Friday, December 26, 2008

Thoughts on Christmas and Fond Wishes To My Neighbors

Today, I spent the day in a cultural bubble. My children went to school. I went to the doctor and also grocery shopping. I had a prescription filled. At each step along the way I wished others a good Shabbos and a Happy Channukah. When I stopped to speak with Christian neighbors, I wished them well on their holiday.

What was odd about my day was that it was December 25, the biggest holiday on the Christian calendar. Despite my aloofness from it, there was a quiet in the streets and a serenity among the Christian passers by.

A couple of years ago I was in Israel on Purim, a holiday at the end of winter which is observed with the reading of the Book of Esther, delivery of food to friends, and an increase in alcohol consumption. When riding a train, I could not get over the fact that the spirit of Purim predominated not only on the train but in a country in which Judaism is dominant. Since that day, I feel a joy that the world has been apportioned among nations with diverse traditions. When I see the predominance of Christianity in a Christian country, I am happy for my fellow citizens that they are able to observe what is important to them and that I in turn am able to “march to a different drummer.”

When my children were very young, they asked me about the Christmas decorations of our neighbors, who spare no expense in celebrating the holiday and decorating for it.

I explained that part of passing your faith on is making it attractive to the children. The Christian neighbors were doing this in ways established by years of practice.

I gave the example of going to a restaurant in which another table gets a birthday cake delivered by the waitress, who sings “Happy Birthday” along with the dining party. Most people who are not celebrating a birthday smile and nod to those who are cutting up the cake. Everyone knows that not every day is your birthday. Life is like that. Be happy for those who are enjoying now what you will enjoy later.

When people file suits against Christmas displays and public observances of faith, an absurd image flashes through my mind of someone in a restaurant throwing a tantrum because they didn’t get a birthday cake.

Most bosses I have worked for over the years like to personalize their work environment with pictures of family. In a sense, it reminds them of a very important motivating factor in their cycle of work and personal life. It seems that in a sense, the family photos say, “This is what I work for.”

There is a collective need in society to decorate the landscape with something besides merchandise. During a religious holiday of any faith tradition, people are reminded of the past that shaped them and the values that drive them. Secularizing public spaces during holiday seasons which in this country include Christmas and Easter rob the public thoroughfares of a quality that leaves passers by disoriented from their past.

What about minority faith communities in America that do not celebrate Christmas such as Jews, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses? What about their feelings? I can answer with the following example from within Jewish tradition.

In Judaism, after the Sabbath ends, we recite the “havdalah” prayer during which a candle is lit and extinguished. A blessing is said over this act, which distinguishes the Sabbath, during which fires may not be lit or put out from the weekdays during which such activities are permitted.

Some people turn out the lights when the candle is lit so that the flame will stand out more brightly against the darkness. It is indeed pleasant to behold havdalah said in such a way.

When I heard havdalah for the first time in Yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey, Rabbi Abraham Lipskier, who was the head of the Yeshiva, told me not to turn out the light, as I was accustomed to doing. He said that it was better spiritually to be drawn to light. Rather than extinguish surrounding lights, it was better to be drawn to the havdalah light.

To me, Rabbi Lipskier’s admonition is on a certain level a metaphor for the attitude that is fitting for a Jew living as a minority in a Christian country. It is better for us to “kindle our own lights” by learning of and practicing our own traditions than to seek to mute the observances of our neighbors. A time when Christian observances are so predominant is a time when a Jew or a member of any other faith minority should “kindle his or her own lights” and draw close to them. It is important for us to do this rather than to neglect our own G-d given festivals and join in the general celebration. It is a far greater gift to stay true to one’s own path than to imitate the outward behavior of the majority. The best gift you can give the world is to be yourself and to encourage your neighbors to do likewise.

In Israel, I saw the beauty of a country in which Judaism, my faith, is in the air. A shadow of this exists on Jewish thoroughfares in America which are completely closed on the Sabbath. It is this cultural bubble in which I live and thrive.

I am grateful to America and to the American people for the safety and protection accorded to those like me who “march to a different drummer.” I wish the citizens of this great country peace, health and happiness during their Christmas season. May all who dwell in this country in peace know only tranquility as they follow in their chosen paths.

G-d bless America. and its people! G-d bless America, a land of kindness and decency!

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