While recently driving through one of those long rural stretches that blur the lines between Midwest and South, I saw a large billboard that said in cheery letters: “Happy Holidays!”
But those wishes were crossed out, with an angry red stroke, and replaced by the strident proclamation: ONLY MERRY CHRISTMAS HERE!
The image included herein is a recreation. (Thanks, computer-magic.) I couldn’t take a picture of the actual billboard, because it was stationed beside the highway on which I was driving. Since I was driving, obviously, I couldn’t capture the image; normally, I might have stopped, but it was also nighttime, and raining with near-freezing temperatures, with snow and ice also threatened.
In other words, it was exactly the sort of December night where one might appreciate a nice, warm-and-fuzzy holiday wish, rather than a small town’s declaration that only one holiday was welcome there.
The sign bothered me.
The funny thing is, I am not bothered by religious Christmas signs in general. I actually understand the inclination to emphasize “the reason for the season.” Practicing, faith-driven Christians who want to spread the reminder of Christmas as a religious holiday make sense to me. After all, don’t Jewish people emphasize the messages and meanings behind Jewish holidays, too? Don’t rabbis and educators lament when Chanukah becomes “just about the presents”?
What bothers me is the aggressive exclusion of others. I wouldn’t have blinked at a sign that said “Keep Christ in Christmas.” That sign simply isn’t aimed at me. But a sign that slams other holidays does feel aimed at me. One that essentially shouts out down with happy holidays, Christmas is the only celebration allowed in these parts, seems hurtful and mean-spirited to me. (To say nothing of what the menorah in my trunk must have been feeling…)
What bothers me is the fear conveyed therein, and the notion of a “War on Christmas.” As one rabbi-friend commented when I posted a Facebook status about this billboard: “Isn’t the War on Christmas, like, SO last decade?” Apparently not.
What bothers me is the whole idea that it’s a seasonal zero sum game; the absurd notion that if all holidays are welcome, one in particular is threatened. Doesn’t that go against the love-thy-neighbor spirit associates with this season?
So I added something to my holiday wish list. I’m hoping for a deeper understanding that including everyone does not mean diminishing anyone. Saying “Happy Holidays” is a way of wishing someone whose practices you may not know a joyful time of year regardless of whichever holiday they will or won’t be celebrating. It is not said to replace Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanzaa – but to make room for them all.
So whatever holiday(s) you’re celebrating this season, may they be full of peace, and joy, and light, and with that I’ll say – to ALL - a good night.
What’s your reaction to this billboard and messages like this one?
Clarification added 12/10/2013: Some folks have been asking whether or not the billboard in question was vandalized; it was not. Whatever organization funded the billboard intended the message as depicted.
Be it brie, mozzarella or feta, I, like just about everyone, love cheese.
There are so many reasons to love cheese, be it grilled between two buttery pieces of toast, cascaded over a ramekin of onion soup, shredded over a bowl of fresh-made pasta — or enjoying some of the Southern specialty known as Pimento Cheese.
But what if I told you that there was yet another reason to love cheese?
One found in the Torah, no less?
Good news, y’all!
The Hebrew word for cheese is g’vinah, and also happens to be my favorite hapax legomena of all time.
A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once within a context. Forgive me a second while I go completely “College Classical Civilization major” on you and explain the Greek. ἅπαξ (hapax) means “once” or “one time” and λεγόμενον (legomenon) – “the place something occurs.”
(Thanks for allowing me to geek out!)
Although the word g’vinah is widespread in Modern Hebrew – we only hear the word once in the entire Tanakh: in the book of Job. Job is pretty much a bummer book. A disgruntled Job, frustrated by the loss of just about everything, rattles off a bunch of questions, asking God why God would oppress the people who are loyal to the Almighty.
In Job 10:10, we read Job’s question: “Have you not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?”
First of all, I am loving the vivid albeit twisted imagery. But more importantly, although this word only occurs once – that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. After all, nothing in the Bible is there without reason, right? Using this image to address Job’s feelings about God shows how fascinating one’s relationship to divine presence can be. If we can have complicated feelings about this relationship, and be allowed to even question the divine, it teaches that all our relationships benefit from creative questioning.
IT’S ALSO THE ONLY TIME THE BIBLE MENTIONS CHEESE. Which is kind of cool, all on its own.
When I’m preparing to travel the South and share Jewish learning with students in even the smallest of towns, I love finding nuggets like these. It’s these fun moments of learning that keep us all interested and engaged in a tradition that always seems to have some new discovery, just waiting for us to find it.
Thanks for letting me get a little cheesy!
In addition to being the Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I’m a proud member of the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) Rabbinic Council, an organization established in 1917 to support the spiritual needs of Jews in the United States armed services.
I recently received word that three pallets of Jewish prayer books were damaged in military efforts, and are now unusable. The military was in desperate need to find Jewish burial plots in the South that could provide a proper resting place for these words of God and the long-held traditions of our people. This would be a great and rare opportunity for a congregation to be of unique service to our nation, a way – if you will – to say ‘thank you’ for our freedom to worship as we choose.
Regrettably, earlier efforts to secure those plots in large metropolis were a bust. Those in charge of coordinating this holy endeavor never received a response from the large congregations to whom they had reached out and called.
Thus, they called me: “Please, can you be of any help? We don’t understand how these large communities could be so silent in the face of this request.”
Yes, we could help.
Land space, particularly in large communities and congregations where there is the realistic hope of continued growth, is more limited. Reasonably, one can assume that much of that limited space is already claimed. But in many of our smaller southern congregations, where the populations are more likely to be on the decline, there is some land to spare.
Therefore, I made a suggestion: “Allow me to reach out to our smaller southern congregations. I believe they’ll respond more promptly. Not simply because they may have space available, but because they know well the meaning of ‘sacrifice.’ It’s what allows these small congregations to defy the odds and continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish identities and values in their area so richly.”
And respond they did.
Within a day, there were offerings from smaller congregations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. These were thanksgiving offers to this nation. These offers were also a tribute to all of the American Jews who have valiantly served this nation in uniform since its earliest days. And of course, the response showed respect for the prayer books themselves; as one congregation shared: “It’s only proper that these words should rest here with us, as – for us – they lead the way here!”
The damaged prayer books now have a resting place in the South, and the words within continue to enrich our lives. God bless our communities, God bless our soldiers, and God bless America.