Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Jew Who Says Merry Christmas

This is the fourth time around for the kernel of this essay. I have changed it each time to match the tenor of the year in which it will go to post. Since I have just returned to blogging after having been away for four years, the change is of a wider range. It includes a new direction for this blog and my writing life in general. Read on and you will see…

I am a Jew. For most of my life if you had tried to force me to say “Merry Christmas” you would have had a fight on your hands. Yet now, I find that after many years of conflicted feelings, I have come full circle on being wished (and wishing others) “Merry Christmas”. No, I am not loosing my Jewish identity; on the contrary, I am very sure that it is stronger than ever.

I grew up in an observant Jewish home ( I am observant still) in which we greeted Christmas with a mixture of fascination, respect and a little irritation. At some point I became fond of expressing my ambivalence by quoting Jackie Mason, who once said:

“I don’t understand something about Christians; maybe you can explain this to me? Why is it that this time of year you bring the trees inside and put the lights outside?”

That line, for many years summed up the bemusement that I affected about the whole public Christmas celebration.

My feelings were mixed for a variety of reasons. My Dad had a retail store so the weeks leading up to Christmas were always a time of tension and brutally long hours of work. The traffic on the roads, crowds in the stores, and the saturation of television (especially in those pre- cable times) and radio airwaves with Christmas programs and music were overwhelming. I found the frenzy mentally punishing, the free-floating goodwill unsettling and the talk about Jesus (in whose divinity I was not supposed to believe) uncomfortable.

It left me very glad to have it over on December 26th.

And I was always more than a little unsure of how to respond when some well-meaning person would wish me a Merry Christmas. I was often caught between wanting to thank him noncommittally, try to summon a convincing Merry Christmas in return or to say,” Thanks Very much but I don’t celebrate Christmas and then have to deal with the uncomfortable silence or explanations and apologies.

I am ashamed to admit it today but I was, at first, pleased when I saw, over the years, the ACLU and Multi-culti types pushing “Merry Christmas” out of the vocabulary of cultural discourse in favor of the more generic “Happy Holidays”.

I’ve grownup, though, and I’ve grown into a new perspective on this whole question and, today, when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I have a new response. It’s really simple-

I stop what I am doing
I don’t have any hesitation or second thoughts.
I wish them a great big “Merry Christmas” in return.

I would like to encourage all my fellow Jews to join me in this. 

Here’s why:

I have come to see quite clearly that even if there are politically correct, multi-cultural, morally relativistic, post modern progressive busybodies who would like us to believe that our Christian friends’ and Neighbors’ spontaneous Christmas wishes are somehow injurious to us and our culture, they are nothing of the kind. A sincere “Merry Christmas is more American and better for the republic and her people than the blandest, most guarded “Happy Holidays”

You see, the U.S. was founded by Christians. Not just any Christians. The early colonists were both devout and independent. They were fervent Protestants whose purpose in coming here was to leave the Kings, Priests, state religions and archaic laws of the Old World behind. Even if some of them were supersessionists and dogmatic, they were also egalitarian and self-reliant. They came here to build a country where every man could read scripture for himself and be his own priest- where he could be free to elect political leadership that he could follow gladly.

By the time of the founders, a century and a half later, much of that initial fundamentalist fervor had evolved into a more complex mix of Mainline Protestantism, Masonic brotherhood and Deist spirituality. Hardened on the forge of a yeoman’s life, annealed by the day-to-day and season-by-season struggle to wrest a living from this still untamed land where God’s will could be imagined alive in the caprices of the weather, soil and the forests they learned self-reliance and independence by daily practice. Above all, they came to know that it is not enough to expect, that to survive and thrive you must always study, be openminded and learn.

It was those fiercely independent Protestants who set the tone for the nation in which we now live. Their adamant spiritual presumption of the liberty of the human soul is, still today, the great central mast that lifts the canopy of democracy and holds it above us as a sanctuary from the extremes of despotism and effete decay that afflict most of the rest of the world.

The devotion of deeply religious people and spiritually awakened souls like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams are what have made the this country the true standard bearer of self rule and freedom in the history of the human race. They codified it and crystallized it in the constitution that they wrote for us.

At over two hundred years old, that constitution and the government that flows from it is still the one in the entire world that best honors the individual and guarantees most rights to any individual who accepts the constitutional responsibilities of a citizen.

Among all their other unique achievements the fact that they decided that there could be no Official Religion in a country that aimed not just at physical or intellectual freedom shows that they understood that full human freedom means spiritual freedom too- Freedom of Religion.

To honor their genius fully we have to understand that Freedom of Religion must never be allowed to be a mandate for Freedom from Religion. As a Jew, I am exquisitely aware that freedom to practice my form of religion exists in this country because of those Christians and their vision of what a Christian country should stand for.

This uniquely Christian openness is why America has become the destination of choice for any one wishing to escape repression or lack of opportunity elsewhere in the world. That's why Jews (and everybody else) have gravitated here for two hundred years. But we all (Christians, Jews, Muslims and Atheists) are in danger of forgetting how this all works and I think this whole “anti-Merry Christmas” thing is a symptom of that amnesia.

My grandfather told me stories about life in turn-of-the(last)–century Eastern Europe so I have some idea of what he escaped by coming here in 1915. And its not just that, thirty years after he left for America, he was not trapped with many of his Aunts, uncles, and cousins in Zhitomir, his Ukrainian home town, when the Waffen SS slaughtered thirty six thousand Jews there in one day! That is a gift indeed, but it is in and of the past. No, it is the gift of equality and the opportunity to prosper that still lives on. It is that continuing gift that sustains the American dream and should call upon our constant love and loyalty.

The United States of America, as conceived by her Protestant founders, has been a miracle and a blessing to the entire human race. It has been especially important to the Jewish people.

We Jews are barely over one percent of the population here. We (a lot of us anyway) take pride in our contribution to America’s dynamism. We point with satisfaction to the fact that the founding fathers of this country were inspired and informed by our holy book which they called The Old Testament. Thomas Jefferson (among others) others used to read from it every day in the original Hebrew, something few of us “modern” Jews can do.

But why do I need to explain this? Why don’t we all understand the centrality of the Protestant ethic to the goodness of America? Partly, it’s because of a lack in the educational program. But it’s also because our media, whose responsibility it should be to make us aware of the important ideas, events and issues has other agendas. Our “Mainstream” media is often found to be doing just the opposite.

In the media, America is assailed daily for her imperfections; and if not assailed, then damned by the faintest of praise. The media emphasizes the imperfections instead of the achievements- the discords not the harmony.

Historical revisionism has been used by the joyless progressives, secular humanists and multiculturalists to sap the joy, goodwill and meaning out of all religious practice including Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It has even come to pass that our President goes abroad and cannot seem to visit another country without some pathetic apology for America’s past- as if there is any country on earth whose history is so pristine that they are in a position to judge.

I am only one Jew- not a Rabbi and not a spokesman for a community organization, just a simple Jew. Nevertheless, I would like to call on all Jews, indeed, all Christians, Muslims and whoever else will standup with me and celebrate the blessing that The United States of America is to us and to the human family. Let us bow our heads together this Thanksgiving and resolve that instead of fretting about how saying “Merry Christmas” might make us an overly Christian country, we will thank our own, private God that we live in this country where “Happy Thanksgiving” and “Merry Christmas” mean what they mean here.

We need to loosen up and get a perspective on this “Merry Christmas” thing. It is not the people who say “Merry Christmas” and mean it that we need to be discouraging in America at this time. It is the people who find something wrong and suspect in the energy, enthusiasm and good-will that animates that “Merry Christmas” that we need to discourage.

We must side with our fellow Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom are warm-hearted friends with morals and ethics or we will have become unwitting dupes to heartless enemies with no moral compass who think they can rationalize almost anything and undermine our great civilization with reasonable sounding, non-judgmental sophistry. Do you need a moment to think about that?

By saying “Merry Christmas” in public we are not necessarily agreeing that Jesus was the son of God, we are just acknowledging that some very good people believe it. When we say it, that does not constitute accepting Jesus as our personal savior; it does show his followers that we see them as fellow countrymen, friends and brothers-in-arms in the defense of the highest ideals of our civil society and Judeo-Christian culture. What is the problem with that, exactly?

And that brings me to a question that some of my Jewish friends have asked me about. How do I feel about supporting Dr Carson when he talks so sincerely about his faith and seems to be so firm in expressing his ideas that it makes them uncomfortable. 

His faith does not bother me at all. It inspires me. The way he talks about it reminds me of the way that our founders talked about their faith. In the same way as their belief in The Individual, Enterprise, Study, work and Liberty formed the culture of the greatest country the world has yet seen, Benjamin Carson’s life, and especially the story of his remarkable mother and his escape from poverty echo the birth drama of The United States of America.

In the end it is all about Culture. He was born an outsider, a poor black kid. He became a great man because he was raised by a great mother. Dr Carson’s single mother worked menial jobs all her life and yet she raised two sons to distinguished lives. One became a U.S. Naval Officer and the other, Ben Carson, a world famous neurosurgeon. Her genius was that instead of giving in to the despair and decay around them she raised her family up. She did it by observing the strong and prosperous around her and creating a “micro-culture” of pride, study and achievement in her family that mirrored the success she saw.

His mother lived and breathed the whole philosophy of self-reliance, trust in providence and independence that the founders interlaced into the U.S. Constitution. That must be why he is so passionate about this country and its constitution. He is a man who lives it gratefully. He recognizes it for the matchless inheritance that it is; indeed he is a man built in its image. No “constitutional scholar” could ever have such an intimate appreciation of it. So even if there should be a constitutional scholar or any other sort of intellectual humbug who would object, I’ll gladly say “Merry Christmas”! And although I’ve never gotten one before, I’d love to have Dr Carson announce his candidacy for president of the United States as my first Christmas present…


lgude said...

Beautifully said. I first ran into the problem my first December in NY when I wished a Jewish friend Merry Christmas in December 1960. He kept trying to correct me and get me to say Happy Holidays and I wouldn't have it. Finally I said "You're Jewish, I want you to wish me Happy Hannukkah if that is what is in your heart." It seemed to me that it was dishonest to not to say Merry Christmas. It is, I admit, a peculiar view but I've always had it. Your post provides a wonderful Jewish perspective on American tolerance and reminds me that Roger Williams was the first to get it right very early on in Providence RI. Again thanks, and Merry Christmas.

Surellin said...

Thank you. Our church, when it was new, was fortunate enough to be hosted by a synagogue. Now we have our own building, right next to that synagogue, and we still get along beautifully as the best of neighbors. We can even share a parking lot, since we use it at different times! So Merry Christmas, and shalom.

Anonymous said...

I have always said "Merry Christmas" to Christian friends, but I began saying it to casual acquaintances more frequently after the 2001 "intifada." It was then that I realized that the political left were all too eager to sympathize with terrorists, while the most consistent supporters of Israel were observant Christians. Having been "brainwashed" by leftists throughout my high school and college years, it took a little time to re-educate myself, but it was well worth the effort. I now feel more confident in defining and expressing my own values, and in finding common ground with new acquaintances, whether Christian, Jewish, Budhist, or Hindu.