I did not write a column for Thanksgiving Day weekend.
I did try, but the column my fingers insisted on tapping out on the keyboard seemed inappropriate for the occasion. It was about whether someone who has the label "religious leader" (a label almost as inane as "spiritual leader," its synonym) could look over the American Jewish scene and say with a straight face that there was anything about which to be thankful.
To begin with, there is the huge intermarriage rate in America — exacerbated by the fact that many people do not see it as a problem. There is the even higher rate of the unaffiliated. There is the ever-shrinking recognition on the part of American Jews that Jews elsewhere have first call on our loyalties when it comes to helping meet their needs and protecting their interests. There is the even faster shrinking number of Jews giving to Jewish charities domestically. Nowadays, Jews with money would rather endow a wing at St. Elsewhere than a bed at the local Jewish nursing home.
Then there is the absurd sectarianism in Jewish life, which makes it almost impossible for the Jewish community to come together on any major issue. This farcical fracturedness cuts across all streams and is downright dangerous.
To be sure, living in the land of the free has meant living without an ever-present Damoclean sword — a refreshing but rare circumstance in our exilic history. But not being a strained strand away from extinction does not necessarily translate into "good for the Jews." At least, it should not to one who is a Jewish "religious leader." (What does that term mean, anyway? That the leader is religious? That he or she leads "religiously"? Are there "irreligious leaders"?)
Many of my colleagues will disagree, but if freedom has led to our current situation, we really do need to ask what there is to celebrate.
Thanksgiving, of course, raised yet another red flag on the "ho, ho, ho" horizon. No matter how one tries to color it or cover it over most of the year, ’tis the season for a Jew to feel ill at ease.
And, no, I find no comfort in those almost comical insertions of chanukiot amid three wise men trekking their way towards Bethlehem (although I do get a kick out of Briarcliff Manor’s 6-foot dreidel).
First, Chanukah menorahs belong in our homes, not on public property.
Second, nine burning bulbs amid thousands of brighter and cheerier Christmas lights make for a very poor display (seriously, think 6-foot dreidel instead).
Third, the displays suggest that Chanukah and Christmas are equal in importance. For the majority population, Christmas is a really big deal. For us, Chanukah is (well, should be, at any rate) a very small deal. It should not be given, say, a status akin to Shavuot.
That, of course, leads to another reason for not finding cause to be thankful: Everyone knows why we celebrate Chanukah (well, they think they do), but there are so few Jews left in America who even know that there is a Shavuot, much less who celebrate it, even casually. Yet Shavuot is our birthday as a "kingdom of priests and holy nation" and the anniversary of the most momentous event in history since Creation itself: God making His one and only personal appearance to an entire people. (Why is that people believe that bubbe meise about the cruse of oil that lasted eight days, but cannot conceive of the possibility that the Creator of all that exists can make a personal appearance in order to give us His law?)
More American Jews, in fact, celebrate Chanukah (7′ percent) than attend a seder on Pesach (67 percent) or fast on Yom Kippur (59 percent), according to the ‘000-‘001 National Jewish Population Survey.
It will not do, of course, to argue that these lavish Christmas displays are harmless. They are clearly meant to send the message that "this is a Christian country run on Christian values and all the rest of you folks are here by our sufferance."
Not true? Then how do we explain Mike Huckabee’s newest campaign commercial in Iowa? With the soft and soothing "Silent Night" setting the mood and a living room scene set with a Christmas tree and lights laid out in such a way that a white bookcase looks instead like a large cross (not unlike the "design element" on the platform of the ‘004 GOP National Convention), the latest Republican front-runner (and ordained Baptist minister) looks squarely outside the television screen at Iowa’s 6,000 Jews, several thousand Muslims, and everyone else in Iowa and says:
"Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you’ve been seeing, mostly about politics? Well, I don’t blame you. At this time of year sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and friends."
On the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama’s latest Iowa commercial has him, his wife, and their two children in front of a Christmas tree, as he extols those "things that unite us as a people."
Yes, Virginia, America is a Christian nation. Even Sen. John McCain agrees. "I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation," he said last summer, adding: "We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles."
The notion that the Constitution does not recognize this is nonsense. Just check the signature line: "Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names." On my calendar, it was "the Fifth of Tishri, 5548, from the creation of the world according to the manner in which we are accustomed to count." I do not have a "year of our Lord" and neither do Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and all others who are non-Christians.
This is America as it approaches ‘008. This is the state of American Jewry today. Neither presents a pretty picture to someone with the kind of job I have.
But, hey, what do I know? I am the Grinch who almost stole Thanksgiving.
Ho, ho, ho.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.