Love Thy Neighbor: The Jew Who Saved Christmas

blog2 019 300x225 Love Thy Neighbor: The Jew Who Saved ChristmasThis is a guest post by Nina Badzin. Nina lives in one of the few houses on her street not sparkling with Christmas lights from November through January. And she doesn’t mind. She blogs about the writing life, marriage, and motherhood at ninabadzin.com. Follow her on Twitter.

Every December Jews across America complain about their neighbors’ Christmas decorations, Christmas music – Christmas everything. And every December I hear fellow Jews boast about responding to a salesperson’s “Merry Christmas” with “Not everybody celebrates Christmas.” Or, “I’m Jewish.” Or, “I celebrate Hanukkah.” Our disdain is embarrassing. It’s wrong. AND IT HAS TO STOP.

Because We Sound Ungrateful

A significant majority of Americans celebrate Christmas. And I’m glad they do. We’re indebted to the religious Christians who sought a place to worship God in the way they saw fit. Did they do it for the Jews? Absolutely not. But did we benefit? You bet! Jews have thrived more in America than any other place in history. 

We Sound Hostile
I suppose Jews who trash Christmas think they’re defending Jewish rights, or freedom of religion, or separation of church and state. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be a Jew living under “in God we trust” America than the secular, communist former Soviet Union, the Godless Nazi Germany, or even the staunchly secular Europe today. So what if you can’t stop humming Jingle Bell Rock. Yes, it’s terribly annoying, but I bet you’re not worried about the KGB sending you to the Gulag for whispering “Israel” or wearing a Jewish star.

from RonAlmog via flickr Love Thy Neighbor: The Jew Who Saved ChristmasWe Sound Confused About Freedom
Speaking of religious freedom, this little nugget of American goodness extends to Christians too. If we can put an eyesore of a Sukkah on our driveways, then certainly our neighbors have earned the right to a blinking Nativity scene or some elves. Our Jewish identities should be defined by pride and knowledge in our Judaism, not by the fact that we’re not Christian.

And guess what? In good old America we’re also free to ignore our Jewish identities if that’s how we choose to roll. Last time I checked I didn’t see the word “Jew” on my birth certificate or my passport. We’re free to engage in Jewish life as much or as little as we please. But those of us who aren’t interested in religion shouldn’t begrudge people who find comfort in theirs.

We Sound Jealous
I’ve heard Jews worry about their children feeling left out of the Christmas hoopla. Here’s the unfortunate truth: If you don’t celebrate any FUN Jewish holidays, then yes, the month of December will always feel like that day in junior high when you looked longingly at the cool kids’ table during lunch. I don’t care how many giant dreidels we insist they put up in the malls: Hanukkah will never compare to Christmas. If we sincerely want our country to decorate public institutions for OUR big holiday season, we should be advocating for enormous shofars in September. Although that would probably scare people – especially Jews.

Let’s forget the tit-for-tat decoration argument and face the jealousy issue head on. If you’re a twice-a-year Jew, I suggest finding cheerier ones than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. How about Simchat Torah and Purim – two holidays that encourage getting a little shickered? (Take that egg nog!) Try Sukkot next year, the closest thing we have to decorating a Christmas tree.

336437351 7f3e047319 300x199 Love Thy Neighbor: The Jew Who Saved ChristmasWe Sound Narcissistic
We all benefit from Christmas in America. I find a day off to eat Chinese food and see a movie about as merry an experience as I can imagine. I see nothing wrong with being gracious and saying, “Thank you,” when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. There’s just no point in walking around feeling offended all the time. Can’t we relax already?

When we launch into the “I’m offended by Merry Christmas you better say Happy Holidays” routine, it feels like we’re making everything about us.

And that isn’t being very neighborly, now is it?

(Photos: Jellie_mac, Ron Almog)

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About Nina Badzin @NinaBadzin

Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based essayist, short story writer, and a mother of four. You can also find her blogging regularly at http://ninabadzin.com. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NinaBadzinBlog. Twitter: @NinaBadzin

Comments. Add Yours!

36 comments

  1. With strangers or casual acquaintances, I agree with you that saying “Thank you” (or “same to you”) is most gracious. However, with people I know better, I tell them I celebrate Chanukah, not to brag or be bitter, but to let them know something about Chanukah (not as important as Christmas) and how it affects my life (so early this year that I really have to rush, and now it’s already over). Many Christians respect my involvement in my synagogue and appreciate learning more about Judaism.

  2. Oh my gd I love this post!! So true ands well-written. As you imply, I would guess that many of the biggest complainers don’t celebrate the year-round rich array of fun and meaningful Jewish holidays….hence the bitterness and jealousy. Get over it and enjoy a candy cane (kosher, of course.)

  3. Yes, yes, yes — you are so right on target with this essay. Christmas is a beautiful and meaningful holiday…for Christians. And as a religious person, I value the freedoms each of us enjoy to observe our traditions.

    We are a minority and to expect the host majority culture to neuter its observances is chutzpadic. We are free, if we wish, to move to Israel where Christmas won’t be so “bothersome.”

    Thank you for articulating this so beautifully.

  4. I understand what you are saying, but it is not necessarily wrong to say Happy Holidays in return. We live in a Christian country that has been very good to us, but is an inclusive country too.

    Sometimes that gets left out of the mix.

  5. Love this post! How true your observation about displaying the shofar in September and the discomfort of Jewish people!

  6. So True-You hit it right on the head. People love to feel self important by correcting other people – when in this instance, it is rude. Thanks for sharing. You are great!

  7. Loving the discourse here!

    PAULA- I agree that many Christians are interested in our traditions. My point here is that we, as Jews, can stand to be as interested in theirs as we expect them to be in ours. Thanks for reading and posting your thoughts!

    REBECCA- HA! Love the kosher candy cane! ;)

    FRUME SARAH- Thank you! Thank you! Chutzpadic! Yes! I need to remember to roll that word into a future post.

    JACK- I agree with you to a point. My problem with inclusiveness is when it comes at the expense of any true expression of beliefs. We for sure live in a inclusiveness country, which allows me to put up my sukkah every year with NO worry whatsoever that someone will vandalize it. I want Jews to extend that same respect for Christian customs that we seem to willingly give to every other religion except Christianity.

    BARBARA- Wouldn’t that be a coup?

  8. I want Jews to extend that same respect for Christian customs that we seem to willingly give to every other religion except Christianity.

    I don’t disagree that they deserve respect, but I don’t believe that there is a real war on Christmas. They don’t have to ask for time off for their holidays or ask for special consideration.

    I don’t begrudge them that either. It is perfectly fine with me.

    I am big on separation of Church and state. I don’t want to see big religious displays in public, not from them, us or anyone else.

    Not asking for a completely sterile environment, but something less than the attempt by some to place the Ten Commandments on the courthouse.

    Anyway, I don’t think any of us are that far apart here.

  9. Completely agree! Christmas is a magical, musical, joyful and colorful time of year. I have great memories of helping friends and neighbors decorate their trees.

    Do you think there are religious traditions that might be offensive or intrusive?

  10. Nina, your well expressed thoughts have been on my mind for years. I appreciate your setting “pen to paper” on the subject.
    Two comments: 1) Graciousness is a much more scarce commodity than it was when I was a kid and 2) There is this very strange dichotomy whereby we live in an inclusive country with SO much intolerance. Every little thing makes people want to correct and complain. We have quickly turned in to a bunch of whining babies in this country.
    The weakened economy is making many people take “stock” of what’s really important in life. Maybe this will make people quit making mountains out of molehills.
    Thaks for writing.

  11. What an uplifting, well written piece. As a Christian, I have increasingly felt that I am being offensive (to someone, somewhere) by the mere practice of celebrating religious holidays. Though, on the flip side, I have never felt offended by another religious group or cultural group celebrating their’s. Weird, huh? I have also lived in a country – as a minority – and was never bothered by the practices of the majority. So thank you for so eloquently putting in writing what I have been trying to wrap my mind around. You are a wise woman and your husband, children, friends should count knowing you amongst their blessings.

  12. In this response, I play “Grinch’s Advocate” and try to explain why Jews are sometimes touchy about this and why that’s really okay sometimes. The piece came out a little bit glib, but was intended to open dialogue and I welcome your feedback!

    http://jwablog.jwa.org/the-grinch-is-back

  13. Ms. Badzin, I basically agree with you.

    But is it really such a mystery to everyone why some Jews feel the way they feel?

    Maybe all of what I’m about to say is obvious, but, then again, maybe, if we see the causes of these feelings clearly, we could also see them more charitably. While not perhaps American Jewry at its best, these feelings are far from surprising — maybe even entirely understandable.

    First, to the Christians — you’re not giving offense.
    These feelings are not offense, so much as resentment or maybe bitterness. Why? Because — for the month of December — we cannot escape feeling like a minority.
    Now, of course, American Jews _are_ in a numerical minority. But, if we choose not to focus on this statistical fact, our daily lives do allow us to ignore it. We are not persecuted, and not even shunned. Unlike some other racial or ethnic minorities, we can feel like we’re not visibly identifiable (or, at least, if we are identified, very few non-Jews ever say so). In our daily lives, we can feel like we’re not different. We feel like our Jewishness doesn’t limit us. After all, we are successful in a broad variety of endeavors. In every way, despite our minority status, we’re equal.

    Not different. Not “the other.” Most of the time we can reassure ourselves of that. And we do need reassurance. Because we know well what can happen to those who are different, to those who are “the other.”

    But in December, we _are_ different.

    And we can’t avoid it.

    And some of us feel like that’s just not right. As if, in America, nobody should ever have to feel “different.”
    Now, some would ask, why is “different” bad? As mentioned, there are the historical consequences of being different. But also — to some — in this season “different” becomes something like “unequal.”

    Because this “different” is not an equivalent “different” — like vanilla and strawberry ice cream flavors are different, but rather a lopsided “different” — like the quantities 1 and 100 are different.

    Or at least to some of us it feels that way in December. Because Christmas is everywhere. In December, AMERICA CELEBRATES CHRISTMAS (yes, in all-caps).

    And some of us feel excluded. Even though no one is excluding us.
    Some feel what I would call “socially unequal.” The vague (and maybe unformulated) thought goes something like: “For this Christian holiday, all of America seems to celebrate; for our Jewish holidays, America hardly notices.”

    Some conflate two things that are historically related but that are separate. There’s the government’s celebration of Christmas — still a problem. And then there is the much larger private (as in non-government) celebration of Christmas that’s out in public view. That latter, as Ms. Badzin so correctly says, is simply a consequence of religious liberty.

    Christians are free to celebrating their holiday, or else _they_ would be unequal. Just as we are free to celebrate ours. The only difference is that are so many more Christians, so their celebration is that much more visible. This is crucial to keep in mind.

    But some still won’t feel any better. And the rest of us should understand them.

  14. My Franco-Italian-Cohen of a husband (clearly Jewish) grew up celebrating Christmas complete with a tree, gifts and a celebratory family meal. His mother’s family, originally from Russia, always did. So did his dad’s family, who left Turkey at the turn of the century to settle in Italy, where home to the surprisingly large, oldest Jewish population in the world. None of them know why they celebrate Christmas, other than, they always have. My husband insists Christmas has pagan origins and is more about celebrating light than celebrating the birth of Christ. Although I fought it for years, I eventually gave in to his wish to continue celebrating Christmas the way he did as a kid in our stateside Jewish home. I came to enjoy it, too. Let’s face it: none of our holidays are purely “what they were supposed to be” anymore, no matter what our religion is. What’s important is what the celebration means to each of us and our families.

  15. Bubbe- Yup, Jews with Christian neighbors and friends often have positive memories of Christmas. I keep trying to get myself invited to some these infamous cookies exchanges! ;)

    Vicky and LAD: thank you so much for your kind words.

    Leah- Wow! I can’t believe I inspired a post. I need some time to process. But I’ll get back to you on your site.

    Mike- I like your comment and you explain the issue well! Certainly in a more sensitive way than I did in my post. ;) I agree with all of it except I’d add a caveat to the end. Yes, we can strive to understand someone’s discomfort, but we don’t always have to water things down to make way for it. Sometimes people are too easily offended and that in itself is problem.

  16. Sharon! That came through right as I was writing the responses above. So glad you weighed in here!

  17. Ms. Badzin, I do agree with your caveat.

    People don’t need to water down their celebrations of Christmas.

    Governments need to fully get out of that business, but that’s another story.

  18. I love this article! It may interest you to know that many Christians share in the Jewish objections you reference. The season leading up to December 25 is called Advent, which means “waiting,” which is supposed to be a quiet prayerful time. This LED-lit, HO-HO-HO, shopping days count down, secularized Advent/Christmas season can be as obnoxious to many of us. Trust me. My neighbor has a twenty foot inflateable Santa in his front yard. It’s hard to keep focus on what’s important.

    That being said, your points about religious freedom are well taken so I haven’t cut a hole in his Santa balloon man (although I was pleased to see he’s having a hard time keep the air pressure right since the blizzard and low temps). ; )

  19. Anne! This is one of the many reasons you always crack me up. How do you manage to disagree with me but be so sweet, charming, and informative? I completely understand how you feel about the secularization of Christmas. That’s how I feel about Hanukkah, which is only as “big” as it is in the Jewish calendar because of CHRISTMAS. Oy. It goes round and round.

  20. I disagree.

    When Jews say, “not everybody celebrates Christmas” Or, “I’m Jewish” or, “I celebrate Hanukkah” its not rude to Christians. It is simply being honest. If we are not able to tell other people that we are Jews, then we are suppressing our identity. There is no need to be offended, but by not correcting someone who tells a Jew “Merry Christmas” we are encouraging ignorance. Its almost ironic that on a holiday like Hanukkah where the Maccabee’s killed Jews who conformed to Roman customs, we are still having the problem of Jews who are changing to fit in with society. We can now recognize that these tactics are barbaric, but thousands of years later we must be able to stand up for what we believe in. Being proud of your Jewish identity doesn’t make you ungrateful, hostile, jealous or narcissistic. By saying “Happy Holidays” we include everyone and all of their holidays. Everyone has a right to openly celebrate their religion, so why should Jews have to hide their religion from the public by allowing people to say Merry Christmas? This is exactly what the story of Hanukkah is about. We should no longer need to hide our religious observance from anyone, that includes anyone who says “Merry Christmas.”

  21. …refreshing when people are able to think broadly and look at the big picture – tolerance from everyone is much needed in this world – wonderfully written!
    25 minutes ago

  22. This is a wonderful way to open up this discussion. Thanks for writing this piece, Nina.

    I completely agree that we Jews can enjoy the Christmas cheer that surrounds us at this time of year. As far as I’m concerned, everyone could use well-intentioned joy and good spirits, regardless of their source.

    As a mom in an interfaith, multicultural family, I teach my kids that celebrating holidays that aren’t your own can be a positive thing. It’s part of how we recognize that there’s a world out there bigger than our backyard, and that everyone has something to offer.

    I will confess, however, that I do get uncomfortable when the Christmas spirit becomes focused pressure, particularly when it’s directed at my kids. Just last week, a woman in a doctor’s office started grilling my son about his Christmas practices, until seeing the discomfort on his face (despite the fact that we celebrate Christmas with Catholic relatives, she was still making him uncomfortable), I intervened and informed her that we are Jewish. She gave me a look that suggested I’d just murdered Santa Claus. And, as Mike indicated above, when the government gets involved, it’s another story entirely.

  23. Hebrew Hammer–

    I hear you, BUT, if you read my entire post, I advocate for being VERY proud of Judaism. I’m pushing for our Jewish identities to be about the full array of our Jewish customs and not about . . . well, just Hanukkah or just about the fact that we’re not Christian. We ARE different during the Christmas season and every other time of the year. It’s fine to tell someone you don’t celebrate Christmas, obviously. I just don’t get feeling “offended” by being wished a merry one or feeling that the person who said the words is “ignorant.” Most people just mean “warm wishes” or something in that vain. They’re not saying, “Please see Jesus as the Messiah and take that mezuzzah off your door.”

    I see the irony of the Hanukkah story connected to this topic in a different way. Against enormous odds, the Maccabees were able to maintain monotheism, specifically Judaism. Thank G-d. And now we’re turning around to ask others to tone down their religious celebration because we don’t partake? We have our holidays, MANY of them, which we should celebrate loud and proud, take days off from work, ask our kids’ teachers not to have tests on those days, etc. Jews have no problem asking for those things and that’s wonderful. They (we) should feel justified doing so. I’m simply advocating for us to have the same respect for Christmas that we expect others to have for our big holidays. I’m CERTAINLY not pushing anyone to keep their Judaism a secret. Far from it! Actually, most people find me a pest because I push the OPPOSITE. (You can find my piece about my loud and proud love of the mikvah on my blog).

    Ultimately, I think we can find ways to let people know we’re Jewish in December and any other time of the year WITHOUT having contempt and disdain for Christmas or Christians reveling in their holiday.

    Sorry TCJewfolk, I think I just wrote another post within a post!

  24. “By saying “Happy Holidays” we include everyone and all of their holidays,” says Hebrew Hammer; and Leah’s post at JWA similarly promotes this phrase in place of “Merry Christmas.”

    Well, I don’t think “Happy Holidays” (HH) is any better than “Merry Christmas” (MC); in fact, I think it’s worse.

    First, I do realize that many Christians have the best intentions in this and see it as a magnanimous gesture of inclusion. My issue is not with them. I’m arguing only that Jews should not see HH as a better (for the Jews) greeting than MC — and so should not advocate for it.

    Unfortunately, for all the good intentions behind it, HH does not accomplish the goal of inclusion. Instead, even while avoiding the word Christmas, HH privileges the Christian “holiday season” even more.

    After all, we Jews have our own holiday season (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah) in September-October. And so do some other cultures — for instance, the Muslim festive holy month of Ramadan rotates (because of a lunar calendar) through the whole year. See, MC, by its very terms, rightly limits itself to Christians. But HH implies that December is _the_ holiday season. For everybody.

    (I’m reminded of a joke about this on The Simpsons — Bart unselfconsciously says “Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ.”)

    Let’s be honest with ourselves — as far as non-Christians are concerned, HH is a Christmas greeting. But, by its terms, it purports to be for everybody. Now, some might argue that HH instead means “Merry Christmas + Happy Hanukah + Happy Kwanzaa + Happy Eid + any other holiday around this time.” Yes, many cultures do have a holiday around the time of the winter solstice. But does anyone seriously think that these holidays would be given national attention if there were no Christian holiday around the solstice? Doesn’t this beg the question — why have these relatively minor (or invented) holidays in their own traditions gotten such prominence in America? Isn’t it precisely because they fall around Christmas-time?

    So HH ends up, in a sense, further marginalizing the Jews (and other minority cultures), because it implicitly invites everybody to celebrate “the holiday season” at Christmas-time.

    (And now those of us who don’t want to celebrate simply because 95% of the country happens to be celebrating are _really_ seen as churls. The thought might go something like: “Look, we’ve gone out of our way to include everybody; why aren’t you coming to the “Holiday Party” with red white-trimmed hats on December 23rd?!”)

    So, for me, HH doesn’t make me feel any more warm and fuzzy in December. But it isn’t just harmless. Many Christians — especially the more religious ones — resent the subte imposition of the more generic phrase. And quite rightly. Not only has increasing commercialization been displacing their messiah with reindeer, but now, with HH, they’re even being robbed of the very word “Christmas.” That’s not right. No one in America should have to feel constrained not to speak the name of their religious holiday in public.

    So I say “Merry Christmas” to all the Christians. And to the rest of us, let us make own own holidays happy, in our own way — whenever in the year they happen to fall.

  25. It isn’t always easy to be different in Minnesota. All of my children have been asked by friendly, well-meaning Christians who know that they are Jewish, something like this,”You celebrate Christmas, don’t you, even though you are Jewish?” or “You still believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, don’t you, even though you are Jewish?” Being Jewish, in mainstream America, is merely a cultural phenomenon. You eat bagels, get the New York Times and laugh at Billy Chrystal movies.

    We don’t do either ourselves or our Christian neighbors any favors by assimilating with whatever the “Christmas spirit” is these days and ignoring our identities. I tell my Christian neighbors “Merry Christmas” and respect their observance of their Holiday, whether secular and materialistic (nice flat screen TV) or religious and spiritual.

    But, I also request that my difference as a Jewish person be respected. When someone blithely assumes that my religion must be the same as theirs, it is a teachable moment. I try with a minimum of drama to explain that I don’t celebrate Christmas because I’m Jewish and that I hope that they have a Merry Christmas and a new year full of lights.

    I am not jealous of the consumerist Christmas foisted upon my Christian friends each year to challenge their budgets, and I do not disdain the other type of Christmas where clothes are gathered and food served for the needy. It’s just that neither of these holidays are mine.

    In America, any debts we have to the founders of this nation do not include the obligation to repudiate our own religious beliefs. The First Amendment has no bearing on my neighbor’s private Nativity scene, but it should preclude one in City Hall. We must also recognize these days that the challenge is not from a neighbor or cashier, but from corporate and media hegemony trumpeting the culture of conformity and consumption.

    This season of solstice let us dare, politely and cheerfully, to be an individual.

  26. OMG…I totally agree. Hanukah isn’t even on the same page with Christmas religiously. I always felt that it was completely blown out of proportion for all those Jews with a chip on their shoulder. Growing up Jewish in the south, most of my friends had Christmas. Was I jealous? Sure, a little…mostly because we got one gift and they got a ton…but come on…they’ve made Hanukah such a big deal and it’s really a minor thing in history…not to mention that obviously the Jews were the first people who forgot to turn off the lights.

    Great post you brave gir!!!!

  27. Oh, Nina, you’re so awesome. You will always be a member of my tribe!

  28. I’ve been thinking about this article since it was written, and feel that I have to comment. As a Jew by choice, I have seen both sides of the coin on this issue. However, even before I converted, I was not always happy when someone wished me a “Merry Christmas.” This is because, when someone does that, they are making an assumption about you. It’s not just that they are assuming that you celebrate Christmas, it’s an assumption that you share their values, customs, and traditions.

    I became a Jew because I embrace Jewish values, customs, and traditions. I’m not saying that Jews should be rude when someone wishes them a “Merry Christmas,” but I do think that it’s appropriate to respond with, “I celebrate Hanukkah, but thanks for the thought.”

    What is interesting to me about this article is that the author herself makes a generalization about Jews who speak up for themselves. What she is confused about is how one can express themselves in a respectful way.

  29. LetYourHeartBeLight

    I think that this is a great post and couldn’t agree with the author’s sentiment more! From the other side, I am a Christian who married into a Jewish family. I changed my name but did not convert, and because of my last name many people assume that I am Jewish. I never feel offended nor feel the need to correct someone for wishing me a “Happy New Year” on Rosh Hashanah…in fact, I assume that the well wisher would indeed wish me a happy new year even if he or she knew that I am not Jewish myself. I simply respond “thank you, you too,” and I mean it! I look forward to reading more from this author!!

  30. I found this post by way of a FB link to the Practical Guide to Hanukkah Presents. Not Jewish but having worked for a Jewish guy years back, I will say there were many Christmas things I took for granted for years simply because I was never in the minority. I remember one day saying to him, “Gosh it must suck sometimes to hear nonstop Christmas music for weeks on end…and not have an equivalent for Hanukkah.” And last year I had a moment when I wondered what small Jewish children feel about Santa and the whole hoopla surrounding sitting with Santa/asking for gifts. Why did it take me until 33 to wonder that? Again – something I took for granted. It’s one of those weird places I find myself in — celebrating my holiday but being very aware of how overdone it can be. And to be honest and sensitive to Jews without pretending I have a clue.
    This Jewish boss I referenced above actually did save my Christmas two years ago…I was laid off right before Christmas and very upset. He put out an offer for some temporary work in the new year and while it didn’t work out in the long run, I will never forget the generosity. He had his moments of being a real pain and my family knew it too but I made sure everyone knew that the Jewish ex-boss saved Christmas that year ;)

  31. Excellent thoughts. This can apply to so many of us, whether Jewish, Christian, or whatever. A nice reminder to think of others before ourselves. (even if it’s no fun)

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