Friday, December 5, 2008

Flying my flag in the face of festivity

I am not a member of an insular Jewish community. I will be the first to admit that. Nevertheless, were I to live among the more observant community, I would have to be blind, deaf and dumb were I not to admit that the overwhelming message of the holiday season seems to have very little or nothing at all to do with my religion. Living as I do in a an old, but small Jewish community, it is a challenge to deal with all of the outside holiday trimmings and keep on target towards enjoying a spiritually meaningful Jewish experience. There is guilt in that we must acknowledge in one way or another that the ongoing hoopla and rush to the stores is in response to a gift-giving holiday that begins with a "C" that is not Chanukah,. I remind all of my Jewish friends and relatives that Chanukah celebrates victory over oppression and a rededication of spirit and really has nothing to do with the giving or receiving of gifts. That expression of holiday celebrations is a much more recent invention that permits well-meaning Jews who want to be included in the "spirit" of the Christmas season to take an active part. All Jews are commanded to do is light the Chanukah lights each night and say blessings. The gift giving is entirely up to us. Having grown up in a Southern Orthodox home, it was not until I was a seven-year-old that I learned that my family was different from most of the others. It seemed wrong that I couldn't have presents and enjoy colorful lights and beautifully festooned trees that seemed somehow magical. And then there were the TV specials like "Frosty the Snowman," "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" that all hawked the significance of Christmas. To a kid like me I craved programs like that. There was virtually nothing on Chanukah. I have to face it: Chanukah songs like "Rock of Ages" or "Ma'otz Tzur" are stirring calls to arms and pride in faith. "I Have a Little Dreidel" is very cute. Yet they pale in comparison to the dozens of Christmas melodies that permeate the airwaves and clog store shelves at this time of year declaring peace, universal love, and religious faith. In fact the family record store I managed and worked in from my early years depended heavily on the income derived from holiday sales in order to keep afloat each year. Suffice it to say we didn't depend on sales from the Jewish community in support of Chanukah or we would have shuttered our doors decades ago. I do take a bit of Jewish pride in remembering that Irving Berlin wrote the biggest holiday sellers for both Christmas and Easter. So, it is a challenge to keep faithful at this time of year despite the barrage of billboards, advertisements and commercials thrown in all directions. And the question that many in the Jewish community ask each year: "Is it permissible to wish a non-Jew holiday greetings?" and if so should we say 'Merry Christmas' or just 'Happy Holidays?'" I’m certainly not the person to ask for a ruling here, because the answer depends on one’s level of observance and comfort in relating to others. Frankly, in my business dealings, it was expected that extending seasonal greetings to non-Jewish clients was not only good form, but essential to keeping them as customers. Personally, I don’t consider myself a bad Jew by wishing someone else a good holiday observance or celebration of his or her own. It is not something that will test my faith, but some will differ with me on this point, so I will leave that up to sharper wits and greater minds to debate. So on this first week of December, as I am overwhelmed by the green and red trimming that abounds, I take one small step for myself to give me a sense of identity and to make me feel at ease in a sea of festivity not of my own, but to which I relate in a small way. Today I display my Chanukah flag. As the blue, white and golden figure of a Chanukiah unfurls in the wind, I see it as a tiny gesture of Jewish identity on my part. The flag flies bravely in the face of an overwhelming majority in a land where, thankfully, we are free to follow different religious paths – whether insular or not – and feel good about ourselves at a special time of the year for all religions when we all truly should.

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