Merry Christmas, Rabbi!
Moving from Philadelphia to southwest Florida involved some Jewish culture shock. From the difficulty in getting kosher meat to Barnes & Noble being the best (read only) Jewish bookstore in town, it was a different world. Some of those changes were expected. Others were not.
For example, Jewish rabbis. Certainly in Philadelphia, all the rabbis I knew were Jewish. What could be more obvious than a rabbi being Jewish? But the Jewishness of Philadelphia area rabbis went unstated. Not in southwest Florida. There, non-Jews always introduced me to other non-Jews as "a Jewish rabbi." I am not complaining, mocking them, or taking offense in any way. I am simply pointing out a difference between the two cultures. Perhaps the term was not so redundant. There were several "messianic Jews" who called themselves rabbis in southwest Florida. Maybe it was a good thing I was acknowledged as an authentic, Jewish rabbi.
Many friends of mine were not familiar with the word synagogue, so they would ask me how things were going at the church. Truth be told, that did not bother me any more than synagogues being called temples, which is a pet peeve of mine.
I do have to admit that one thing I found very surprising was when I was wished a Merry Christmas by people who knew that I am a Jewish rabbi. There is probably not a Jew in America who has not been wished a Merry Christmas, but I think very few have heard the words, "Merry Christmas, Rabbi!"
How does one respond to that? My response of choice was, "Thanks! Merry Christmas to you, too!" I know that some Jewish people will not like how I responded. Some would say I should have politely indicated that I do not celebrate Christmas. Others would be more confrontational and claim that they would have said "Happy Chanukah" in response. I have some strong feelings about Jews inadvertently being wished a Merry Christmas. I am going to share them below, and I invite your comments and opinions.
Eighty-three percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. If you play the odds and wish random Americans a Merry Christmas, chances are 83% that you'll be talking to someone who does celebrate Christmas. I have no desire for my non-Christianity to dampen the holiday spirit for that eighty-three percent. I have no problem playing a Christmas concert with the Zionsville Concert Band, even if there is no Chanukah music on the program (which, in fact, there was). I don't want Wal-Mart to instruct their greeters to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas so as not to offend my fellow non-Christians and me. Governor Chaffee in Rhode Island does not need to pretend the state Christmas tree is merely a holiday tree for my sake. In fact, as a religious Jew with more in common with religious Christians than with secular Jews, I am all for putting more Christ back in Christmas, despite the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with my own Jewish theological beliefs.
I know many Jews could not disagree more with me. I have a theory as to why that is so. I urge you to respond with your evaluation of the Sendrow Doctrine.
The Sendrow Doctrine states that one's displeasure at being wished Merry Christmas is in inverse proportion to the richness of one's Jewish life. In other words, the richer your Jewish life, the less it bothers you if someone—gasp—wishes you a Merry Christmas. You understand it is well intentioned act of friendliness that applies to the vast majority of Americans. But if your life has little or no Jewish content, your primary identification with Judaism is that you are not a Christian. Therefore, when wished a Merry Christmas, a blow has been struck at the very core of your Jewishness: your non-Christianess. No wonder that someone feels the need to assert that he does not celebrate Christmas, thank you very much.
I do not want the Jewish community specifically nor the non-Christian community in general to trump the 83% of Americans who celebrate Christmas. I want more of America's Judeo-Christian heritage to be part of the fabric of our society, not less. Yes, that means that Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians will sometimes be subjected to a Merry Christmas wish. With regard to that, I have one question: so what?
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Until next time, Shalom!