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 the billboard featured an angry red cross-out, replacing the inclusive message with the strident proclamation: “ONLY MERRY CHRISTMAS HERE!” Let’s be clear: It wasn’t graffiti; it was part of the design.
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.
Does this billboard bother you, too? Share your thoughts!
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Many others have, too, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal – but I’ve also heard plenty of people saying it’s “not about race,” suggesting that the death of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, comes down to guns, laws, confusing jury instructions, prosecution not making their case, and so on.
But let’s be honest – it’s a lot about race.
I am a white woman, born in 1964 in Jackson, MS. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, attended private schools for most of my education, and worshipped at the local synagogue where, at that time, all the members were white.
I didn’t question my insular upbringing or privilege; my parents owned a restaurant, and worked long, hard hours to provide for us. But lately, I have considered this: if I had been born into an African American family, same year, same city - what would my childhood have been like? And framed by those experiences, what would my adult life look like now?
How can I possibly know? Do I even live in the same United States as Charles M. Blow, a columnist and parent of black sons, who wrote in the New York Times recently: “As a parent… I am left with the question ‘Now, what do I tell my boys?’ We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”
Reading that, I think I don’t live in the same United States. I get to live in a society where I don’t have to tell my kids how to walk home safely, because of how they look to others. I don’t have to fear immediate judgments being made about me, or my children, based on the color of our skin. Because I am white. Yes, I am in the minority because I am Jewish, but unless I’m wearing a Star of David, no one sees my Jewishness when I walk down the street. So how can I relate?
I recalled a movie I had seen some twenty-odd years ago. I couldn’t recall the title at first, but then I found it, and the lines I was trying to remember (thank you, Google). The movie’s title is Soul Man. It came out in 1986, with C. Thomas Howell in the role of Mark, a white student who poses as an African American to receive a full scholarship to Harvard. James Earl Jones played the role of Mark’s professor and when the deception finally was revealed, Mark and Professor Banks engaged in the following dialogue:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
That awareness is key: it’s not the same.
We need to acknowledge this, and we all need to learn more. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement after the Zimmerman verdict: “There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country, and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
There is hope – now, and in decades past. In a glimmer of light this week, NPR featured this story of photographer Joseph Crachiola and a photograph he took 40 years ago in Detroit, of two white children and three black children, clearly friends, in a neighborhood known then (and now) as “racially divided.” The photo I’m sharing again here, in this blog. A photo of friendship. A reminder that we can find connections, and bridge the divide. We are not born divided.
But none of us can do it alone. We need to talk to each other.
Jackson 2000 is an organization here in Mississippi dedicated to bringing the community together in the Jackson metropolitan area by promoting racial harmony through dialogue and understanding, facilitates “Dialogue Circles”– groups of people who commit to a 6 week series of facilitated meetings to meaningfully engage on issues related to race and community. No one is naïve enough to think that 6 weeks of conversation will solve all the problems/issues/inequities that exist, but these conversations, and just as importantly, these connections, help us all move forward, together.
And maybe someday, we will all live in the same country, where all of our children are safe.