we simply just not attend the following year? The decision was made for us when Tamar, now in fourth grade, joined the school choir earlier this year and informed us with great excitement that the members had begun practicing for the upcoming "Holiday Sing." The thought of our darling Tamar standing up on the stage singing Silent Night and other Christmas carols is what prompted us to action. What we didn't realize was that by taking a stand on what has become a highly sensitive issue in America today - the right of the Christian majority to celebrate Christmas wherever it wishes - we had taken sides, the wrong side it emerged, in the so-called "war against Christmas." We asked to meet with the school principal. We were na ve enough to believe the matter could be resolved in a short, friendly chat. We'd tell her that it was very uncomfortable for us, as Jews, to take part in a school event in which religious Christian songs were being sung, and she'd say that she was terribly sorry, that she had no idea this was offensive to non-Christians, that she had no idea that Dreidel, Dreidel was not the religious equivalent of Silent Night, and the Christmas carols would be removed from the program. But the conversation proceeded along rather different lines. When we questioned the appropriateness of having Jewish children sing songs that refer to Jesus Christ as "the Lord," the principal became defensive, arguing that there was nothing unconstitutional about singing religious songs in a public school, as long as it wasn't during school hours. What's more, she explained to us - introducing us then to a term she would use more than once when trying to justify religious activities in her school - banning Christmas songs from the school would be "robbing the babies." She also warned us that we might want to think twice about pursuing the matter, because forcing our views onto other parents in the school might have the effect of "having fingers being pointed at your children." Having made her own position crystal clear, the principal then absolved herself of any responsibility, pointing out that the "Holiday Sing" was not a school event, but rather a PTO event (a distinction we have yet to comprehend), and therefore it was best that we address our grievances to the PTO. We did that several weeks later, and the PTO not only "got it" but voted unanimously to take all religious Christian songs out of the program. Unprompted by us, the PTO also decided to rename the event "Winterfest" rather than "Holiday Sing." The only person attending the meeting who expressed reservations about the decision was the principal, who suggested we all think carefully about the ramifications of "robbing the babies" of their Christian songs. We assumed the entire issue was behind us, until we received the invitation to the upcoming "Holiday Sing" - not "Winterfest" as had been decided - and realized that something was amiss. A few phone calls later, we understood that the principal had bowed to pressure from several dissenting parents and had unilaterally overruled the PTO decision to ban religious Christian songs from the school event. All this, without bothering to inform those of us who would obviously be offended by their inclusion. The next day we called the superintendent of the school district and asked to have our children transferred to another school in the district right after Christmas break, a school I knew had other Jewish children and a much more ethnically diverse population. With the encouragement and support of the local Jewish community, we also requested a meeting with the superintendent to present our grievances, not threatening legal action, but then again not ruling it out entirely. At the same time, a far bigger drama involving the issue of separation of church and state was being played out in another Pennsylvania school district not far away from us, in this case over the constitutionality of teaching "intelligent design" in public school biology classes. The ensuing court battle, which made international headlines, ended last week when a federal judge ruled that teaching intelligent design - which holds that the universe is so complex that it had to have been created by a higher power - is the equivalent of promoting religion in school and, therefore, unconstitutional. We were somewhat amused by the reaction of one of the school board members who had been behind the attempt to change the biology curriculum out there in Dover County, Pennsylvania. "We didn't lose; we were robbed," he said. Once again, that reference to robbery. The day Tamar told her classmates she was leaving the school, I encountered the father of a classmate of hers, a reverend of a local Lutheran congregation. "Why not?" he asked, when I said we did not feel religious songs should be sung in American public schools, in response to his queries about our decision to pull Tamar out. "I think it's intolerant to demand that Christians not be able to sing their songs." And by the way, he said, he was happy that his daughter had had the opportunity to meet a Jewish child and learn "lots of things" about the Jewish religion. "Tamar taught my daughter that 'shalom' means hi, bye and peace," he said. Sad, but true. Just a-year-and-a-half in America, and my children now feel more Jewish than they ever did in Israel. Tamar understands exactly why we've pulled her out of school. Iddo, who has a general idea, has found his own way to assert his beliefs. After complaining for several days that a child in his class had "bragged" to him that Christmas was a better holiday than Hanukka, he decided to take revenge. "I told all the kids in my class at lunch that Santa was dead," he informed me the other day. I'm not so sure that Iddo is convinced, though, because the next day he asked me if he could send a hate letter to Santa. "Why would you want to do that?" I asked. "Because he's a big fat jerk," he replied. We did not attend the "Holiday Sing" this year. But I know that our presence was felt. Otherwise, how to explain why the principal, as reported to me by others who attended the event, greeted the audience with the following words: "I know I'm taking a risk by saying this, but Merry Christmas everyone." Thanks to this attitude, I find myself today painfully familiar with the lyrics to Silent Night. In fact, waging my own private Christmas war has forced me to learn them by heart.