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Jesus Nativity Creche Isn't Offensive, but It Doesn't Belong in Tax-Supported Spot

December 27, 1987|AGNES HERMAN | Agnes Herman is a free-lance writer who lives in San Marcos

One would have to be a Scrooge to cry "humbug" at the bright lights of Christmas. They are pretty! So many are strung with imagination and artistry. The sparkle of the twinkling lights is appealing. Christian eyes and hearts respond with excitement, confidence and hope: the birth of Jesus is being celebrated in churches and homes around the world.

Non-Christian eyes respond also to the bright beauty of the lights, but theirs is a response without yearning or expectation, as one who appreciates any work of creativity without grasping or coveting.

Our community is bursting with color. Like the slivers of glass in a kaleidoscope, our skin, style and speech, our beliefs and rituals, create a mosaic in which we admire and respect each other's differences. But, admiration and respect do not mean appropriation and adoption.

Stars and Crosses

When I drove down Interstate 15 the other evening, I was shocked to find red and green lights above the shoulder of the road: a six-pointed star--the Jewish Star of David--embracing a Christian cross! Whether this was the symbol of a sect that seeks to convert Jews to Christianity or simply someone's attempt to create an ecumenical holiday decoration, I do not know. I asked my friend: "What is the cross doing in 'my' star?" She responded appropriately: "What is the star doing around 'my' cross?" Appreciation does not mean assimilation.

That same evening, while sitting in an Oriental restaurant, I overheard a phrase from the conversation at the next table: "I don't understand what all that Jewish voodoo is about . . . !" Additional words floated over and I realized that the discussion was about the creche in Balboa Park. Name-calling on any level is, of course, offensive. Referring to Jewish ideology as "voodoo" is insulting. Perhaps I am sensitive because we Jews do not have secret ceremonies, magic spells or witch doctors, but some non-Jews think we do; perhaps it is because I have spent so many years and so much energy writing and teaching about Judaism, attempting to amputate its mystery.

It is important for non-Jewish people to understand why, on the one hand, I wish there were no Nativity scene in our public park, and why, on the other hand, the signs of Christmas do not offend my Jewish spirit. The creche on the lawn of the church around the corner or in the yard of my neighbor certainly does not offend me. I would hope that the glowing Hanukkah menorah in my window or in front of my synagogue does not repel anyone. The creche that is displayed in a public school or public park or public building, however, is an affront to me.

More than an object of beauty, the creche symbolizes the very essence of Christianity. It is not just another decorative bauble of a secularized holiday. It is the very marrow, the religious "show and tell" of the creation of Christianity. Not the tree, not Santa Claus, not the gifts or even the lights--but the creche is the essential expression of why Christmas is vital to Christians.

Why should the story of Jesus' birth be offensive to me? It is not! What is offensive to me is that since I am not a Christian, the observance of the birth of Christianity's savior is not my observance, and the holiday, therefore, is not my holiday. But, I do own a piece of the public park and public school and public building and I believe that I have a constitutional right not to find someone else's stamp of religious identity on any of these, even as I believe that my own stamp of religious identity must not appear on them.

Recently we celebrated the 200th anniversary of our Constitution. In celebration, we re-affirmed our belief in the freedom of religion and in the separation of church and state. That belief and that separation insure us against the imposition of a state-run religion and assure us that one religion will not be favored over another. It also reassures us that though we may be a numerical minority in the practice of our faith or though we may have no faith, the numerical majority may not--dare not--encumber us with its faith. Taking a specific religion's worship and ritual out of schools and city halls and parks continues the guarantees of autonomy of belief and freedom to observe or not to observe as one chooses.

Public places that acquire a specific religious identity polarize the populace; some are "in" and some are "out." Self-esteem rises and falls in direct proportion to the ability to identify, to know who I am. Non-Christians must not be made to feel that we are second-class citizens because our religion does not teach the tenets of Christianity.

Taking the religious flavor of Christmas, and Hanukkah, out of the public domain does not take the fun out of the holiday season.

Parties at school can be pre-vacation celebrations with toys and tinsel, games and goodies, stories and songs (but not hymns). Let us decorate our homes and our houses of worship as we see fit. But in our public schools, buildings and parks, let us be both sensitive and creative: universal and not denominational. Our society must remain free, open and peaceful--a society for all peoples.

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