Opinion: A Happy Chanukah or a Happy Holiday? That is the question


Something interesting occurred on Monday when a good friend of mine had the fortune of being interviewed on Fox News about his business. When we were younger, Jonathan Greenstein and I tore up the roads of Sullivan County and had a lot of fun, caused some trouble, and served food to the summer vacationers in the hotels and bungalow communities off Routes 42, 52 and 17.

Some tales are better left to memory; others go down better after a few drinks with good friends, but no matter what happened, I always knew that with Jonathan everything would work out. One thing was sure then and still strikes true today, and from his appearance with Stuart Varney this week, anyone who watched it saw it, too; Jonathan is likely among the most pragmatically poised people I have met, and someone who represents the very best of Jews and Judaism.

The segment focused on J. Greenstein & Co.’s Judaica collections and auctions, and Jonathan brought with him a $100 thousand dollar menorah to exhibit for a national audience. Varney asked informed questions about the values, both intrinsically and financially, and Jonathan came each time with replies that represented Jewish history and faith in a manner that evoked warmth and dignity – the way the menorahs were actually meant to be displayed and looked upon. Sometimes, in today’s media world, equating Jewish rituals and extravagance can evoke stereotypes. He did it with grace.

As terrific of an interview that it was, and how natural he seemed to be on camera, by itself would not evoke an article from me on this, but it was his comments nearing the end of the segment that caught my attention. Varney, noticing that Jonathan was wearing his kippah and was very proud of his Jewish heritage and the history of the people who his collection of antiquities once belonged to, asked a personal question. He mentioned that he gave money to the Salvation Army bell ringers who collect donations during this time of year and when he did, the volunteers said, “Happy Holidays!”

Not skipping a beat, nor waiting for Varney to ask the question, Jonathan said, “They should be wishing you a merry Christmas.” Varney looked amazed, and said, “Ah, so you would not be offended?” To which Jonathan said, “Absolutely not. That’s the most ridiculous thing on the planet.”

Varney explained that he wouldn’t wish a Merry Christmas to Jonathan out of respect, but if he did by mistake, Jonathan said, “Who cares! We all believe in this Guy up there (pointing to the sky); you approach Him differently, I approach Him differently, but we all love Him (pointing and looking up).” Varney replied, “Now that’s pretty good,” and the interviewed ebbed to a commercial break.

The whole notion of Happy Holidays seems to run counter to everything that our country stands for. Christmas is a Christian holiday and the faithful deserve to be able to hear and proclaim their faith as much as Jewish revelers are proud to say Happy Chanukah. Over the years, we have become a nation focused on political correctness to the point where we believe that by erroneously wishing the wrong person a good holiday using the actual name is offensive. Even more, we try so hard not to offend those who are offended by religion entirely, and cancel Christmas or Chanukah celebrations, and we fail to consider that those actions offend those who do believe.

Why is the potential offense of one, more accepted than the possible offense of another? One of Jonathan’s points on the show was that America has given Jews opportunities for prosperity that they have not had in centuries living in Europe and the Middle East prior to the 19th and 20th Centuries. For that reason alone, we should appreciate the freedom of religion that has been granted us by allowing others to appreciate their freedom of religion as well. Being fearful of that, or being ashamed of celebrating proudly, defeats what we have been given here, and gives those who want to deny our beliefs greater strength to oppose us.

Jonathan’s answer to Varney was refreshing for the TV host to hear, and you saw it on his face and in his voice. But his answer must have been refreshing for Americans to hear as well, knowing that a devoted Jew not only suggested that the dilution of the Christian holiday was wrong, but called it by its name, Christmas, and declared that Varney should have been greeted with a more direct gesture.

Just today I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was considering pulling his child out of the yeshiva they are in. He asked me, “Does Halloween exist?” I replied, “Every October 31st, and then we get the benefit of discounted candies at the supermarket a day later.” He said that his kid’s school teaches them that Halloween does not exist and they should never mention it. He was outraged by that. He told me that the yeshiva should be teaching that it is not a Jewish holiday or celebration, but that there are those who do observe it. He is right; we do not live here alone. There is a world outside that our children need to be aware of and respect if we are to expect that same respect in return.

When a Christian Organization such as the Salvation Army wishes someone a happy holiday rather than a merry Christmas, it is obviously trying to be all things to everyone. Yet, if you give to their bell ringers, most people know that the donation to them is a donation to a Christian cause.

Non Jewish friends of mine often wish me a ‘Good Shabbos’; they do it to be kind, and not because they suddenly have an urge to keep the lights off on Saturdays. We can acknowledge their beliefs and holy days the same way.

Most often when you hear someone say ‘Merry Christmas’, it is out of warm holiday spirit and not an attempt to make a non-believer a practicing Christian. You can correct them and explain that yours is Chanukah, or you can smile and just say thank you. If you’re daring, wish them the same.

Mutual respect is more dignified than willful ignorance.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency, 5W Public Relations