Thursday, December 24, 2015

Jews And Christmas

In the early 1990s, my Mormon dean gave me an article to read. He had always made comments about Jews being special and made exceptions for me on various things because I was Jewish. For instance,  he opposed the opening of a day care center on campus because little kids should stay home with their moms. When I pointed out that he had said I couldn't afford to live in Anchorage if my wife didn’t work as well, and therefore we needed day care, his response was that we were different, we raised our kids with much more care.  (He didn't know us well enough to reach that conclusion without his Jewish stereotype.)

It seemed that Christmas was a good time to share a part of this article, he gave me, written by Steve Siporin, a Jewish professor living in Logan, Utah.   It began as a requested talk to an honors program in 1990. The talk was open to the public and was later published in a liberal Mormon journal, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Though, one or two years later. I know for some the term "liberal Mormon"  is an oxymoron, but the journal existed and pushed the limits regularly, to the point that in 2014 the editor was excommunicated.

In the article, "A Jew Among Mormons",  Siporin discusses the special relationship Mormons have with Jews, how well his family was treated by their Mormon neighbors, and he points out that the first two Jewish governors in the US were in Mormon country - Moses Alexander in Idaho (1914) and Simon Bamberger in Utah (1916).

He also talks about Jews at Christmas time, the focus of this post.  This is one Jew’s experience with Christmas. I suspect it represents the views of many Jews, but certainly not all and maybe not even most. But for those who are offended by changing Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays and other forms of removing the religious aspects of Christmas from schools, perhaps this will give them a different perspective.
“We [Jews] carry history not only within our holidays, rituals, and books, but within our families as well. We have faced the same difficulties for many generations. Christmas, for instance, was the time of year I hated most as a child; but I was not the first (or the last) Jewish child to feel that way. At Christmas, all the differences between my non-Jewish friends and me grew larger. (One precocious Jewish child in Logan recognized the defining power of the holiday when she referred to Jews and Christians as "Hanukkah people" and "Christmas people.") I felt that overwhelming feeling of alienation most strongly in public school where Christmas seemed to take over the curriculum from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. I remember the stressful feeling during the long days of rehearsing Christmas plays and singing Christmas songs in school. Would I betray my religion by singing these songs that were clear expressions of a different religious belief? The argument that "you could just sing it but not believe" didn't cut it, even with an eight-year-old. Was it wrong to disobey my teacher and call attention to myself by not singing? My mother faced the same problem in the 1920s, and she told me how she used to sing out "loud night" instead of "silent night." Her powerless, child's protest might seem laughable to us, but how else could she maintain her dignity?
The point is that the same thing happens to my children today in Logan. When Christmas approaches, our usually sensitive system suddenly suspends the separation of church and state. Ethnocentrism takes over and runs amuck. To protest puts one in the position of Scrooge in the perennial favorite, A Christmas Carol. To protest is to spoil everyone's fun, to refuse to join in and be a part of it all. But Jews cannot, by definition, be part of Christmas, if they are to be Jews. 
During Christmas, I still want to disappear, as my ancestors did during Easter when it was unsafe for Jews to be seen in public. They hid in their homes, and I suspect that today many Jewish children are torn between wanting to hide and wanting to join. How often can one explain oneself? A simple, innocent question like "What did you get for Christmas?" sets up the conflict, even in children: Do I have to explain, to a perfect stranger, that I'm Jewish and Jews don't celebrate Christmas, and maybe embarrass him? Do I just lie and say I got X? This problem, of course, is not particular to Jews living among Mormons but to Jews living among Christians. 
I often wonder at the ‘Christians’ who say they feel persecuted in the United States.  Every president but one has been a Protestant.   Most of the governors and most heads of corporations have been white male Protestants.  Christians have had most of the positions of power in the United States from the very beginning.  And Christian ideas have been part and parcel of American culture.

It's true, that with the various civil rights movements from women's, black's, and gay rights, non-Christians have also begun to stand up for their rights, when in the past, they felt they had no power to protest the imposition of Christian religious traditions in public institutions, particularly schools.  I understand that Christians see this as taken something away from them, something they took for granted.  But to the rest of us it was something they imposed on everyone else, contrary to the notion of separation of church and state, contrary to the constitutional ban on government imposed religion.  It was a special perk that came, not from the constitution, but from the same kind of power that kept blacks and women and gays second class citizens in their own country.  Perhaps the excerpt above will show people how including religious practices in school truly discriminates against non-Christians.

And I would add, that this doesn’t mean schools shouldn't have classes that teach about different religions.  I think it would be wonderful for everyone to know about the many religions they don't belong to.  Though this has to be done carefully because even members of the same religion would disagree about what should be said about their religion.

And I can even foresee a day when different religious holidays can be recognized in schools.  It will be a time when no one religion is dominant, when no one is saying "The US is a Christian nation."   A half-hearted, "OK, let's add a Chanukah song so we can get on with the Christmas celebration," doesn't qualify.  It needs to be a genuinely respectful approach to different religious traditions.

But that can't happen until everyone is not just tolerant, but respectful, of other world views.  Non-Christians don't really want to celebrate Christmas any more than Christians want to celebrate the holidays of other religions.  Though I'd point out that since Christians embrace the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, there's little in a Jewish service that would be contrary to their religion.  But since Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the main aspects of Christianity contradict the beliefs of Jews.

There's a difference between celebrating and sharing.  Sharing and learning about the holidays of different religions can, if done well, happen in public schools.  But the actual celebration of the holidays, which includes worship, should be done in the respective houses of worship and homes of the believers.  Many folks already get this.

But given the evangelical nature of some Christian denominations one wonders whether there aren't ulterior motives.    The mission statement of the Southern Baptist Convention is:
"As a convention of churches, our missional vision is to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations."
Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Sikhs and Bahá'ís and Jains and atheists can't help but be fearful that the Christmas program at school is, for some, a means not of just sharing their holiday,  but also is a way of 'presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person."

And as long as the leading candidate for president among the Republicans wants to ban Muslims from entering the US, we know that we aren't anywhere near that level of respect in the US.

I'd recommend the whole article,  "A Jew Among Mormons."  It's got lots of good insights.

[Sorry for those seeing this reposted - Feedburner problems again. This seems to be getting all too common.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.