One interesting thing about writing down my memories slowly and online, is that I am confronted by the assumptions people make based on their own experiences and some of the assumptions I make based on mine. For instance, I didn’t realize how “white bread” many people assume the United States to be. Meanwhile, I assume it is a “nation of immigrants” and that, if I say that I grew up in an ordinary suburban town in New Jersey, everyone will assume that there was an ethnic and religious mix. To me, that is ordinary.
However, the towns around New York are occasionally associated with one group or another. This doesn’t negate what I said about pluralism. For instance, Bergenfield, New Jersey, is sometimes known as “Little Manila” due to the concentration of Filipinos. According to Wikipedia, about seventeen percent of the population is of Filipino descent. So, in this area, a concentration doesn’t mean any sort of exclusivity. The town where I lived when I was in grammar school and junior high school was known for having a concentration of Jews. This means that many of my childhood friends were Jewish, including my best friend, the first boy I kissed, and so on. It’s hard to describe without making it sound more interesting to me than it was. When you’re a child, you just accept things as a matter of course. This, to me, is just the way the world is. There are people of different backgrounds in it, and they’re your neighbors. So, when I was in seventh grade and the local synagogue was vandalized, it wasn’t just an attack on Jews, but an attack on my friends and an attack on our town. It drove home the point, in a profound, emotional way, that antisemitism exists and is real.
When you grow up in a pluralistic town, accommodating other people becomes second nature. My mother would get two sets of cards, one that said “Merry Christmas” and another that said “Happy Holidays.” Our school would have a “seasonal” music recital around mid-December. Typically, we’d have one obviously Christian song, one obviously Jewish song, and the rest would be songs about winter or “holidays.” Going easy on the obviously Christian iconography in public places like the school was not meant to accommodate atheists, but to be inclusive to Jews. This also helped relations among Protestants, Catholics, other Christian sects, as well as the small number of Buddhists and Taoists. I’m tempted to say that we had no Muslims or Hindus in our town, but part of the point of having a secular society that downplays religion in the public sphere is that I can’t even tell you for certain. Again, it’s hard to communicate how uninteresting this was to me. There was no sense of making an effort to do this. You had friends who were different religions and you wouldn’t want them to feel uncomfortable, just like you wouldn’t say rude things on other topics that might make them uncomfortable. I wouldn’t think it was even worth mentioning, except it seems that other people didn’t grow up this way.
When I first heard about Bill O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas,” I actually was shocked that someone on television would be promoting something so obviously antisemitic. You see, I didn’t hear this as an attack on “secularists,” and I still think it’s mainly antisemitic. Greedy merchants who want to take your money but won’t say “Merry Christmas,” what is that if it’s not a nasty stereotype of Jews?
Many atheists who come from Christian families still celebrate some version of Christmas. After all, my mother was a non-believer sending cards that said “Merry Christmas” to her friends. She wouldn’t send any of the deeply religious one with bible verses, but a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, even an angel were all fine with her. We put up a tree. We exchange presents. We used to eat a big ham until my sister and mother became vegetarians. (Yes, yes, Sis. I know. You’re not really a vegetarian; you just don’t eat meat.) We don’t have a problem with Christmas; it’s people from ethnic groups that were never Christian to begin with that have a problem with Christmas.
A while back, Hemant Mehta put up a post about a woman getting an anonymous note telling her that her Christmas display was tacky. Mehta wrote:
We don’t know if the letter-writer (and I’m assuming there really was a letter-writer here) was an atheist, but it looks that way.
However, the incident reminded me of something that happened to my sister. Shortly after she moved into her current home, one of her neighbors stopped by. Now, my sister is frequently taken for Jewish. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the New Jersey accent. Her neighbor said to her, “Whenever someone new moves in and they put up Christmas lights, we say, ‘There goes the neighborhood.'” Although it was unspoken, in the context it was obvious that she was referring to the Jewish character of the neighborhood and has mistaken my sister for Jewish.*
I guess I’m a goy who’s a bit too steeped in Jewish subculture, because when I read Mehta’s post, some things stuck out to me that Mehta seemed to miss. First of all, the tenor of the criticism, “cheap”, “tacky”, “bad taste,” said to me that there was a cultural aspect beyond religion to this. The other thing that leaped out at me was the location, Newton, Massachusetts. Upper West Side, Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Englewood, the aforementioned Bergenfield, Short Hills, Pikesville, Brookline, and, you guessed it, Newton, Massachusetts. According to Wikipedia:
Newton, along with neighboring Brookline, is known for its considerable Jewish and Asian populations. The Jewish population is estimated at roughly 28,000, about one-third of the total population.
We need to stop giving into the framing of the Christianists. We all know that there’s no “War on Christmas.” There’s a war on pluralism that was started by the Christianists. Let’s call it what it is.
This long rant was originally meant to be a short introduction to the following video. Since many of my internet friends acquaintances are non-believers, I thought you’d all get a kick out of this. If you like it, stop by the original post and give Michael Luciano some love. (Warning: The Daily Banter is now metered, so if you go to that page you won’t be able to look at anything else on that site until tomorrow.)
Another code for “Jewish”: Hollywood.
* I’m always a bit hesitant to repeat this incident. As I said before, I’m very aware of real antisemitism and I’d hate to write anything that feeds into it, even unintentionally. Therefore, I’d like to add that this incident, like that anonymous letter in Newton, is rare.