Posted tagged ‘Christmas’

‘Tis the Season to Celebrate Diversity and Freedom

December 23, 2016

This year we will be experiencing one of those rare occasions when Hanukkah and Christmas coincide exactly with our first night of Hanukkah also being our Christian neighbors’ Christmas Eve.  The last time that happened was in 1978 and the next time will be in 2027.  I am sure, to the chagrin of the owners of the Chinese restaurants, this Christmas Eve Jews will not be gathering in their establishments, eating Chinese food, but rather will be at home, lighting menorahs and eating latkes.  But have no fear, dear Chinese brethren, we will be back in force next Christmas Eve!

So often, this time of year has been one of great tension for us as Jews and between us and some of our Christian neighbors.  We even have a term for it.  We call it “The December Dilemma”.  While year after year there have been those in the Christian community who have complained bitterly about a “War on Christmas” – indeed, one of President-Elect Trump’s campaign promises was that if he became President, everyone in America would be saying “Merry Christmas” – still many of us Jews, along with many other minority faiths, have not seen it to be so much a “War on Christmas” but more a Christian war on non-Christian faiths.  And it has been ugly!

But it just may be that this perfect confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas can offer all of us – Jews, Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith – an opportunity to take a step back from the annual fray in order to reconsider what this season can and should mean, particularly in light of the teachings of our various faiths and specifically in light of the messages of the holidays we are just about to celebrate.

So often in the past, while immersed in the struggles of the December Dilemma, as there were those Christians who were railing against those stores and institutions who, out of a sensitivity to the religious diversity of our society, had chosen to express their good wishes in terms such as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”, claiming that it was all a plot to destroy Christmas, and as there were those Jews who angrily protested against having public schools require non-Christian students to participate in the singing of sacred songs that proclaim the divinity of Jesus, it was so easy to focus on the differences between the two holidays; differences that make them appear as being diametrically opposed. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the coming of Jesus who, for Christians, is God made manifest in human form, and Hanukkah is all about celebrating the victory of a band of Jews who were willing to risk their lives in fighting a war to protect their right to observe their own religion freely and without pressure or harassment to do otherwise.

Of course these struggles are still going on, but this year it is a little different.  It is a little different because come the evening of December 24th, the Christians and the Jews will go their separate ways, each of them to celebrate the powerful messages of their own holiday rather than to combat the other.

When you think about it, as we Jews gather in our homes, lighting our menorahs, and the Christians gather in their homes, enjoying the beauty of their lighted Christmas trees, the differences tend to fade and the similarities tend to shine through.  Indeed, we can begin to see that what are usually presented as differences can begin to appear as two sides of the same coin.

Perhaps there is more about the two holidays which – if approached properly and observed properly – compliment each other rather than contradict each other.  After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, who, according to Christianity, is supposed to be the Prince of Peace.  How often we hear identified with Christmas the profound wish of “Peace on earth, good will toward men” or to be more contemporary and gender neutral, “goodwill toward all.”  On the other hand, Hanukkah is about the importance of freedom of religion.  Not just freedom of religion for Jews but freedom of religion for all people.  In the end, both are about respecting the dignity and integrity of all people.  That’s how peace on earth is achieved.  We cannot hope to achieve goodwill toward all unless we come to respect that which makes each of us different and unique as well as that which makes us alike.  Of course, that includes the freedom of each of us to observe the religion of our choice.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post which spoke about this confluence of holidays, particularly in terms of their shared symbol of light.  For the Christians, their Christmas Tree is lit, they may be burning a Yule Log in their fireplace, and many of their houses are decorated with lights – some to the degree that they can be seen from space. For us Jews, our light – the light of the menorah – may be a bit more modest but still, according to Halachah, when we light it, it is not supposed to be in the midst of our house but rather at the window, shining out into the world at large.  Both holidays are calling upon us to become a source of light in a very dark work.  For both faiths, it is more than just about lighting candles or light bulbs that shine in the darkness of night.  It is about making of ourselves a source of light in a world that is shrouded in the darkness of poverty and suffering, inequity and conflict, disease and starvation.  We – Christians and Jews and people of all faiths – need to become the ones who bring light into the darkened lives of so many others, for whom their light has gone out or has never been kindled.

Perhaps this will be the year, when Christians and Jews are celebrating their festivals of light simultaneously, that we come to realize that we are all in this together.  Though we approach God in our very different ways, and we are celebrating very different holidays, perhaps we can come to recognize that all those things that differentiate our faiths and observance are meant to be directed inward, not outward; that they are all intended to be personal to us and not expected of others.  Yet there is so much that we do share, and that our various faiths demand of us, much of which is communicated to us through the very messages of these holidays.  It is in those values and in those tasks that we should be reaching out to each other in a righteous partnership of goodness and blessing.  Together, we can bring the light and drive back the darkness, but we have to choose to do so!

One Jew Reflecting on Christmas: A Postscript

February 3, 2014

I write this on the morning after the Superbowl.

Yesterday evening – not having a Superbowl Party to attend and not being very interested in sitting at home, watching the game (though we do love the commercials) – my wife and I went out for a bite of dinner, followed by an exciting evening of grocery shopping and a visit to Starbucks.  As we drove the streets of Davenport, Iowa, I could not help but be struck by how empty they were.  At the restaurant, we were 2 out of their 3 diners.  Most of the staff were gathered round the wall mounted TVs, watching the game.  While there were some people in the grocery store, relatively speaking it, too, was empty.  Then, at Starbucks, we were the only customers.

As we left Starbucks, heading for home, my thoughts traveled to two places:

The first was to Jerusalem, back in 1970, when I was a first year student at the Hebrew Union College.  It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish holiday calendar (except for Shabbat).  I do not know about how it is today but in those days, on Yom Kippur, the usually crowded streets of Jerusalem were eerily empty and quiet.  The only moving vehicles were the occasional military jeep.  The silence and stillness seemed to emphasize the sanctity of the day.

The second was not so much a place but a document – the last posting I placed on this blog:  “One Jew Reflecting on Christmas.”  In that posting, I bemoaned the changes I have been witnessing as to the very nature of Christmas Day in our society.  As I stated in that posting, it was not that long ago that out on the streets, Christmas Day, you might say, belonged to the Jews.  We would go to the movies and, except for the Jews, they were empty.  The same was true for the Chinese restaurants; the only restaurants that were open on Christmas Day.  Everyone else were gathered in their churches and homes, with their families, celebrating their sacred holiday.  However, this has become less and less the case, as with each passing year the movie theaters have become more and more crowded, as have the Chinese restaurants.  Indeed, this year, the movie theater was more crowded than I ever remember seeing it.

Driving home last night, on Superbowl Sunday – revisiting in my mind one Yom Kippur in Jerusalem 43 years ago and Christmas in the Quad Cities just a month and a half ago – I came to the realization, with a bit of a shock and sadness, that it is not that the American people have lost their sense of sacred occasions.  Rather it is that they have changed their views on what they hold sacred.  The place in their hearts once held by Yom Kippur and Christmas now is held by the Superbowl.  The church and the synagogue have been replaced by the stadium and the sports arena while the Christmas family dinner and, to a lesser extent, even the Passover Seder, have been replaced by the Superbowl and tailgate parties.  The streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur are now the streets of America on Superbowl Sunday night.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

The Rabbi Sat on Santa’s Lap

December 22, 2012

Well, it is that time of year again; that time when we Jews, more than any other time of the year, can feel like outsiders in our own society – like children, faces pressed against the window glass of a toy store, gazing in at all the wonder but unable to enter ourselves.
Christmas is seen as such an “American” holiday that there are times when it can even lead us, who do not celebrate Christmas, to questioning the authenticity of our own American identity.  Are we less American because we do not take on the trappings of Christmas; the trees, the lights, and the presents?
There was a time, and it was not that long ago, when American Jews were far more insecure about their place in American society than we are now.  So much so that many felt the need to take on those Christmas trapping not only so that we could feel more comfortable at this time of year, but also so that we could feel that we were being more accepted by our non-Jewish neighbors.  I remember that time very well, for while it started almost as soon as we arrived on these shores, it included the time of my childhood; the ‘50’s & the early ‘60’s.
I grew up in New York City, which, especially in those years, was heavily Jewish in population.  In my public school, over 90% of the students and the faculty were Jews.  On Jewish holidays, hardly anyone was in school, while on Christian holidays, when the school was open, it was business as usual.  Indeed we Jewish students used to resent the fact that when we were off for our holidays, our Christian classmates basically spent their school time playing instead of studying, while, when we are in school during their holidays, we worked.  Yet in spite of the numbers being so heavily in favor of the Jews, we had our Christmas programs, in which primarily Jewish teachers taught primarily Jewish students, how to sing and play Christmas songs – including some very religious Christmas songs – in order to perform them for an audience which was primarily made up of Jewish parents.  No one challenged all this on the grounds of Separation of Church and State because the underlying assumption was that Christmas is an American holiday which all Americans are expected to celebrate.
That assumption did not end at the doors of the school building.  It found its way into many Jewish homes as well.  Mine was one of them.
Yes, your rabbi grew up with Christmas.  In our home we had a tree and some Christmas decorations.  I remember most vividly that in our living room window we placed an electrically powered moving model of Santa in his sleigh being pulled by his reindeer, as the reindeer and the sleigh rocked back and forth.  And yes, on Christmas morning, there were presents awaiting my sister and me under the tree.  As far as lights on the house were concerned, there were not many – just a string of blue Christmas lights framing our front door.  After all, you have to draw a line somewhere.  I think it is a cultural thing, for even Jews who seek to celebrate Christmas find it a bissel meshugah to climb around the outside of your house, from roof to lawn, in the winter’s cold, in order to string festive lights.  That is why, as Jews, for centuries, in our celebration of Hanukkah we only have placed the menorah in the window and left it as that.  And yes, your rabbi did visit with Santa Claus, in Gimbels department store, sat on his lap, and rattled off his Christmas wish list – and the Cantor has saved the photographic evidence to prove it!
In our family, all this came to a sudden end when my sister started attending religious school.  For some strange reason, my parents joined an Orthodox synagogue.  While my father would not set foot in the place until my sister’s pseudo-Bat Mitzvah, my mother got involved in non-worship activities.  In any event, one day my sister announced that since we are Jews we should not be celebrating Christmas, so no more trees, no more lights, no more Santa, and unfortunately, no more gifts.  Her protest must have stung my parents’ conscience, for they readily agreed.  The only dissenting voice was mine.  What do you mean “No more tree?  I like Christmas!  Why are you taking it away?”  So my father explained to me about our being Jewish and how Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and in the end we struck a compromise – reluctantly on my part.  That compromise was that from then on, on Christmas eve we would all pile in the car and drive around the neighbor, looking at the beautiful Christmas lights on the homes of our Christian neighbors.
I did not know it at the time, but that compromise would lay the foundations for my evolving Jewish attitude about Christmas.  Once I started attending religious school – by that time my family had joined a Reform congregation – and my own sense of Jewish identity was strengthening, I quickly made peace with the fact that Christmas was not my holiday any more than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur were the holidays of my Roman Catholic next door neighbor and childhood companion, Neal DeLuca.  But that did not mean that I could not enjoy Christmas.  Every year, I looked forward to the family Christmas lights tour .  In fact, as my own children were growing up, the Cantor and I continued that tradition with them.
But more than the lights, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy the spirit – the true spirit – of Christmas.  Not the commercialism, and especially not the insanity of Black Friday, but rather that spirit of “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women).”  I enjoy the fact that during this season people tend to be more sensitive to and caring of others.  I particularly love Christmas movies – not all of them, but ones that I consider to be good ones.  I consider them good because of their universal messages which somehow or other all boil down to “we can be better people.”  Along those lines, my favorite is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in all of its varied manifestations and modernizations.  I even have the book on my Kindle.  And then there is “It’s A Wonderful Life” with its message that each and every one of us can and do make a difference, so let us make a difference for the better.  I even love Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies for they teach us that it is not so much “seeing is believing” as it is “believing is seeing.”  So much of how we view the world around us is shaped by what we believe the world to be.  If we believe that people are selfish and cruel at heart, we will see our world as being filled with selfishness and cruelty.  But if we believe people are truly good at heart, then we will see a world filled with acts of loving kindness.  As Jews – as outsiders looking in – Christmas still offers us much that is meaningful, uplifting, and downright encouraging about the human condition, or at least the human potential.
We do not have to buy into the particular theology of Christmas in order to enjoy and benefit from these aspects of the holiday.  However it is important for us to recognize, and respect, the fact that so much which is positive about Christmas is born of Christian theology.  That we, as Jews, can find it so uplifting is but a testimony to the fact those particular Christian teachings which give birth to so many of Christmas’ positive elements are founded in values which Judaism and Christianity happen to share.  Joy and beauty, peace and good will, caring for others and a human potential to be better are as much Jewish virtues as they are Christian.  As we Jews watch Christians celebrate these virtues, it is only fit and proper that our observations should fill us with joy, for seeing our shared virtues celebrated in a religious framework other than our own should fill us with hope for the future; a hope that since we are not alone in the struggle to make these real, that together, hand-in-hand, Jews and Christians, all faiths who share these ideals, will eventually bring about that momentous day which we Jews call the Messianic Age.
And by the way, one more thing about Christmas that I enjoy is that on Christmas Day I run into so many of my fellow Jews in the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters.

REFLECTIONS ON THE SLAUGHTER IN CONNETICUT

December 14, 2012

Hanukkah is drawing to a close and Christmas celebrations are soon to commence. In this season of joy for so many, our hearts are shattered by the senseless violence that fills our land, and most especially by its latest manifestation in Connecticut. When will this bloodshed cease? It was but only yesterday we were mourning the victims of the shootings in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee. When will we recognize that momentary expressions of shock, outrage, and sympathy simply are not enough! Actions are needed to stop the violence. How can we let a few determined individuals hold our nation as hostage as the promote the lie that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the rights of all Americans to slaughter their neighbors indiscriminately?

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 1

October 21, 2010






Over the past several months, as my congregation has explored the possibility of merger with the other local synagogue – the Tri City Jewish Center – a congregation which used to be affiliated with the Conservative movement but now is not affiliated with any movement, one of the issues which has been discussed, and over which there will yet be a good deal more discussion, has been that of whether or not the resulting congregation should affiliate with a national/international umbrella organization, and if so, which one.  As part of the merger exploration process, the task force in charge of moving the process forward submitted to the two rabbis a series of questions, the rabbinic responses to which would be published, distributed, and discussed.  One of their questions sought our opinions on the issue of whether or not the new congregation should affiliate with any particular movement, and if so, which one and why.  In my response I stated that I favor belonging to the Union for Reform Judaism; the North American organization of Reform synagogues.  In support of that position, I offered all sorts of organizational reasons as to why we should belong to the Reform movement.  However, now I would like to take the opportunity to share my personal reasons for being a Reform Jew and wishing to remain one.

In order to better understand from whence I speak, I need to wax a bit biographical.  Many in my congregation and in the Quad Cities Jewish community assume that I was born and raised a Reform Jew.  Well, that was not the case.  When my mother was a child, her family belonged to a Reform congregation, but her parents were not very involved.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew.  In fact, whenever I conduct our congregation’s B’nei Mitzvah Family Program I tell the participants about my father’s traditional Bar Mitzvah, which took place during a weekday morning minyan, on either a Monday or a Thursday, when Torah is read.  He went to services with his father, was called to bless the Torah, and after services enjoyed a light oneg of sponge cake and schnapps – his first taste of alcohol, other than Shabbat and Passover wine of course – and then went off to school.  As an adult, he had no love of Orthodox Judaism, and wanted no part of it.  This is somewhat surprising considering the fact that in Europe his grandfather was a very important Orthodox educator.  While in my youth I did not understand the source of his anger, today, as an adult, I have to wonder whether or not his animosity toward Orthodox Judaism had something to do with the fact that his beloved Uncle Jack – the son of this renown Orthodox teacher and the man who took primary responsibility for my father and his sisters after their parents died – married outside of the faith, and therefore was rejected by the very same Orthodox Jews who honored the memory of Uncle Jack’s father.  Whatever my father’s reasons, as a result my parents were among the many New York Jews who were unaffiliated.  For them, being Jewish was simply a title, not a life style.  In fact, for a while our family even celebrated Christmas.  We had lights on our house and a tree in our living room, with presents under it on Christmas morning.  If you do not believe me, ask my wife, for she has stored away a photo of young Henry Karp sitting on the lap of a department store Santa and has threatened to reveal it to the world, should I ever become too arrogant or self-righteous about my Jewish identity.

There is a certain irony that it was my mother – this woman who was raised as a minimalist Reform Jew – who was the one who came to feel that there needed to be more to our Jewish life.  So when my sister (who was 6 years older than me) came of religious school age, my mother insisted that we join a synagogue and send her to religious school.  My father acquiesced, but made it clear that he would have nothing to do with it, other than pay the bills.  So my mother enrolled us in the closest synagogue; an Orthodox one.  My mother, who was one of those lovers of organizational involvement, dove into membership in the Sisterhood and support of the school.  But my father, true to his word, never entered the building until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah.  While I had entered the building on several occasions with my mother, I never attended a worship service until that Bat Mitzvah.

Now that Bat Mitzvah was not like the ones we contemporary liberal Jews are used to.  It was a group event, somewhat like our Confirmation services.  It took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a time which did not conflict with traditionally scheduled services.  The girls all wore identical dresses.  There was no Torah blessing or reading.  In fact the bulk of the service was in English.  And after it was over, so was our affiliation with that synagogue, my father insisting that I would never be sent to that synagogue for my Jewish education.

It was but a short time later that my parents were approached by some neighbors – Alan & Muriel Billig – who were out recruiting for members for a newly established Reform congregation; Judea Reform Temple (later to be renamed Temple Judea).  With great enthusiasm, the Billigs described how their form of Judaism differed from Orthodoxy.  They must have been successful, for my parents agreed to give it a shot.  The congregation was small.  It met in a loft; a set of rented rooms, on the second floor, over a stationary store, a Chinese restaurant, and a kosher butcher shop, on a busy Bronx commercial street.  Right outside the windows, the elevated subway trains rumbled by constantly.  I remember clearly the first time I entered this synagogue.  Right inside the glass entry door there was a long set of stairs.  No sooner was I through the doors and starting to climb the stairs then I took of my hat – as I had been taught that was the polite thing do when entering a building.  But my father stopped me, saying, “Henry, in a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.”  Soon both he and I would learn differently.  Thus began my life as a Reform Jew.

The members of that synagogue quickly became like family to us.  Both of my parents got deeply involved in its activities while I quickly made friends in the religious school, some of whom I still keep in contact with today.  It seemed like everyone came to Shabbat services.  Of course in those days, all Reform congregations were what we today call classical Reform.  Services were conducted primarily in English, using the old Union Prayer Book.  To listen to the adults speak about our services, it was clear that they loved the fact that they could understand the prayers they were offering and were far more able to participate in reading along.  They also loved the fact that men and women sat together.  As for us children, we sat together too, usually close to the first row, with parents sitting behind us, ever ready to whack us on the back of our heads should we become too talkative.

While at the time, I fully appreciated the warm and wonderful life we had at that synagogue, it would not be until I was older and more comprehending that I came to realize that what made the life of that congregation so wonderful was its spirit of inclusiveness, as well as its refusal to be Judaically judgmental of its members.  It was not only in that particular synagogue, but it was and is inherent in Reform Judaism itself.  All are welcomed, Jews and non-Jewish spouses alike.  Members aren’t judged by how closely they adhere to the particulars of Jewish tradition but rather, they are encouraged to discover for themselves those aspects of the tradition which are particularly meaningful to them, and then they are valued for their efforts in that search, whatever its outcome.  For in Judea Reform Temple in those days, and in Reform Judaism itself, both then and now, there was and is plenty of space for the diversity of individuality when it comes to the practice of Judaism.  So when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, I wanted to wear both a kipah (yarmulke) and a talit, both of which were never seen in our synagogue.  My father wanted me to wear neither.  Ultimately we compromised, and I wore the talit without the kipah.  And to top it off, my father was allowed to audio tape the service on Shabbat.  Where else but in a Reform synagogue would such choices be allowed?  This was the Reform Judaism of my youth.

In Part 2, I will share with you how the emotional bonds to the Reform Judaism of my youth were only to be strengthened and deepened as I grew to intellectually appreciate the values and principles of the movement.

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.

By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  My God!  It has even made the national news!  Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way.  There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!”  Yuck, yuck!  Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!

Now to the serious business at hand.  There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill.  While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain.  Why an ugly mountain?  Let us consider the facts.

We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheime­rs who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be re­minded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the prin­ciple is most certainly to be found there.  Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document.  If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly.  All government agencies must remain religiously neutral.  They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith.  It is imper­ative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that gov­ernmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amend­ment.

Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission.  They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed.  They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment.  By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty.  Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.

Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews.  That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal.  After all, what are these people so angry about?  They still have their holiday?  No one is stopping them from going to church.  All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar.  But that seems to be enough to outrage them.  Why?  Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our govern­ment.  In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land.  We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hog­wash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative.  I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect).  My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them.  Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Dav­enport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation.  For us, this is not a mole hill.  This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.

As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist.  I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart.  That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools.  That is why I have always been op­posed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.

As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city govern­ment simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur.  Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the oppor­tunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith.  To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.

As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.  So it is with our current “crisis”.  Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict.  But also enfolded in it is an “oppor­tunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment.  I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously.  I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter.  In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year.  At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays.  As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them.  In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays.  If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing.  In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.

I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.

Purim: The Antisemitism Holiday

February 23, 2010

Around the world, we Jews soon will be throwing ourselves into our celebration of Purim.  We will be voraciously eating hamantaschen (Purim cakes), dressing up in all manner of costumes, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while grinding our groggers (noisemakers) as loud as we can whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, having fun playing games and winning prizes; all of this being wrapped up inside a carnival – or dare I say a Mardi Gras – atmosphere.

Purim is a holiday of total abandonment to joy.  It is a mitzvah!  We are commanded by Jewish law to enjoy ourselves on Purim.  And such abandonment was never intended to be limited to just children.  Adults, too, are supposed to surrender to it.  I know that there are times when we adults can become too self-conscious or just too darn stuffy to let ourselves get into the spirit of Purim, but that is our shortcoming and not the shortcoming of the holiday.

Last year, at our Purim service in Davenport, Iowa, we had a family of adults who attended, all in costume, and it was obvious from their behaviors that before coming to Temple, they had liberally partaken of the fruit of the vine, or perhaps liquids somewhat stronger.  They had a great time!  After the service, there were those who commented about how inappropriate was their behavior.  However, those who made such remarks to me were surprised, and perhaps disturbed, by the response they received.  For rather than affirming their outrage, I told them, “No.  Not at all!  For these were the adults who, more than any others, had truly captured the spirit of the holiday.”  What?  Drunkenness in the sanctuary is appropriate behavior?  Not on Yom Kippur, and not even on Shabbat.  But on Purim – you betcha!  In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Megillah, which is dedicated to instructing us on how to observe this holiday properly.  And in that tractate it says, believe it or not, “On Purim it is a man’s duty to inebriate himself to the point that he is unable to distinguish between the phrases, ‘ Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’”[1] In fact, there is a Purim tradition for adults – not for children but for adults – which is derived from that mitzvah, the very name of which comes from that Talmudic text.  It is called a Adloyadah and it is an adult drinking party.  The name Adloyadah literally means “until you are unable to distinguish.”  Purim is indeed our party holiday!

But why all the extreme celebration?  After all, while the story of Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Ahashuerus is an interesting one, it would not appear to be that significant.  Let’s face it!  It’s not Passover, with the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the liberation of our people from Egyptian slavery.  So what is this excessive joy all about?

You see, while the celebration of Purim centers upon merriment, the reason for the celebration of Purim actually centers upon the most painful and tragic challenge which has confronted our people, not just at the time and in the setting of the Purim story, but in practically every time and every setting throughout the history of our people.  I am talking about antisemitism; that seemingly eternal hatred of Jews merely because we are Jews, coupled with the desire to do away with, if not all of us, as many of us as possible.  Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a consummate antisemite.  His plan for the Jews of Persia was nothing short of genocide.  Indeed, this might have been the first attempted genocide in human history.  It is to this point that Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his book THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS, says “Appearances can be deceptive.  Purim, which supports enormous theological freight, may well be the darkest, most de­pressing holiday of the Jewish calendar.  Its laughter is Pagliacci’s – a hair’s breadth away from despair.”[2]

Unfortunately, in our own day and age, history has impelled us to memorialize another attempted genocide; the Holocaust.  Yet our Holocaust remembrance is most certainly a somber affair.  We recall both atrocities and instances of heroism.  We weep in our hearts, if not actually with our eyes, for all its victims so brutally slain.  We are nonplused by the evil of the evil doers and we, with grim resolve, vow “Never again!”  There is no merriment attached to Yom HaShoah; no noisemakers drowning out the name of Hitler whenever it is mentioned.  There is nothing lighthearted about it.  Yet the bonds which bind Purim to the Holocaust are incontrovertible and unbreakable. Probably the most compelling statement of this connection came out of the mouth of none other than Julius Streicher, the publisher of the virulently antisemitic Nazi newspaper, “Der Sturmer.”  Having been sentenced to death by hanging at the Nuremberg trials, his last words were “Purimfest, 1946!”[3]

So if Purim is all about antisemitism and attempted genocide, why is it so merry whereas Yom HaShoah is so somber?  The merriment of Purim is based, not so much upon the attempted genocide itself, but rather upon the defeat of the genocidal plan; the victory of the Jewish people over antisemitism.  For while Haman plotted our destruction, unlike Hitler, Haman never succeeded in killing one single Jew.  Gratefully, when it comes to Purim, we have no Jews for whom to mourn.  Thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai – true Jewish heroes – the implications of Haman’s hatred were not underestimated, but were effectively confronted before any harm could be done.  And that is a true cause for celebration.  The confronting of antisemitism – the confronting of hatred and bigotry – and stopping it in its tracks before it can take root – before it can draw blood – is a true cause for celebration.

There is much which the Purim story can teach us for our own day and age about both the nature of antisemitism and how to respond to it.  We make a serious mistake if we choose to believe that this story is just about the past.  It is about the present as well.  So what can we learn from it?

First of all, we should learn that while a certain amount of assimilation into the general society may serve us well, we are foolish to believe that assimilation in and of itself is the answer to antisemitism.

The Jews had a good life in Persia.  By most of their neighbors, they seem to have been completely accepted.  One of the ways that we can tell that the Jews were highly assimilated is by looking at the names of the characters.  Neither Esther nor Mordecai are Jewish names.  Greenberg believes that these names are based upon the names of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and the Babylonian god Marduk.[4] It is not uncommon for Jews, when they feel welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors, or they wish to make themselves more welcomed by those neighbors, that they put aside their Jewish names in favor of more socially acceptable ones.  One only need consider the names of most American Jews today to see this at work.  My name, “Henry,” is not a traditional Jewish name, and neither is my wife’s name, “Gail.”  Even most of those who have traditional Jewish names don’t pronounce them in their Hebrew fashion.  My son, for example, is named “Joshua,” not “Yehoshua.”

Nor is the assimilation of the Persian Jews at the time of the Purim story witnessed just in their names.  How much more assimilated can a Jew become than Esther?  Here is a Jewish woman who becomes queen of the land.  But she does not become queen like Joe Lieberman when he was running for president.  She does not wear her Judaism on her sleeve.  Quite the contrary.  For her, Jewish identity is a very personal and private matter.  If no one mentions it to her, she doesn’t mention it to them.  As far as she is concerned, what the non-Jews around her, including her own husband, don’t know won’t hurt her.  She doesn’t look Jewish.  She doesn’t act Jewish.  She doesn’t talk Jewish.  And at least as long as people don’t ask her, there is no assumption that she is Jewish.  Sound familiar?  It should.  So, you see, the Persian Jewish community at that time was not that different than ours today.

Yet even in a society where most people, including the king, seemed to be comfortable with living side by side with Jews, still there were those who were fueled by their hatred of us; who, those who, like Haman, saw us as a community apart from society; an alien presence; a threat requiring elimination, indeed extermination.  These are Haman’s words to Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.  If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn up for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”[5] Indeed, such people seem to hate us all the more for our trying to “fit in.”  Even though today these haters of Jews may be on the fringe of society, they still pose a real danger.  They pose a real danger because they always have the potential of locking on to an issue which gains them an audience of otherwise tolerant people.

Did we ourselves not experience this for several years, with a personality no less than Bill O’Reilly, on the Fox network, ranting and railing about the so-called “War on Christmas”?  Suddenly, he had a surprising number of our fellow Americans believing that Jews, and other religious minorities, but especially we Jews, were dead set on denying our Christian neighbors their sacred holiday.  Why?  Simply because we preferred such inclusive December salutations as “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” over the Christian-only sentiment of “Merry Christmas.”

While being at one with the general society can never be the complete answer to antisemitism, it most certainly can be part of the solution.  We must remember that Mordecai was not just a good Jew.  He also was a good Persian.  Remember that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate King Ahashuerus.  He literally saved the king’s life, and for that he was rewarded, much to Haman’s chagrin.  But more than the reward he received at the time, it was his actions and his proven loyalty, as well as the love and loyalty of Queen Esther, which sowed the seeds for Haman’s undoing.  If Jews are to have any hope of safety in a society, then they must prove themselves, time and again, to be good citizens who contribute to well being of all.

Purim also teaches us that we must take the threats of antisemites seriously.  When Mordecai reported to Queen Esther Haman’s dark plot against our people, it would have been easy for her, in the safety of the royal palace, to tell him that he was blowing the situation way out of proportion; that it was inconceivable that Haman could ever achieve his goal.  There are still plenty of Jews today who would respond that way.  “I don’t want to rock the boat.  I don’t want to put myself at risk, simply because I am Jewish.”  Sad to say, this was the response of too many American Jews to the Holocaust, while it was happening.  Their fears for their own security kept them from protesting and from demanding that the United States open its doors to Jewish refugees; to demanding that the Allies bomb the extermination facilities.  If they had done so, God knows how many of our Europeans brothers and sisters would have been saved.  But they failed, and we know the results of their failure.

Esther, rather than hiding in the safety and security of the royal palace, chose to take Haman’s threat seriously; so much so that she took great personal risk in confronting and subduing it.  As a result, our people were saved.

Like Esther and Mordecai, the rabbis of the Talmud understood:  “Kawl Yisraeil aravim zeh ba-zeh” – “All Jews are responsible for each other.”[6] First and foremost, we are Jews, and as such, we need to take care of each other.  It is foolishness for we Jews to think that we can dissociate ourselves from our fellow Jews and from the challenges they face.  For in the end, those challenges will engulf us all, even if we try to hide from them in the deepest, darkest places, or for that matter, in the palace of the king.

Today, in Iran, there is yet another Haman, making similar threats – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  He has been seriously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons, coupled with unabashedly announcing his goal of using those weapons for the total elimination of the State of Israel.  He has proudly proclaims that “Israel must be wiped off the map!”  If we have learned anything from the Purim story – from the actions and the courage of Mordecai and Esther – then it is that it is imperative to take seriously those who make such threats, and to act according so as to insure that such plots never come to fruition.

Mordecai and Esther took Haman’s threats seriously, and they nipped his genocidal plan in the bud, and therefore we celebrate at Purim.  On the other hand, far too many refused to take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late, and therefore we mourn on Yom HaShoah.  Today, there are those, like Ahmadinejad, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and a frightening number of Neo-Nazi hate groups, who continue in the tradition of Haman, threatening to extinguish the existence of the Jewish people.  The sad and hard truth is that once antisemitism is unleashed in a society, we Jews have little choice.   We have to be willing to fight long and hard to eradicate it.  And that job is not just the job of any one Jew or any one group of Jews.  It is the job of all Jews.  It is our job.  We have to do it.  We cannot stand by silently, waiting for the threatened danger to disappear like a cloud of smoke.  For it is not a cloud of smoke.  It is tangible.  It is lethal.  And it will remain so unless we act to dismantle it.   To such threats, Purim challenges us to respond in the manner of Mordecai and Esther, for the future of our people is in our hands.  In the years to come, will the nature of our response to such antisemitism give rise to another Purim celebration or another Yom HaShoah memorial?


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillot 7b.

[2] Greenberg, Rabbi Irving, THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING WITH THE HOLIDAYS, p. 224.

[3] Conot, Robert E., JUSTICE AT NUREMBERG, p. 506.

[4] Greenberg, 227.

[5] ESTHER 3:8-9.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 39a.

Chabad in the Quad Cities

January 9, 2010






Since 2004, the Jewish community of the Quad Cities has been attempting to deal with the introduction and activities of Chabad in our town.  Unfortunately, the coming of Chabad has generated far more controversy than stimulation in our Jewish lives.  Recently, our local Jewish Federation was thrown into a crisis over this issue.  On Erev Shabbat, January 8, 2010, I delivered a sermon addressing this matter.  I wish to share with my readers an EXTENDED version of this sermon.

UPDATE ON CHABAD AND THE JEWISH FEDERATION

Yesterday, the Board of the Quad Cities Jewish Federation received an email from our Executive Director, Allan Ross, stating that the Federation had just averted a crisis concerning Chabad.  I do not exaggerate when I say that the crisis in question had a very real potential to tear apart the Federation and perhaps even destroy it.

However, before I share with you the nature of that crisis and how it was averted, or at least averted for the moment, I need to take you on a journey; a journey down the road to this crisis.  For before I can share the crisis itself, I need to share the history which led up to it.

But even before I can do that, I need to rectify an important misconception about myself.  In our community, we have had a lot of controversy surrounding Chabad, and admittedly I have been, and will continue to be, a key player in those struggles.  However, there are those who believe that I am simply anti-Chabad; that it is part of my essential nature as a Reform Jew and a Reform rabbi to oppose them.  That is the misconception that I wish to clear up.  While it is true that at this point in time I have significant issues with Chabad, it was not always so.  Indeed, there was a time when I was a friend to Chabad.

Back in the 70’s, as a rabbinic student intern in a large New York suburban congregation, I used to take my Confirmation classes – classes of over 60 students – to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in order to spend a weekend – to spend Shabbat – with the Lubavitcher Hasidim.  Indeed I met and prayed with Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.

While serving as a rabbi here in the Quad Cities, there was a time when I definitely was Chabad friendly.  There was a time when I invited Chabad representatives from Postville to come into our synagogue and conduct family education programs.  They conducted a program on the baking of matzah and another on the making of a shofar.  Then there was the time when I invited them to do a program on the making of Torah scrolls.  They cancelled on me twice, with the last cancellation coming less than an hour before the scheduled event.  Yes, I was angry.  Those of you who know me well can imagine just how angry I was.  But still, I did not hold it against Chabad in general.  I attributed this problem to the fact that the Chabad rabbi in question was simply a jerk.

When University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom published his best selling book, POSTVILLE, I reviewed that book from this very bimah.  Some of you might even remember hearing that review.  I panned the book.  I criticized the author for engaging in excessive exaggeration.  I accused him promoting harmful stereotypes; stereotypes both of Hasidic Jews and of Iowans.  I stated that if the images he drew of the Hasidic Jews of Postville were anywhere nearly as inaccurate as the images he drew of Iowans in general, then what he wrote at least bordered on bigotry, if it did not actually cross that line.  But I now admit that I was wrong.  If I were to review that book today, it would be substantially different.

The point is that I did not start off being an opponent of Chabad.  However over the years, the circumstances, and particularly the circumstances in our own community, have been such that I have become one.

While I am certainly troubled by some of the more global issues concerning Chabad, I will not focus on them tonight.  There is no question but that they do contribute to my attitudes on this subject.  I am deeply disturbed by that major segment of Chabad that professes that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah and that he will return.  I truly believe that such a profession carries them outside the realm of Judaism and into a faith all their own, like Christianity, which of course holds similar views about the person of Jesus.

As you all know, the legal and ethical abuses perpetrated by the Chabad owners and managers of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat processing plant in Postville offend me to the very core.  Their actions were completely contrary to everything I understand about how our Judaism instructs us to live our lives.  I am proud that I was the one who authored the resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis which addresses the issue of adhering to Jewish ethical standards as well as ritual standards in the preparation of kosher food.

But I will not dwell on those global topics now. Rather I wish to dedicate the remainder of my remarks to the activities of Chabad within our local community and why those activities have led to a crisis which threatened to undo our Federation.

Our journey began in the Fall of 2004.  It was a Monday, my day off, when I received a phone call from our Federation’s Executive Director.  He had a visitor in his office; a representative of Chabad.  This man had come to the Quad Cities to “explore” the possibility of creating a Chabad presence in our community.  He wanted to meet with me.  I told him that while I could not meet with him on that day, I would be happy to do so on the next.  However, since he was only here for a day, we wound up meeting on the phone.

It was during that phone conversation that I witnessed a the very first hint of the problems that would quickly arise between our two local synagogues and Chabad.  The Chabad representative told me, as he told others, that it was the intention of Chabad to work in cooperation with the local synagogues.  They would not be replicating the services provided by the synagogues nor would they be recruiting from among the synagogue members.  He said that Chabad possessed a list of over 2,000 names of unaffiliated Jews living in our small Jewish  community.  This, and this only, would be their target population.  Of course, every local Jew with whom he spoke – myself included – told him that he was sorely mistaken.  While there are unaffiliated Jews in our community, the numbers are not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Indeed, the total number of Jews in our community – unaffiliated and affiliated together – were not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Still he persisted in insisting that these numbers were accurate.  So I pressed him on Chabad’s commitment not to recruit from current synagogue members.

I spoke to him of the Jewish legal principle of Hasagat G’vul, the respecting of organizational boundaries.  This is a principle which governs inter-congregational relations in most, if not all, Jewish communities around the world.  Simply put, local congregations agree not to recruit from those who are members of other local congregations and rabbis agree not to provide rabbinic services for other rabbis’ congregants or take actions which would undermine the relationships between other rabbis and their congregants.  Unaffiliated Jews, of course, are fair game for everyone.  But when it comes to affiliated Jews, it is strictly hands off.  It is in this way that local congregations are able to establish and maintain cooperative and hopefully harmonious relations, for it is important to have confidence that when congregations work together they are not unwittingly providing opportunities for one congregation to prey on the membership of others.  Such a predatory environment would be toxic to the well being of any Jewish community.

It was his response to my pushing this issue which sent up red flags.  Of course, he assured me that Chabad would not be doing this.  But then he went on to say that he did not understand why I was so concerned.  After all, if Chabad was going to be drawing members away from any congregation in our community, it would be from the Tri City Jewish Center, the traditional congregation, and not from my Reform congregation.  After all, Chabad’s form of Judaism would be more attractive to traditional Jews than to Reform Jews.  So why was I worried.  Indeed, in many communities, Chabad enjoys a wonderful partnership with Reform congregations and Reform rabbis.  It was as if he was giving me a wink and nod, implying that we could be partners in the dismantling of the Tri City Jewish Center, and it would be to the benefit of both of our organizations.  Suffice it to say that he did not evoke from me the reaction he obviously anticipated.  I would have no part in such a conspiracy.

It would be a few months before Chabad would actively pursue their plans of establishing a presence in our community.  In December they held their first community informational meeting.  They held it at the Blackhawk Hotel.  Just as I had feared, it was not their list of unaffiliated Jews who received phone calls, inviting them to attend, but rather affiliated Jews from both congregations.  They held their second meeting on Tuesday, January 11, 2005 – five years ago this coming Monday – and I attended.  There were no unaffiliated Jews there.  All, with the exception of myself, were members of the Tri City Jewish Center.  Once again, in my conversation with the Chabad rabbi that evening, I pressed for adherence to the principle of Hasagat G’vul; respecting institutional boundaries.  This time I was told that this principle does not apply to them for they are not “in the same business” as the local synagogues.

In March of that year, leaders from our two congregations and the Federation held the first of several formal meeting with Chabad leadership, in order to work out our differences.  That particular meeting was with Rabbi Yossie Jacobson, the chief Chabad rabbi of Iowa.  We told Rabbi Jacobson that of course we understood and respected the fact that this is a free country and, as such, Chabad most certainly was free to set up shop wherever it choses.  However, if Chabad was going to come to our community, we wanted the Chabad organization to respect the same rules of the road as are followed by our other local Jewish organizations including the halachic principle of Hasagat G’vul.

At first, Rabbi Jacobson said that the principle of Hasagat G’vul should not apply to Chabad because Chabad is not a synagogue.  Since it is not a synagogue, it cannot be considered in the same category as the local congregations nor could it be held to the same standards of behavior.  I pointed out that, like a synagogue, Chabad was intending to offer worship, study, and communal activities.  Therefore, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you have to treat it as if it is a duck.  As odd a duck as Chabad might be, for the well being of our community, it still must abide by inter-synagogue rules.  When Rabbi Jacobson did come around to stating that he was not adverse to abiding by such principles, it was pointed out to him that these principles were already being violated, in that the Chabad rabbi from Iowa City was providing Bar Mitzvah training to a child whose family belonged to the Tri City Jewish Center.  While Rabbi Jacobson stated that he would investigate the matter and put an end to such violations, when all was said and done, he took absolutely no action.

When Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, our local Chabad rabbi, arrived in our community, matters did not get better.  In fact they got worse.  Soon after his arrival, Rabbi Cadaner would say one thing to Rabbi Michael Samuel (of the Tri City Jewish Center)  and another thing to me.  Only when Rabbi Samuel and I talked did we begin to realize that we were getting mixed messages.  We tried to resolve these differences by asking Rabbi Cadaner to meet with the two of us together.  However, Rabbi Cadaner insisted that he would not meet with us together, but only alone.  He claimed that he did not want us to “gang up on him.”  When one of my congregants made a similar request of him – that he sit down with the rabbis of the two synagogues and work out our differences – he responded by saying “I don’t believe in organized crime.”

It was not long before Rabbi Cadaner started approaching Jews who belonged to one congregation or the other.  He would visit them in the hospital.  He would visit them in their homes.  He would visit them at their work places.  Now many people would say, “What’s wrong with that?”  Let me explain.  There are valid reasons why rabbinic professional ethics forbids rabbis from performing pastoral services for the congregants of other rabbis.  Those reasons involve both the the possibility of congregants receiving conflicting pastoral counseling as well as the unfair psychological impact of such visits.

The dangers of conflicting pastoral counseling are very real and very serious.  My own experience with with the Chabad rabbi in such a situation serves as an excellent example.  One of my congregants was a wonderful woman who did much for our congregation and our community, and was beloved by all.  Unfortunately, one morning she collapsed.  She was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that she had major arterial blockages.  While the doctors did their best to clear them, her brain was deprived of oxygen for too long and she was basically brain dead.  So she lay as a vegetable in the Intensive Care Unit, with her loving family and friends continually by her side.  When it was clear that her situation was hopeless, her family decided to accede to her stated wishes and remove her from life support.  Enter the Chabad rabbi.  He proceeded to tell her youngest son that Judaism considers it a sin to remove her life support; that the family needs to seriously reconsider its decision.  This was in direct contradiction to the supportive counseling which they had received from me; counsel which had a strong foundation in our sacred texts.  Fortunately, the family was strong willed and determined enough to set aside the Chabad rabbi’s counsel.  Yet strong willed or not, who in that situation needs to be subjected to that type of doubt and guilt?  When, later that day, I learned of what this Chabad rabbi had done, I felt deeply violated!  How much more so must that family have felt it?

That type of violation is manifest as well when one rabbi takes it upon him or herself to make uninvited visits to the congregants of another rabbi, as did and does our local Chabad rabbi.  For when a rabbi visits his or her congregants in the hospital or when they are homebound, while the congregants do appreciate those visits, still in a way they also expect it.  After all, part of their rabbi’s job is to visit them.  However, when another rabbi visits – a rabbi who is not “paid” to do so by these congregants’ dues – then that visit tends to be considered especially virtuous.  “It was nice that my rabbi visited me but how wonderful of this other rabbi to come and visit me as well!  After all, he did not have to do that!”  Such visits do unfairly interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants.

Just as such actions interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants, so do they interfere with the relationships between congregations and their congregants for, right or wrong, congregants start feeling that they are being better serviced by the other rabbi and his institution than by their rabbi and their congregation.

Along these lines, another serious bone of contention has been Chabad’s insistence upon sending publicity flyers to members of the two synagogues; sending these flyers without specifically being asked by these congregants to be included on the Chabad mailing list.  This is but another form of illicit congregant solicitation.  Once again, it is a standard of inter-congregational relations that synagogues do not include members of other congregations on their mailing lists unless those individuals have specifically requested to be included.  This, too, is an issue of creating a predatory environment.

When it comes to our local Chabad rabbi, he claims that he only sends his publicity materials to the names and addresses on the list of Jews which Chabad purchased in advance of its coming to our community.  However we know that is not an accurate statement.  There is evidence that he has used, without permission, the Temple’s membership list, if not the membership list of the Tri City Jewish Center as well.  How do we know this?  Because Betty Cottrell, our non-Jewish retired office administrator, whose name and address appears in our Temple Directory, receives Chabad mailings.  There is very little, if any chance, that her name appears on any other compiled Jewish list.  The odds are extremely high that the only way that Chabad could have gotten her name on its mailing list was by taking it off of our mailing list.  And that was done without our permission.  That is highly unethical.

It could also be considered unethical when the local Chabad rabbi started befriending on Facebook the children of families belonging to the two synagogues.  To him, these children were complete strangers, yet as Jews they seemed to be legitimate targets.  Of course, anyone can choose to befriend anyone they want on Facebook, but at the least, his doing this was more than a tad creepy.

Inappropriate congregant visitations and recruitment have just been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transgressions of our local Chabad rabbi.

There have been those occasions when he has misrepresented himself to the general community as speaking for all Quad City Jews.  Soon after his arrival, he went around to several local businesses, soliciting paid ads in a calendar he was producing, telling these business people that his was the ONLY calendar which would be published in the Jewish community.  He said that, in spite of the fact that both of the synagogues also distribute calendars.  Indeed, at that time, the calendar of the Tri City Jewish Center included paid advertisements.  This type of  inappropriate approach to the non-Jewish community repeated itself during his first winter holiday season in our community.  It was then that he went to the officials at the Moline City Hall and insisted that since they had a Christmas tree in their lobby, the Jewish community demands that they display a Hanukkah menorah as well.  In this, he was not only not speaking for the entire Jewish community but he was, in fact, speaking in a manner contrary to the generally held position of our Jewish community; a position strongly in support of the separation of church and state; one which definitely would not want to see a Jewish religious symbol displayed on public property.  The damage done by this request was only compounded by the fact that he delayed for so long in removing that menorah from their lobby that the Moline city leaders decided not to have any holiday displays in their lobby in the future.

There are other aspects of his relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors which I find deeply disturbing as well.  For example, one day he met a local monsignor; a man of great public distinction and deservedly so.  Not only that, but this priest has been a long time friend of our local Jewish community.  When the priest extended his hand to shake, Rabbi Cadaner rejected it, stating that “We do not do that”.  Well, soon after that incident a member of the Jewish community intentionally offered to shake the Chabad rabbi’s hand, and they did.  So the message seems clear.  From his perspective when he says “we do not do that,” what he probably means is “we do not do that” with non-Jews.  As a small Jewish community, we depend heavily upon the good will of our non-Jewish neighbors.  Such prejudicial behavior hurts us all.

Likewise, when we held a community interfaith service in response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the Chabad rabbi turned down an invitation to participate.  I cannot help but wonder:  Was it because he would not pray with non-Jews?  Was it because the service was held in the sanctuary of the Reform congregation?

Of course, our Chabad rabbi’s attitudes about the local synagogues and their clergy have not helped resolve our problems.  They have only exacerbated them.  My colleague, Rabbi Samuel, reported to me that in one angry encounter, the Chabad rabbi told him that he (the Chabad rabbi) was the only “real” rabbi in our community and that he would still be here long after Rabbi Samuel and I were gone.  Then there is the matter of his total disrespect for the clergy status of our cantor, who also happens to be my wife.  We met in seminary.  She is a fully credentialed cantor.  Still, Rabbi Cadaner refuses to recognize her clergy status and won’t even respond to her communications.  At one point, he requested that she be excluded from any formal meetings between the Jewish community leaders and Chabad.

Over the years, both congregations and the Federation have tried to make it very clear that in order for Chabad to truly be considered a part of our community, then it must abide by the rules which govern our community.  Unfortunately, time and again, Rabbi Cadaner has refused to accept that offer.

And this is what brought us to the recent crisis.  According to the bylaws of our Federation, the rabbis of the local synagogues are granted automatic seats, with voting rights, on the Federation Board.  In recent months, Rabbi Cadaner and the supporters of Chabad chose to insist that this provision be applied to Chabad as well the synagogues, and that Chabad itself be considered a synagogue.  Of course, that claim contradicts what Chabad had been saying all along; that our inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are not a synagogue.  However, now claiming to be a synagogue, Chabad still claims that inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are Chabad, and as such are unique.

The issue of whether or not to grant Rabbi Cadaner a seat on the Federation Board created a great rift in our community.  So much so that those on both sides of the issue threatened to withdraw their financial and human support of the Federation, should the decision go against them.  The supporters of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that such a contrary decision would deny the Orthodox community representation on the Federation Board.  The opponents of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that if the Federation officially recognized Chabad, it would also tacitly be  granting its seal of approval to Chabad’s continued violations of the rules of inter-congregational behavior; it would officially be approving Chabad’s predatory practices.  Such an abandonment of the long established local synagogues would simply be unacceptable.  It seemed as if, for the Federation, this would be a lose-lose situation, with them losing significant, perhaps vital, financial support no matter what they did.

This crisis was averted, thanks to the efforts and creative thinking of Jeff Goldstein.  It was Jeff who suggested that if the Orthodox community feels unrepresented, then let them be represented by a lay person on the Federation board.  In that way, our Federation could avoid being caught in the middle of a bitter struggle over the actions of Rabbi Cadaner.  Those of us who were opposed to Rabbi Cadaner’s being seated on the board, and by so seating him apparently granting Federation approval to his objectionable actions – myself included – had no qualms about the Orthodox community itself being represented.  Therefore, we had no problem with a lay representative.  But the ball rested in Chabad’s court.  Would they accept a lay representative in place of Rabbi Cadaner?  They were presented with the proposal, considered it for some time, and in the end, finally accepted it, turning a lose-lose situation for the Federation into a win-win.

Now it is time for us as a community to move forward.  And so we hope to do so.  However, we do so recognizing that our problems have not gone away, and they will not go away until Rabbi Cadaner and Chabad agree to become community team players and change the way in which they do their business; until they come to recognize and accept that they too are expected to abide by the very same rules and principles which govern the behaviors and inter-relations of both the Temple and the Center.  We have asked nothing more of them than we expect of ourselves.  We pray that someday soon they will decide to live up to those expectations.

Reflections on a Jewish Christmas

December 29, 2009

This is my first posting on this blog, so forgive me if I mess it up.

Right now we are in that American holiday limbo between Christmas and New Years.  Yet I cannot shake my discomfort with this year’s Christmas day experiences.

Many people wonder, “What do Jews do on Christmas?”  I know one antisemitic joke responds that we all gather around our cash registers and sing, “O What a Friend I Have in Jesus!”  Well, I just recently turned 60 years old and can say from my own life experiences that I have never witnessed or heard of anything remotely resembling that remark.  Indeed, when you consider who own the major merchandising firms today, the overwhelming majority of these folks are Christian.  I have always been astounded at how hate filled and bitter this joke is; all the more so since it is attached to a season which is supposed to be dedicated to “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All”.

All my life, as a Jew, I have found the Christmas season to be one of both great beauty – physical & spiritual – and great discomfort.

I have always loved the lights and the festive spirit.  As a child, on Christmas eve, my family would pile into our car and my father would drive us all around town so we could admire the lights.  I still do that with my own children.  As I have grown older, I have increasingly grown to appreciate the uplifting messages of the Christmas stories, songs, and films.  I am a collector of DVDs and yes, I admit it, I own copies all three of Tim Allen’s SANTA CLAUSE movies, Bill Murray’s SCROOGED (I have always adored Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL), and of course, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Christmas Shistmas!  I find these stories to be universally applicable and universally enlightening.  There is much of great value that this holiday season offers all people, regardless of faith affiliations.

Yet there is the discomforting part of Christmas as well.  In my opinion, there is no other time of the year in which Jews find themselves feeling more on the outside of American society than now.  Granted, we are a religious minority living in a predominantly Christian population.  I fully understand and appreciate that, and I do not in the least begrudge my Christian neighbors the joy and the wonder of their very special holiday.  Indeed, I pray that they would actually take the true meaning of this day more to heart.  For Christmas is not, or more correctly, should not be centered around its commercial and material aspects.  Rather, our Christian neighbors should focus on the profound spiritual message of the day.  Borrowing a term from my own faith tradition, Christmas is a Christian High Holy Day and should be treated as such.

Yet all that being said, as a Jew, I must admit that I find the constant barrage of music extolling Jesus as lord and savior, which one encounters in the stores, in the restaurants, on the radio, on TV, and most painfully, in the public school music programs to be a wearying assault on the very validity of being a non-Christian in America.  Indeed, it saddens me when I witness Jewish and other non-Christian children, whose love of music has led them to desiring to participate in public school music programs, both choral and instrumental, being called upon to praise Jesus in song, declaring him a spiritual king.  It has broken my heart to watch as my own children have ultimately come to their own decisions to give up their beloved music activities rather than continue to buck the tide.  My youngest daughter attends a public high school which has a “tradition” of  performing Handel’s MESSIAH every year at this time – and I find that an outrageous violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee that the government will strictly refrain from promoting any one faith over the others.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, a few years back Bill O’Reilly started in on his rants about”The War on Christmas” and that red herring just refuses to let go.  One cannot imagine how painful it is to be considered an enemy of Christmas and Christians simply because one advocates in our society on behalf of a increase in multi-cultural and multi-faith sensitivities.  It was a dark day, indeed for America, when there arose those who proclaimed that the greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” were part of a nefarious conspiracy to destroy the very essence of Christianity.  My-way-or-the-highway seasonal greetings?  Who would have thunk it?  I do not know about the rest of my fellow Jews, but I for one am weary of being considered the Grinch Who Stole Christmas just because I am proud enough to say that in our society there are more faiths than just Christianity.  What ever happened to “live and let live”?

So one can say that part of what Jews do on Christmas is to both bask in the beauty of the season and persevere, looking forward to its passing.

But still, what do Jews actually do on Christmas day?  For many of us, we have half jokingly called it our tradition to go out for Chinese food and then to a movie.  Why Chinese food?  Because, until recently, the Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas.  And how about the movies?  They, too, were the only form of entertainment outside of the home which was available on Christmas day.  And besides, with all the Christians gathering in their homes, with their families, opening their presents under their Christmas trees, drinking egg nog, and wearing festive clothing in green and red, both the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were pretty empty.  Service was good and you could always get in to see a film.  In fact, back when I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, I knew of one Jewish family who hopped from movie theater to movie theater on Christmas day, always striving to break their own record as to how many films they could see.  The Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were somewhat of a Jewish haven on this most Christian of days.  We enjoyed having them to ourselves.

That is until recently.  Over the last few years, I have been surprised at how many others have joined us in those “Jewish havens” on this most “Christian of days.”  The places have been packed.  Indeed, this year on Christmas day my family and I encountered bigger crowds in the movie theater than at any other time during the rest of the year.  It was like a mirror image of all the Christmas days at the movies of my youth and even my middle age!  Gazing upon the massive crowds, my daughter asked me, “Aren’t these people supposed to be in church or something?  Aren’t they supposed to be over at Grandma’s house visiting with their family?”  And I joined her in my wonderment.  It seemed as though the secret of the Jewish Christmas had leaked out and now everyone wanted to take advantage of it.

But tongue-&-cheek aside, I found it disturbing on a more essential level.  Over some time now, there has been a lot of talk in our society about “family values”; how they seem to be slipping away and how we need to grasp them greedily and fold them back into our lives.  Well, Christmas for Christian, like Pesach for Jews, and Thanksgiving for all Americans, has traditionally been a bastion of family values living.  Traditionally, these have been times when families have moved heaven and earth, if necessary, to come together and be with each other.  The Christmas table, the Seder table, the Thanksgiving table, have been the sacred altars of reaffirming family life.  But as Christians as well as Jews flock to the Chinese restaurants and the movies on Christmas day, one cannot help but feel that once again the American family has taken a major hit.  The song says, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and not “I’ll Meet You at the Movies.  Make sure to get the popcorn and the pop.”  And this has saddened me, saddened me greatly, even though this is not my holiday.  For it is another victory for the secularization and the commercialization of Christmas; another defeat for what are supposed to be the essential messages of the holiday; another defeat for the spirituality of Christmas.

So as a Jew, why should I care?  After all, this is a Christian holiday.  I care because whenever the spiritual is defeated by the secular, we all suffer, whether we realize it or not.  As American Christians become more secular, so do American Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, and you get the idea.  Regardless of our faiths, our various spiritualities are interconnected and interdependent.  Their defeat is our defeat and our defeat is theirs.  And in these defeats, we move further away from each other and further away from God.