Holidays a time for diversity

December 18, 2008 

Every year, about this time, stories pop up about Christmas controversies.

In Chapel Hill, a couple of libraries at UNC didn't have Christmas trees as usual, responding to complaints lodged over several years. In New Hanover County, there was a dust-up over the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." A mother didn't want her child singing it, and almost got it pulled from a school holiday program because it had the words "Christmas" and "Santa."

I have to tell you that, even as a Jew, I don't instinctively get that exercised about public Christmas displays. It has to do with my grandfather, which I'll explain in a moment.

First, I have to insert a disclaimer. I've haven't attended temple since the late '70s, for which I carry around some guilt. I'm married to a Methodist and have two Methodist children. (Which is no excuse for not going to temple.)

I don't feel substantially less Jewish for all this. Being Jewish is not like being in the Rotary. You don't get booted because you miss a lot of meetings. But I wanted to make full disclosure.

Back to the Christmas brouhaha.

I don't see these controversies as a bad thing. I think it's healthy that people feel like they can kick up a fuss over such matters.

But let me tell you what my grandfather, Hyman Manevitch, used to worry about.

In the early 1930s, as a Massachusetts state legislator, his big issue was trying to pry open our nation's doors to more Jews from Germany. He managed to persuade his fellow lawmakers to pass a resolution urging Washington to do this.

Which was a big deal. Allowing more Jews into the U.S. back then was not a wildly popular idea in much of the country. Quite the contrary. The Saturday Evening Post editorialized against my grandfather's resolution (referring to him by name as "a Mr. Manevitch" to ensure that its readers got the point that this was some foreign-sounding Jewish guy's idea.) The headline of the editorial, incidentally, was "Do We Want More Mouths to Feed?"

I know that my grandfather didn't spend one moment concerning himself with Christmas trees or Rudolph. He was worried about Hitler, at a time when a lot of people weren't. And he had his priorities in order.

In the interest of being open-minded, however, I put this whole question to Rabbi Eric Solomon of Raleigh's Beth Meyer Synagogue. Was I being too casual about the Christmas debates?

Well, he said, "These are far from the biggest problems in the world, or the Jewish community, by far."

But it's also true, he said, that some non-Christians -- including him -- feel disenfranchised and "pushed away a little bit" when confronted with Christmas symbols in public places. Yes, he recognizes that these public displays originate with people, usually, "who have good hearts and good intentions."

But, he added, "It seems to me to be not what the best of America stands for, which is really an appreciation of our diversity and respecting people who don't believe in anything at all."

My conversation with the rabbi reminded me that when these Christmas controversies arise, the playing field is seldom level. Typically, one or a handful of people dissent, and the rest of us ask: What's the problem? It's just a tree. It's just a reindeer song.

Senior editor Dan Barkin is filling in for Barry Saunders, who will return. dan.barkin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4562

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