I’m Jewish. Particularly Jewish. Jewish in many ways.
If you know my last name, you know that it’s unmistakeably Jewish. My Dad is from Brooklyn. My parents brought their two kids up in a very positive Jewish environment where we were active in our synagogue. My brother and I attended a Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp and were active in Jewish youth groups. We even found our own Jewish communities in college — and both of us spent time working in Jewish communal professional positions thereafter. When my hair is long enough I’ve got the “Jew-fro” thing going on. I’ve been to Israel three times. I think Jon Stewart is pretty amazing, Pat Robertson scares the shit out of me, and I know a guy who knows a guy who can get you fine, retail merchandise at great, wholesale prices. I speak Hebrew, love onion bagels, and get proud of the fact that someone like Ron Jeremy, of all people, is also a Member of the Tribe.
Now that we’ve got my credentials out of the way…
Over the past few days, some of you may have read some heated discussions on blogs and on Twitter regarding sending Christmas cards or simply expressing Christmas greetings to people who do not celebrate the holiday — in one case, it was another Jewish person expressing her opinion on the subject. She brought up a very solid point which, in my opinion, was lost in the barbs and drama of the verbal rumble: There are some traditional Jews who may get offended when they receive Christmas cards. I certainly don’t think this applies to everyone who identifies as Jewish, and I also think that there’s quite a bit of gray area regarding context of the expressed Christmas sentiments. In certain circumstances, I think it’s quite rational to be offended by such things.
Let me tell you about the time I received a Christmas card in the mail and was highly offended:
It was December of 1997. I had been working as a program professional on the University of North Carolina campus for an organization called Hillel. For those of you who are unfamiliar, think of it as a Jewish student resource center who provides support and programming on religious and cultural levels. It was my first time living in an area without an overwhelmingly large Jewish population. I had just spent a year working with the Jewish community at Princeton University. Not exactly a huge Jewish population, but it was, after all, New Jersey. A far cry from North Carolina, where (at the time) Jewish students made up a tiny fraction of the entire campus population.
We had wonderful relationships with the other religious and cultural organizations on campus. We were an integral part of the umbrella group which oversaw all of the campus ministries. I became very good friends, in fact, with the Presbyterian minister. We were all on each other’s mailing lists. We knew about each other’s events and sent invitations out. And when Christmas came along, we would receive a whole bunch of Christmas cards from those working in these organizations. They were all very kind-spirited and happy — expressing warmth and friendship.
I enjoyed getting these cards. They weren’t a means to shove someone else’s religion down my throat; rather, they were a way of expressing someone else’s traditions during a very happy holiday. I found nothing wrong with it.
My beef was with someone not affiliated with our Campus Ministry association — a woman who had her own following of students and faculty as an independent minister in the campus community. Let’s call her Samantha. She was very friendly and outgoing. But, at the same time, she was very demanding and not, in any way, afraid to speak her mind about her religious beliefs — even in inappropriate settings. In my position, I had learned to be as universal and all-encompassing as possible, able to listen to the beliefs of others and hoping that they felt comfortable talking with me without feeling the threat of intrusiveness. Samantha did not take the same approach — reminding me, at campus functions where we would see each other and attempt to remain cordial, that I was doing the whole religion thing wrong. That it was a shame that I had been “brainwashed” by my parents to believe in something which didn’t jive with her beliefs. I was still young and playing the nice guy role — I should have been more assertive and let her know that what she was doing, on a constant basis, felt like nagging and made me feel less than comfortable.
When I got a Christmas card from Samantha — it was very creepy. And condescending. The motive behind it was part of a pattern — that the way I was living my life and choosing my belief system was totally wrong. And it was perfectly fine that she had this belief. What wasn’t was the constant badgering to try to recruit me to her side.
It’s certainly not the motive of the overwhelming majority of people who send Christmas cards. However, I feel that I was justified in being offended by it. And by her constant patronizing blabbering about how much she and God love me and how much she just wants to make sure I’m on board for eternal salvation.
So — what did I do when I received the card? I rolled my eyes. Planned my revenge — a card of my own back to her! Maybe a “return to sender” on the envelope! A bag of flaming poo on her doorstep! In the shape of a nativity scene!
And after two minutes of that? I was done. I threw away the card and went on with my life.
(And then I blogged about it a decade later.)
I continue to receive Christmas cards quite often. And why not? Some of them are generic from organizations I support or vendors of services which I consume. We have friends who take adorable pictures every year and care to share this tradition and their greetings with my family. Do I expect them to hit the printers with an entirely different template without a Christmas greeting asto not offend? Of course not. I don’t even mind if they don’t cross out “Merry Christmas” and replace it with a creative spelling of “Happy Hanukah*.”
And let’s bring that holiday up for a moment: Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas.” Nor is Christmas the “Christian Chanukah.” It happens to be a relatively minor, eight-night holiday which falls at the end of the month of Kislev — a Jewish month that usually begins in November or December. Because of the way the Jewish calendar works, Chanukka may begin as early as Thanksgiving weekend or as late as a few days after Christmas. (This year happens to be one of those where Christmas will fall on Hannukkah — or vice versa.) During certain years on Christmas eve, I hear some people tyrying to be sensitive to my beliefs by wishing me a Happy Chanukah — even though the holiday has long since gone. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear false assumptions like that being made. But hey — at least an effort is being made, right?
But with all that — it’s still quite a minor holiday. It’s not analogous to Christmas. It just happens to fall around the same time. The presents and the cool gambling game for children came much, much later — mostly as a reaction to Christmas being celebrated by, at the time, the majority of the Western world.
I know where I live. I’m in a country which is overwhelmingly populated by those who celebrate Christmas in one form or another. Some of them are Christians, some of them are not. We’re not fooling anyone when we suddenly change the name to a “holiday tree” or “seasonal ornaments.” They’re about Christmas. The modern observation of Christmas (which may or may not have been gleaned by pre-Christian traditions, depending on who you ask). And that’s fine, too. I love Christmas. I love the lights up on my neighbors’ homes. I even love some of the music. Tinsel is cool. And so are form-fitting santa suits on busty lingerie models. What’s not to love?
But I love it all as a spectator. (Except, perhaps, for the busty models part.) And that’s good enough for me. If I don’t join in, it doesn’t mean that I’m devoid of good cheer. It doesn’t mean that I’m mean-spirited if you don’t get a Christmas card from me. I’ll be like the grandma who takes her kids to the park: I’ll just sit here and be happy watching you celebrate. And get loopy off arthritis medication.
You know — people equate Hanukah with that one dreidel song. Which is sad, really: there are so many more songs which encompass the Chanuka spirit. The following is — well, it’s just another dreidel song. But it’s very cool. And apparently it’s performed by some members of Incubus. Have a listen:
* It’s a Hebrew word. There is no correct English spelling. If you feel inclined to write it in Hebrew, it’s חנוכה .