Segal: ’Tis the season to be offended?
“There’s going to be a Christmas tree.” My daughter’s day care teacher, knowing we are a Jewish family, informed me during morning drop-off that there would be a Christmas tree onstage during the school holiday show that night. She continued, “How do you feel about that?”
I was speechless for a moment because I never expected the question. I took it for granted that there’d be Christmas decorations at the annual holiday event, and I didn’t give it a second thought. Honestly, it didn’t occur to me to be offended. I guess it just comes with the territory of being a religious minority in a culturally Christian country. After all, I attended an Episcopal day school for grades K-12, and I felt that my religious differences were honored. (Heck, I even sang Christmas carols with the high school choir every December. We serenaded patients at the VA hospital. It was a mitzvah.)
“I appreciate the question,” I responded after what may have been an awkward pause. “But it’s not really an issue for us. Thanks for asking, though.”
The more I think about it, the more appreciative I am that our teacher cared enough to ask. Her gesture of concern, small as it may have seemed, embodied a core value of Christmas: Love your fellow as yourself. Similarly, when the bank teller or grocery store clerk wishes me a “merry Christmas,” I take it as a sign of goodwill and holiday cheer, and not an invitation to complain about religious persecution. And if someone opts for the more inclusive “happy holidays,” I say, “Thanks. You too.”
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I can’t quite wrap my head around why these benign winter greetings are such hot-button issues. Since when did being offended become a badge of honor? At the risk of presuming to judge where people direct their outrage, Christians who bristle at “happy holidays” and secularists who campaign against “merry Christmas” might need to take up a new hobby with all their spare time. And I don’t mean boycotting Starbucks over its cup design.
They might, instead, take offense at the persistence of homelessness in our valley. (That seems like something Jesus would care about, too.) The Aspen Homeless Shelter has just opened its doors at St. Mary Church for the winter night shelter. Gifts of funds and volunteer hours are fitting ways to express your holiday cheer, regardless of your religious background.
They also might take offense at the arrest of San Antonio chef Joan Cheever for feeding the homeless. A city ordinance made her acts of charity illegal; authorities ticketed her in April and threatened a $2,000 fine. Cheever claims she has a right to feed the homeless under Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the Huffington Post, Cheever said, “One of the police officers said, ‘Ma’am, if you want to pray, go to church,’ and I said, ‘This is how I pray, when I cook this food and deliver it to the people who are less fortunate.’” Let me see — a loving do-gooder hounded by the authorities for ministering to the needy and marginalized — now where have I heard that story before? I could get behind getting offended about that.
We would all do well to take a page from Shmuel, also known as Sammy, a Jewish kid whose letter to Santa went viral after his aunt posted it online. Sammy’s teacher assigned “Dear Santa” letters to the class. Sammy could have opted out, or even complained, but instead, he wrote:
“Dear Santa, I know what’s up. Happy Hannukah and shalom! Shmuel.
“Dear family, for Hannukah I would like the Infinity version 2.0 Marvel Superheroes edition. I would like to eat for Hannukah some latkes, gelt and jelly donuts. Would you like to join me, Santa? Happy holidays, Sammy.”
Following Sammy’s lead, would you like to join us for some latkes, gelt and jelly donuts? Hanukkah starts tonight, and we’ll be lighting the town menorah in Lions Park in downtown Basalt at 5 p.m. The celebration continues in the Wyly Art Center for all ages.
If you’re inclined to object to public displays of religion such as this menorah lighting, I invite you to rethink your concept of secular. Secular should mean religion-neutral, not anti-religion. Our observance of Hannukah seeks neither to impose our religion on the public nor to convert non-believers. It is an invitation to celebrate difference and to embrace the religious freedom that we Americans often take for granted. It is your Jewish neighbors saying, simply: This is sacred to us, come and experience it if you like, and share your celebrations with us, too.
And besides, what kind of scrooge turns down latkes, gelt and jelly donuts?
Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-925-8245. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.
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