Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami Aid

Google has set up a very nice page with links to information about the tsunami and links to sites where you can donate to help the victims of the tsunami. See:
http://www.google.com/tsunami_relief.html

I had hoped to post an item for the blog earlier this week, but the news about the tsunami made any other subject seem frivolous. Trying to find a Jewish angle related to the tsunami also seemed rather self-involved, though certainly no more self-involved than the American media, which in its coverage of the tsunami routinely mentioned the number of American dead: about 20.

But since this is a blog covering subjects of Jewish interest, I should note that Israel, like most countries in the world, has offered aid to the countries devastated by the tsunami. Sadly according to many news reports, Sri Lanka rejected Israel's aid, claiming that they did not have the facilities to house the personnel Israel planned to provide: 150 people, including doctors and search-and-rescue teams. I would not be surprised if this small island nation, devastated by the tsunami, was unable to house 150 extra people, but I have yet to hear reports of any other country's personnel being similarly rejected. This may, of course, be due to an oversight by the media in failing to mention other countries similarly rejected. In any case, Sri Lanka did accept Israel's aid in the form of material, such as blankets, tents, nylon sheeting and water containers.

Note that some sources have erroneously reported that Israel did not offer aid to tsunami victims; however, even the Arab media outlet Al Jazeera, hardly a friend to Israel, discusses the offer to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka's rejection. See:
Sri Lanka rejects Israel’s rescue team

Once again, that Google link to learn about the tsunami or help the victims is:
http://www.google.com/tsunami_relief.html

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The "Merry Christmas" Controversy

Earlier this year, the Committee to Save Merry Christmas was formed. Their goal: to restore the rightful place of the phrase "Merry Christmas" in store advertising and signage, a place that they think has been usurped by generic phrases like "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings." In pursuit of this goal, they call for a boycott of Federated Department Stores (owner of chains such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Burdine's), which use such culturally-neutral greetings. Federated has posted a response to this campaign on their website.

Although the Save Merry Christmas committee has gotten a considerable amount of media coverage, it's not clear how big this movement actually is. Remember: the media gives an inordinate amount of attention to anything that is controversial, and on the Internet it is impossible to tell the difference between a groundswell of popular support and a single person with an axe to grind. What we do know about this committee is that the domain name was registered by Gary Tompkins, owner of The Fidelx Group, an organization that provides graphic, audio-visual and web assistance for Christian organizations. The Save Merry Christmas site has a link to Fidelx, but the link doesn't work because the Fidelx domain name registration expired last week. (Yo, Gary! Renew it before somebody squats it and posts something that you might not approve of!)

I confess, I have a certain ambivalence about phrases like "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings." On the one hand, it's nice that people recognize that some people don't celebrate Christmas. On the other hand, merging all holidays together into one greeting reinforces the myth that all of the winter holidays are the same, that Chanukkah is just Jewish Christmas. That ambivalence is profoundly illustrated in the difference between two card-selling websites that I learned about last week.

Mixed Blessing sells multicultural holiday cards and gifts that celebrate the diversity of our culture. They show Christmas and Chanukkah (and sometimes other cultures) side-by-side in peaceful coexistence. It seems to me a perfect solution to the annual dilemma that many businesses face: what do we do about holiday cards?

On the other side of the coin, we have Chrismukkah Cards, which seems to me to be the worst-case scenario of multiculturalism gone wrong. It made me physically ill the first time I saw their cards of dreidels as Christmas tree ornaments, menorahs with candy canes for candles.

The melding of the two holidays into an amorphous, homogenized mess is a great disservice to Chanukkah, because fundamentally Chrismukkah is not a blending of Chanukkah and Christmas; rather, it is Christmas with dreidels and latkes. Whenever people attempt to combine the two into a "Happy Holiday," they take the form of Chanukkah without the substance, making Chanukkah meaningless.

See:
Chanukkah at Judaism 101
What Do Jews Do on Christmas? at Judaism 101

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Being Jewish at Christmas

Last March, I heard a DJ talking about March Madness, the annual insanity surrounding a college basketball tournament. She wasn't interested in it, but everyone in her office was obsessed with it. They had an office pool, a constant barrage of emails and parties to watch every game on TV. The DJ didn't want to be a part of it, but her co-workers pressured her to get involved. They tried to get her to participate in the pool, but she insisted that she didn't even know the names of the teams. Her co-workers assured her that it didn't matter who she bet on, it would be fun to play. They wouldn't take no for an answer. She wasn't trying to spoil their fun, but she wanted to be left alone.

As I heard her talk about her frustration, I thought, "Now you know how it feels to be Jewish at Christmas."

Think of something that you're not interested in but that everybody else seems to be talking about. Maybe it's a sporting event: March Madness, the Superbowl, the Olympics, or the World Series. Maybe it's the latest "reality" TV craze: Survivor, American Idol or The Swan. Maybe it's something political: the election, the war in Iraq or the latest political sex scandal. Maybe it's the "trial of the century" du jour: OJ Simpson, Martha Stewart or Scott Peterson. You can't get away from it: it's on TV and radio, newspapers and magazines. Everyone is talking about it, and expects you to express an opinion on it. You aren't interested and just wish everyone would leave you alone.

Now magnify that feeling a hundredfold, because there is nothing that permeates our culture as thoroughly as Christmas does. It's on TV news, programs and commercials. It's in radio music, the news, chat and commercials. Some radio stations go to a 24/7 Christmas music program as early as Thanksgiving or even earlier. It's in the mall, in every store. It's in the supermarket. It's on the lampposts along Main Street. It's in the post office and every other government building. It's in your office. It's on the lawn of everyone in your neighborhood, and if it's not on your lawn, the neighbors want to know why it's not.

And that is the worst part of it: no one will respect your desire to skip the holiday. Yeah, sure, you're Jewish, but Christmas isn't a Christian holiday, they will tell you. It's everybody's holiday, they say, it's a secular holiday, which means you're not allowed to "just say no." And even if you're not going to celebrate Christmas, they say, you can celebrate Chanukkah, which in their minds is just Jewish Christmas. After all, isn't Chanukkah about peace on Earth, good will towards men, and of course PRESENTS???

But Chanukkah is not about any of these things. Chanukkah is about a struggle for Jews to maintain their distinctiveness in a culture that tried to force us to do things the way everybody else did. Sound familiar? In ancient Greece and in America today, it is the same struggle, and it is a struggle that we lose a little bit every time a Jew celebrates Chanukkah as Jewish Christmas, every time we use dreidels as ornaments on a Chanukkah bush.

See:
Chanukkah on Judaism 101
What Do Jews Do on Christmas? at Judaism 101