Counterpoint: Living as a minority

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
When one of my daughters was eight years old, I bought her the video of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. I thought it would be both educational and enjoyable. She watched it with a few girlfriends - unsupervised. Despite the Christian symbolism in the movie, of which the girls were totally unaware, they were mesmerized by the story. When her class was asked to decorate the entranceway to her school with scenes to welcome the winter season, she and her buddies drew Christmas trees and reindeer. When I saw my daughter's signed masterpiece on the mural of the school corridor, I was mortified. I blame myself. I never took the time to explain Christmas to my children. In fact, I never explained anything about Christianity to them. When this same daughter was asked by a minister who was dining at our home if she knew who Jesus was, she confidently replied: "It's the name my father shouts when he stubs his toe!" Christmas is a minor event in a Jewish state. The anniversary of Christ's birth creeps up unnoticed. Only a day or so before Christmas is the holiday acknowledged by the Israeli media. Midnight Mass in Bethlehem generates a few minutes of coverage on the news. A Jew in Israel is provided a welcome relief from the Christmas season while a Jew in the United States is exposed to it. The difference between life in Israel for a Jew and life in the US for a Jew is expressed in two holiday greetings that reflect the culture of each society: In Israel - Shana Tova; in America - Merry Christmas. AS I WRITE these lines, I am in New York City and it is a little more than a month until Christmas. Having arrived in the States a day after Halloween, I was shocked to see that the countdown to Christmas had already begun. It used to begin only after Thanksgiving. No more. Christmas fever strikes a full two months beforehand. One already feels a crescendo building toward that climactic moment when December 25 arrives. Christmas in America is all-encompassing. When I enter a store, eat in a restaurant or attend a New York Knicks game, Nat King Cole is singing about "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," Brenda Lee is belting out "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree" and Bing Crosby is crooning "White Christmas." It's so easy to get sucked into the jovial spirit of the holiday season. I often find myself singing along with Eartha Kitt purring her sultry version of "Santa Baby." However, it becomes overbearing when I hear Christmas carols blaring in Bloomingdale's: "Oh come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord," or "O holy night... it is the night of our dear savior's birth." COMBINE this burst of Christian merriment with the hype as to how many shopping days remain until Christmas, along with Santa Claus seemingly on every corner, Christmas decorations lighting up every street, reindeer displays in Macy's windows, TV networks showing reruns of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, and anyone who is not Christian would find this perennial outpouring of Christmas cheer intimidating. While US presidents are always careful to not only light a Christmas tree on the White House lawn, but to also light a Hanukka menora, such even-handedness is not always the case in small-town America, where a statue of the virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus already sits in front of the municipality building and scenes of the nativity are presently welcoming a child to public school where the annual Christmas pageant will be held - despite laws forbidding such blatant violations of church and state separation. How should an American Jew react when President George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, pushed the state legislature to pass a bill declaring "Jesus Day," or when presidential hopeful John McCain says: "The Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation"? But, despite such denominational chauvinism, perhaps American Jews should be grateful. After all, anti-Semitism, historically rooted in Europe, and now spreading its seeds throughout the Muslim world, has not penetrated the American scene. Living as a Jew in the United States is extremely complex. If it were only a matter of weathering the predominance of Christianity during these couple of months, then any Jew could tolerate the elongated Christmas season, whose spirit of "goodwill toward men" is so enticing. Indeed, a Jewish child growing up in America must stand in wide-eyed awe when comparing the joyous mood of this most important holiday in the Christian calendar to the dark solemnity of Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. However, comparative religious shopping is not the main concern of Jews coping with a majority culture that is not theirs. The primary complication for Jews in America, as Christmastime so manifestly demonstrates with its seemingly never-ending carnival of religious and commercial Christianity, is that Christians are everywhere and, although some Jews may feel put upon by Christmas overkill, they interact with Christians every day; and so... they marry them. As for their children - they will lovingly tuck them under the covers to the gentle strains of James Taylor's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Such is the present and future reality of a Jew living as a minority.