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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : Southland Jews : Putting 'X' Into Xmas: A More Sensitive Approach

February 13, 1989|TERRY SCHWADRON | Times Staff Writer

I know the feelings undoubtedly are well-intentioned, but here's a modest proposal for Christmas celebrations that start earlier and earlier each year, that appear in more of our institutions each year: Keep them to those who want to celebrate the holiday.

From a Jewish point of view (probably a Buddhist or Muslim point of view, too), America has no faster, more effective way of telling some of us that we are different, that we are supposed to belong where we do not.

Beyond commercialism, beyond the obvious seasonal appeals to peace and good will, Christmas is a fundamental religious event. Promoting it as a secular, American holiday is not only insensitive, it is wrong. Worse is taking the relatively unimportant coincidental Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and elevating it to the importance of Christmas.

For many American Jews, Christmas has become a symbol, a kind of acid test of belonging or not belonging in a Christian mainstream. It becomes exaggerated as the Christmas season stretches earlier and longer into the year.

One reason I live in Southern California is that my children in fact will be able to grow up in an area that has Jews and Jewish institutions among its mix of ethnicities. It's different from North Providence, R.I., where I was the only Jew in my high school.

Southern California is a melting pot where many teachers try to be sensitive to the mixed backgrounds of their students. Yet, these efforts often fall short and result in their own kind of alienation.

Here's what happens in the elementary schools of West Los Angeles:

The teacher uses both Christian and Jewish symbols in the art projects during December. On the last day of school before vacation, she singles out my daughter for having done good work and tells her she gets to take home the class Christmas tree. The child knows this is odd but cannot persuade the teacher that she should reconsider.

The teacher tells her third graders to split up, all the Christian children on one side of the classroom, all the Jews on the other. She wants to distribute the appropriate packet of art materials for a project. What of those children who are neither? What of those children whose parents are of more than one faith?

At the annual holiday party (Why is there always a holiday party?), the parent exhorts the students to greater enthusiasm for the requisite Hanukkah song added to "balance" the classroom caroling. You have to really get into it, sing and dance like the Jews do, the students are told. My son rolls his eyes.

The incidents are relatively harmless, but there always seem to be incidents.

Hearing an authority announce that Jews must line up separately from everyone else sends chills. It is a reminder that even here, even in Los Angeles in 1989, we are viewed as different.

Being treated as "different" is never far away for us. My mother was locked up for several years as a prisoner of war only because she was a Jew. A significant portion of my family was killed during the Holocaust. My father was the first Jew to be hired to the college faculty where he once taught.

Why do public schools have to depend on the symbols of Christmas? Why does my employer have to put Christmas trees throughout the building? Why does the President have to light the "national Christmas tree" on the White House lawn?

If it is important to have Christmas in the schools, let's treat it for what it is, and organize the curriculum around discussion about the meaning of the holiday to those who celebrate it. Easter is not about bunnies; it is about what many recognize as the resurrection of a divine figure.

My home state gave us the creche case, the continuing dispute over whether it is right to place clearly religious symbols on public land. What is most troubling is not the decision made by the officials of Pawtucket, R.I., but the idea that there never was any question about whether it might offend.

So the proposal is this: You celebrate, and I'll take pleasure in the idea that you are celebrating. But, please don't make me feel as if I must join you.

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