Dear Boston,

Today is the anniversary of the day that you showed the world how magnificent, resilient, powerful, courageous, beautiful, vivacious and cohesive you are.  You are beyond being just my favorite city, the place that I called home for 7 years, the place that my mind still goes to when I hear the word “home.”  You are my community. You are the place where the people I love live.  You are the place where I learned to be a human being. The place where I got all my values – and they’re good ones – strong, American, socially conscious, thoughtful values.

You are infused with centuries of culture and strife and philosophy and there is no place on Earth that has your convictions, the unique ability of your citizens to simultaneously combine utter respect for knowledge and intelligence with a complete disdain for pretension.  Your most beautiful building is not a corporate tower or a bastion of government.  Your most beautiful building is the public library.  You believe in the human potential of all people regardless of class, the Athens of our new world – but Athens never had your endearingly ridiculous accent, your tough guy exterior or the cultish loyalty that influences everything your people do right down to their choice of donut.

You are both efficient and caring, with public servants who are joined by community leaders and private individuals in their genuine conviction for doing what is right for the people around them.  You are progressive, but not just to be able to pat yourself on the back.  You are progressive because you believe in the future, you believe in human rights and you believe in your duty to continue leading this country in its ongoing human revolution.  And you do it well.  But there is no ego in this.  After your activism has achieved its goals you are content to sit back with a beer and watch the game with your family, or among neighborhood regulars in the thousand authentic Irish pubs that grace your streets.  You are content to let your ancient brick buildings age and to embrace your own grit.  You are not afraid to say what you want and to say it in the most vulgar, descriptive, base language you can possibly muster and I love you for it.

You do not need the federal government’s help, and you certainly do not need the federal government to tell you what to do now.  The federal government would do well to remember that it wouldn’t exist without you, you stubborn, righteous, brilliant, unyielding, loud-mouthed, belligerent patriot.  You can handle yourself on your own, and on your own you do better than most.  The feds should sit back and watch you govern because they might actually learn how to get their own house in order.

Watching what happened to you last year did not feel like September 11th.  September 11th was big, shocking, national.  This was intimate.  It was personal.  It was ours and ours alone.  September 11th filled me with indignation.  But the attack on Boston filled me with sadness. Outsiders have tried to claim this experience because they want to feel like they are part of our tragedy, but they don’t feel the same sadness that we do.  They only feel sympathy, trying to cash in and get high on catharsis, then congratulate themselves for what good people they are.  A true Bostonian abhors that kind of falsehood, and if it were really theirs, if they really felt it, they would realize that there will never be a catharsis.  This will always have happened and it will suck just as bad in a hundred years as it did the day it happened.  For those of us who are truly, personally impacted this feeling will never go away.

You also don’t need anyone’s sympathy.  Even in the face of such sadness you are a tough old bastard.  This will not stop you for a second.  I hate hearing the words, “Boston strong” because it is a statement of the obvious, as though the rest of the world is only just discovering something that has been your most evident trait since your founding.  I hate seeing you patronized and put into a box, characterized as a victim.  Outsiders do not understand the extent of your resilience, nor can they possibly understand the depravity of an attack on a place as magnificent and humanistic as you.  They don’t know how you smell after it rains.  They don’t have a pub to which they are unfailingly loyal as though it is in their blood.  They don’t get the significance of Dunkin Donuts staying open.  And most non-Bostonians probably wouldn’t have handled a shelter-in-place order with the grace, the decorum, the bravery and the self-accountability of your residents.

It killed me that I wasn’t there for you last year, to have to sit here and watch it on a screen, helpless to do anything.  Just know, Boston, that despite my having to leave you years ago, you are the love of my life and I am so very proud of you.

Two things throughout my life have always been true: I’m chubby, and I’m unlucky in love.  I go back and forth on whether these two things are correlated.  I’ve clearly had plenty of guys express interest in me – just not ones that I like back.  Or, it’s guys who think they can treat me like dirt and do so.

It’s also clear, however, that there are plenty of guys who are not interested in me because I’m not skinny.  I’m not fat either – I fit in that weird space that is the size 14.  Size 14 is the average American woman.  At the very end of the “normal sizes” spectrum, but definitely not a plus size.  You would think this means I’m just normal, right?  Neither fat nor thin.  And yet we seem to live in a culture where if you aren’t skinny, you’re fat.  There doesn’t seem to be any kind of between.  It’s very difficult for me to figure out where I stand. I’ve been told “You’re not fat!  Have more confidence!”  I’ve also been called a BBW by men claiming to be interested in me.  And I’ve been called fat by people trying to hurt my feelings – it’s questionable to what extent these people are objective sources.

I don’t know how to assimilate this conflicting information.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being fat.  It’s just a descriptor, just a size.  There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to fat people, either.  But I do not identify as a BBW because I don’t feel that I’m that large and, even if I am/was, I want a guy to be attracted to me as an individual, not because I fit into a category that he fetishizes.

This is all compounded by the fact that I live in Washington, D.C., an incredibly image conscious city, where everyone seems to be working out all the time, where the standards of thinness – especially for women, but also for men – are fairly extreme, and where young, successful, intelligent, pretty women substantially outnumber comparable men.  So whereas I might be perfectly normal by another city’s standards, by Washington, D.C. standards I am some kind of giantess.

And that’s what drives me nuts.  I am surrounded by people who accept that fussing over their weight is a normal part of life, both male and female.  People who get up and go to boot camp every day before work, people who spend multiple hours a day dedicated to the pursuit of looking “healthy” or “hot,” or both, depending on who you speak to (as though you must be super ripped or thin just to be “healthy” which is patently untrue)  – because it’s not just the time spent working out.  It’s also the time spent going to and from the gym, taking extra showers, buying workout clothes, cleaning workout clothes, changing – not to mention all the money and mental energy and emotional baggage that goes into it.  If, as a group, we all decided to stop being so type A about every damn thing, to be more forgiving of ourselves and of others, and to say you know what, I don’t care so much about an extra inch or two, nobody would have to do that.  Everyone could sleep in another hour.  Everyone could save a ton of money that they spend on workout clothes and gym memberships and protein powder.  Everyone would probably be happier, and we’d probably be nicer to each other as a result (Washington, D.C. is a cold, rude, self-absorbed, every-man-for-himself kind of city.  I’ve never been anywhere like it and I feel like it has made me into a worse person).

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t care about health and shouldn’t exercise, just that people shouldn’t be obsessing over exercise.  If you want to spend half an hour on the elliptical a few days a week for health reasons, want to go to yoga because it makes you feel better after spending all day sitting at a desk, play sports or run because you find it genuinely enjoyable and entertaining, or take a nature walk because you enjoy fresh air, then power to you.  What I don’t understand is how people think it is normal to spend hours of their week getting screamed at by an instructor, putting themselves through physical pain and exhaustion, and then feel guilty if they miss a class or put on a pound.  That’s not healthy, or physically fit.  That is certainly not normal.  That’s crazy.

And then they sit around and brag about it, and compare, and try to show off.  My default response is to generally brag about how many pizza slices I managed to slam the night before.  This usually gets them to shut up, because they realize we’re speaking entirely different languages.  If you’re my friend, and running marathons is really important to you, I will support you and congratulate you when you meet a goal.  But if you’re just some acquaintance at a party I have no interest in hearing how fast you run or whether you’re doing a half or full marathon next weekend.  You sound like a douche.  While we’re at it, please stop debating the merits of different energy bars.  Being thinner than me does not make you more interesting, smarter, better or morally superior, so why are you trying to compete with me over it?

I don’t want to do that to myself.  I am not a lazy person who hates exercise.  I like going to yoga.  I intended to use the elliptical for 20 minutes last night and found that I was actually enjoying myself so I stayed on for another 15, in no small thanks to the epic collection of 90s nostalgia music I had loaded into my MP3 player.  And that was awesome, and I felt great afterwards.  But if I have a day where exercise doesn’t make me feel great (which is frequent) and I just want to do 20 minutes, or not go at all, I don’t want to feel like I’ve committed some kind of laziness crime against the cosmos.

And yet it seems I have to be that way to get rid of the extra flub on my body that society says I shouldn’t have, that society says I need to get rid of in order to be attractive.  I don’t feel unattractive.  I don’t feel unhealthy.  My blood work comes back so good that I’m almost an anomaly – I have great genetics.  So I feel like I am being forced to make physical changes that are not necessary for my health, to adopt a lifestyle that I personally do not feel is healthy or believe in just to be able to enjoy a satisfying romantic life.

In fact it’s a matter of pride for me.  Losing weight to get men strikes me as superficial and anti-feminist.  It feels like I’m giving in, changing something fundamental about myself – my physical body as well as my entire lifestyle, my schedule, the food I like to eat – just to get a man.  And I don’t want to turn into one of those superficial, self-absorbed, “popular kids” from high school – the kids who used to call me fat even though I probably wasn’t, the kids who taught me wear fatness as a badge of defiance, who made fatness into a part of my self-image, my identity.  I don’t know what it’s like to be a thin person.  That’s not who I am.

My mother used to call me fat every day, and make it out like I was some kind of monster pigbeast – no human being, no matter how fat, is as ugly as my mother used to make me feel.  She used to buy me an outfit and then tell me the very next day that I shouldn’t be wearing it because it didn’t look good on me.  In jr. high she dressed me in baggy boy’s clothes that got me made fun of all the time.  My friends used to ask why my mother was so mean to me all the time.  Women, complete strangers, came up to us in the fitting room at stores to chastise my mother for how she spoke to me.

I distinctly remember that one night when I was 14 my mother had a craving for KFC.  Well, I hate chicken, and my parents knew that, but my opinion on food never mattered.  So we went to KFC and they got a big bucket of dead animal parts and I got a fried chicken breast sandwich because it’s the only thing I found palatable.  We sat down around the kitchen table and just as I was about to take my first bite my mother turned to me and said, “You know, you really shouldn’t be eating that.”

It must have been bad because this is the one time in my life I remember my father ever sticking up for me when my mother said something like that.  Granted, my dad just usually wasn’t around because he worked so much.  I knew there was no way for me to win this fight, so I put the sandwich down, left the room, went to my room and closed the door.  Well, that didn’t work either.  I was never allowed to just leave a situation when I got upset, even though, as an only child, I was always outnumbered.  Any time I tried to retreat from a fight my father would follow me, burst in the door and either start screaming, if the situation had already escalated into a screaming fit with my mother, or pestering and guilting me if it hadn’t.  In any case, he would not leave until I gave in and came back into the lion’s den.  So, unshockingly, I was made to return to the kitchen and suffer the indignity of eating a fried chicken sandwich  in front of my mother.

Eating whatever I wanted became an act of psychological self-preservation, a way to fight back and to show my mother she couldn’t control me.  I lived in a situation where I had no choice but to fight.  If that was the case, I was going to win.  My mother offered me some cake once (if I’m so fat why are you offering it to me?  So you can have the pleasure of making me feel bad after I eat it?) and I really just didn’t feel like cake, so I said no thanks.  She congratulated me on my responsible decision.  “Good for you.”  My response?  “I didn’t do it for you.”  I grabbed the cake and stuffed it in my face.

And that has been my response ever since to any suggestion that there is something wrong with me, that I need to lose weight, that I have to be thin in order to be pretty.  It is a matter of pride.

I am a self-sufficient human being.  I have a great job where I make enough money to support myself.  I am interesting, busy, popular, and have lots of hobbies.  I am intelligent, intellectual, educated, well-rounded.  I’m great.  I don’t need to be thin or to have a man to be a complete person.  And yet, I’m watching all my friends partnering off, getting married – eventually they’ll start having kids (I also don’t want kids, but that’s an entirely different conversation). They are not as available to hang out with me as they used to be.  They still hang out, but they want to bring their SOs.  If I have a party, the SO comes.  It’s not the same.

I’m only 28.  Everyone tells me I have time.  But this has been a persistent pattern.  Am I supposed to assume that it will magically change in the next 4 years before things get really desperate?  Granted, there’s also no guarantee that if I lose copious amounts of weight that that will change the situation, either.  It could be something else entirely.  I could just be extremely unlucky.  But a friend put it to me recently that, while some guys like curvy, more guys like sporty, and that by appearing sporty I can increase the likelihood that men will be attracted to me, thereby increasing my chances, and therefore, logically speaking, if the stress I feel about never being in a relationship significantly outweighs the pain of giving up my pride to lose weight, I should lose weight.

Another friend recoiled at the thought and quoted what I’m used to hearing.  You are fine the way you are.  You shouldn’t change yourself just to get men.  If a man doesn’t like you as you are he’s too shallow and not worthy of you.

Is that really true, though?  People are allowed to be attracted to what they’re attracted to.  People in our society, for reasons that are very much influenced by social factors they individually do not control, are typically more attracted to thin people.  And physical attraction is an important part of a romantic relationship.  Wanting to be with someone you’re attracted to doesn’t make you shallow.  I’d like to be able to look at my weight as a kind of filter, a way of sorting out the assholes who only care about how I look, about having arm candy to show off to their friends.  But that’s not fair.  It’s more complicated than that.  And frankly, I’m no better.  There are guys I’m simply not physically attracted to and whom I would never consider dating, regardless of how awesome they may be in all other aspects of life.  I don’t think that makes me a bad person, either.  It just makes for a shitty situation, because there are a lot of great, interested guys out there I wish I were attracted to.  That would make my romantic life a lot easier.

So what am I supposed to do in this situation?  Be true to myself and stay as I am?  Sacrifice a part of myself because it’s the only thing I can think of that I have any control over that might turn my romantic life around?  Move?

I’ve decided to lose weight.  I feel ashamed even admitting it.  I don’t want people to congratulate me on making this decision.  I don’t want people to congratulate me or tell me how good I look once I lose it (and I will).  I don’t feel good about it.  I don’t feel like this is my choice.  I feel kind of sick, actually.  It feels wrong.  But I don’t know what else to do.  And I don’t want people to tell me, upon hearing of this decision, that I look fine and don’t need to lose any weight either.  Because they’re preaching to the choir.

I’m not going to try to make myself super-skinny.  That’s not how I’m built.  There’s no way to get there in a healthy way that I can maintain, and it’s a documented fact that when people lose extreme amounts of weight they gain it all back and more.  And that yo-yoing effect is much worse for your health than just being consistently fat.

I want to lose 30 pounds.  Tighten up, get to where I was before I started gaining weight in my mid-section in law school.  I always had weight in my butt and hips, and never really had a problem with that.  I developed what I call my law baby as a consequence of beer and stress, and that’s the unhealthy kind of weight gain that increases risk of diabetes and other issues.  It’s not like exercise is a bad thing.  It’s not like I’m doing something – as long as my goals and my means of attaining them are within reason – that is harmful to myself.  A lot of people would say it’s good for me.

Then how come it makes me want to curl up into a ball.

 

As someone who’s a fairly vocal feminist, and who is surrounded by men and women who are self-proclaimed feminists and feminist allies, the topic of whether it’s acceptable to expect cis straight men to pay for cis straight women on a date, or to engage in other acts of “chivalry” like opening doors, pulling out chairs, etc., comes up quite often.

My answer?  Either way is fine.  It is not offensive when men pay.  It is also OK when men don’t.  It’s a matter of personal choice, and it’s the personal business of the man and the woman who are on the date.

There’s a distinction between general philosophy and individual choices.  It’s totally possible for someone to be a feminist but to be traditional about gender roles in his/her own dating life if that works both for that person and his/her significant other.  There are certain behaviors that a person cannot engage in in his/her personal life while claiming  to be feminist – like domestic violence, for instance (as distinguished from safe, respectful BDSM).  But in many ways people’s personal relationship needs may differ from their needs in other facets of life like work, platonic socialization and political view.  There are plenty of stay-at-home moms in heteronormative relationships, for instance, who would consider themselves staunch feminists.  They stayed at home because that’s what made sense for them personally, but they would still advocate that other women have the choice of whether to stay home or work, and would probably also say that they have no issue with relationships in which the dad stays at home and the mom works.

Likewise, a man and a woman in a heteronormative relationship can engage in “chivalry” – the man pays and open doors, etc. – as long as it is a matter of choice and it works equally for both parties.  A woman can say that she personally likes a man to pay but doesn’t believe, objectively, that men are obligated to do so.  A man can say that he personally likes to pay but doesn’t believe, objectively, that men are obligated to do so – or, for that matter, that women are incapable of paying for themselves.  Just as a man can personally prefer a woman who wears dresses and makeup but doesn’t think objectively that all women ought to do so, or need to do so in order for to be desirable to other men.  Plenty of men prefer a woman who doesn’t wear makeup or dress traditionally.  Neither of these is more or less feminist as long as they both recognize that it’s up to the woman, and that no woman is obligated to dress a certain way to please them.

Personally, I like to pay for myself on a date, not out of some grand feminist symbolism but simply because of my sense of fairness.  I don’t think it’s fair or nice to expect someone else to pay for me.  I know other women who disagree.  They spend a lot of time, effort and money on beautifying themselves to go on a date – makeup, grooming, jewelry, clothes, perfume, generally much more so than the man does – and they feel that he makes an equal contribution by paying for the date.  I see the merit in their argument.  Nonetheless, letting the guy pay makes me personally feel uncomfortable even though I usually also get very dressed up on dates.

There are still situations in which I let the guy pay.  If I’m afraid he’ll take it as a sign of disinterest, and I actually AM interested, I’ll let him pay but try to even it up by offering to pay next time or asking if he will then let me treat him to a drink somewhere else.  This is a twofer because it lets me pay him back but also gives me an opportunity to see him some more.  I’ll also let a guy pay if the bill is miniscule – just a coffee or a beer – and it would feel like squabbling or splitting hairs.  I wouldn’t expect to split something that small with a platonic friend of either gender, so it doesn’t offend my sense of fairness to have one of us pay for the whole thing.  That said, I was once on a date with a guy where I had ordered one $5 beer the whole time, and before I could even offer to pay he told me outright that he expected me to pay for my own beer.  That caused me to lose interest because it showed me that he’s cheap, selfish and willing to begrudge someone a $5 beer.  If part of being in a relationship is doing nice things for each other and making kind gestures, what kind of boyfriend would this person be?

I have also let the guy pay in situations where he was a complete jerk throughout the date, though this is rare.  In that case I see it as compensation for the two hours of misery he has put me through.  Also, I think that if there is a really clear, really large financial disparity and it isn’t offensive to the person with less money, it’s fine for the person with more money to pay.  I have let men who were obviously way better off than me pay and I have also paid for men who have significantly less than I do (but only where I knew this wouldn’t offend).

I will also open doors for men if I am confident it won’t offend them by making them feel emasculated (Research shows that it sometimes does).  I particularly do this in professional settings where it’s important to me to make it clear that I want to be seen simply as a colleague rather than as a woman (whereas on a date, being viewed as a desirable woman is part of the goal).

All that said, there are some reasons for which a “feminist” man who doesn’t “believe” in chivalry may want to reconsider his position.  

Not all women are like me.  A lot of women do want a man to pay for them, at least on the first date.  And even I expect a man to offer, even though I generally won’t accept.  A lot of the men I know who are self-proclaimed feminists balk at this.  They think it’s totally unfair, and also argue that it’s degrading to women because it is rooted in the underlying assumption that women need men to provide for them.  They feel that the societal expectation that men pay on the first date puts them in the untenable position of having to be hypocritical about their beliefs or risk losing the woman’s interest.  A lot of them will insist on splitting, figuring that if the woman is offended by this they have dodged a bullet.

This attitude is both myopic and self-defeating and here’s why:

For any relationship to be successful, both parties must demonstrate to each other that they value one another, that the other person is special.  This is equally true for both sexes/genders in a heteronormative relationship.  It is likewise true for all parties in relationships that are not heteronormative.  It’s universal.  This is not an arcane concept from the days of chivalrous knights and tower-bound maidens.  Making your significant other feel special is as relevant and necessary today as it has been throughout time.

Now, as a result, societies have developed over time codes by which people in relationships or wooing periods  communicated this underlying concept of specialness to one another.  Because gender roles were pretty set in stone until recently, it made sense that this code be gendered.  In ideal, romanticized chivalric culture the code is pretty gag-worthy, and it’s questionable how much this stuff actually happened outside of literature.  Males showed they valued their female-of-interest by fighting for the woman’s honor, giving gifts, writing poetry, and providing protection.  Women beautified themselves, waited dutifully, gave locks of hair and obeyed.

Modern equivalents exist, however, that really do happen in real life.  On more traditional campuses, for instance, Jocks and frat guys give their letter jackets to their girlfriends to wear and the girlfriend is then expected to wear it, and to cheer her boyfriend on at sporting events or support his fraternity activities.

And in modern post-college dating life men are generally expected to at least offer to pay, to pull out the lady’s chair for her, to take her coat for her, and to open doors for her.  Men don’t seem to show up with flowers to first dates anymore, but I think that this is mainly a consequence of the fact that women today are not comfortable letting a guy she has just started dating know where she lives.  This is especially true with online dating.  It isn’t practical to bring flowers to a bar or restaurant.  This has also made obsolete the statement, “pick me up at 7.”  Today people meet at a public location, and for good reason.  But many “chivalrous” gestures continue.

Women, in turn, dress up for dates.  They laugh at the guy’s jokes.  They let him open the door, even though they are completely capable of opening the door themselves.  In fact, to my knowledge, at no time in human history, even a thousand years ago when chivalry was invented, was it ever posited that women lacked the physical strength to open doors.

It is a dance.  This is a code that our society has developed by which one party in a relationship communicates to the other party in the relationship that s/he values that person, that that person is special in comparison to others.  The code itself is arcane, gendered and stereotypical, but it exists to convey an underlying message that is both important and gender neutral.

This means that when a man doesn’t at least offer to pay, doesn’t open the door, doesn’t engage in certain silly, arcane little acts of chivalry, he’s indicating to the woman that he doesn’t think she’s anything special, because those acts are universal symbols our society has devised for communicating that she is.

And I will admit it.  I am a product of my society.  I’m perfectly capable of paying for my own dinner and opening my own doors, but when a guy does it for me it makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  It makes me feel attractive and feminine and desirable.  When a guy doesn’t do it it makes me wonder whether he’s actually interested in me, and it makes me think that even if he is interested in a relationship he must not value me that highly and won’t treat me well in that relationship.  And even if this stuff isn’t running through my head on a conscious level, there’s a notable lack of warm fuzziness that could, if it were there, enhance our interpersonal chemistry.  If your date feels special, desirable and content, s/he is going to associate that feeling with you.  It’s how brains work.  So by not doing the dance, a man is missing an important opportunity to develop chemistry, attraction and emotional attachment.

But what about the hypocrisy?  What if you don’t believe in this, and you simply cannot bring yourself to do the dance because you believe the dance is wrong?  You have a third option.  You replace the code with a code of your own.  Do other things to show her she’s special.  Maybe you don’t pay or open the door for her.  Maybe instead you cook, which is in defiance of traditional gender roles.  Maybe if you’re an artist you make her a piece of art.  Maybe you share something really personal and vulnerable with her.  And hey, maybe she’s a master carpenter and she comes over and builds you some awesome custom shelves for your record collection, or she teaches you to rock climb.  In fact, this third option is the best option because it is personal.  In this way you treat each other as desirable individuals, not just desirable examples of your consecutive genders.

The problem is that developing really good, individualized methods for demonstrating that you find your romantic interest special takes time.  You have to know each other.  And, frankly, on a first date there are reasons you might not want to give all of yourself right away.  Maybe you aren’t ready to show her your poetry yet because it’s really personal.  Maybe it’s important that you meet in public for both of you to feel safe on the first date, so you can’t bring her over and cook for her.

The cliche first date – dinner, coffee, drinks, art gallery maybe – exists precisely because people don’t always know each other that well at this point and aren’t ready to show certain vulnerabilities.  And the cliche, gender-stereotyped methods of demonstrating your interest are there as a stand-in, to get the ball rolling until you reach a point where you can let that all drop and know each other as individuals.  Obviously, if you decide to start dating someone you’ve been close friends with for years, you’re probably not going to start opening doors for her all of a sudden.  That would be weird.  But for a woman you’re just getting to know, it’s a safe, comfortable method of showing her that you like her without revealing too much of yourself or creating too much expectation.  People argue that these chivalrous tropes are superficial.  Yes, they are.  By design.

If you are chivalrous during the first few dates, you can demonstrate to her that you think she’s special, and that makes it more likely that you will eventually develop the kind of meaningful relationship in which you can let all that superficial, gendered stuff go and start finding your own, individualized, gender-equal methods of showing you care about one another.

The Supreme Court, when ruling on the issue of whether religious symbolism could be displayed on public land (think court houses and schools), came up with a lot of issue-dodging, fact-based factors to consider.  SCOTUS said that one factor is whether the religion’s symbol is part of a greater tableau including multiple religions or traditions.  SCOTUS got it wrong, as it frequently does.

This tableau notion has permeated our culture and has gone beyond government-owned land.  We now rely on political correctness and “inclusiveness” when deciding how to go about our religious business in public rather than focusing on the central issue of whether religion ever even belongs in public given the disparate impact that public display of religion has on religious minorities. Our society presumes it’s OK to put up a creche, a tree, a santa as long as we throw up a token menorah alongside it.

This is hugely problematic, because it means that Christians are appropriating symbols of my religion to justify the presence of their own religious symbolism in public locations.  It’s patronizing, offensive and blatantly disingenuine.

1.  I rarely, rarely ever see other religions included besides Judaism.  Judaism makes up a whopping 1.7% of the American population, while Muslims make up 0.6% and Hindus make up 0.7%.  4% practice no religion. While there may be twice as many Jews as Muslims or Hindus the difference between these groups in terms of percentage of population is hardly significant, and there are also twice as many atheists, apparently, as there are Jews.  (The world, meanwhile, is 22.3% Muslim and only 0.22% Jewish, with Hindus and Buddhists falling inbetween).  The reality is that, except for religions so uncommon that it would simply be impracticable to include them, there’s no reason we should not include all religious minorities.  Christianity is by far and away the majority and as far as I’m concerned that leaves all the other religions on equal footing with each other, with Judaism no more or less dominant.

The reality is, however, that whether a religion is among the more dominant religions should not be an argument for whether it should be represented in a social tableau.  I would argue that the less powerful or prevalent a minority the MORE important it is to include it in a tableau.  Christianity does not NEED to be included in a tableau because the vast majority of Americans already have exposure to Christianity.  It’s the minority religions that should be out on display – if there’s going to be a display at all.

2. I have heard Christians refer time and time again to Channukah as “the Jewish Christmas.”  I have no doubt that the inclusion of menorahs or, God forbid, the invention of things like “Channukah bushes” and “Channukah Harry,” have led Christians to make this conclusion.  But it is both offensive and inaccurate.  And highly ironic, since Channukah celebrates Jewish nonassimilation into dominant religion and culture.  It also commemorates a military battle in which we basically revolted against our host society, not a religious event, and most historians agree that the story about the oil miracle was added later on by the rabbis who were lobbying to make Channukah into a holiday.  Channukah does not appear in the Torah and it is among our least significant holidays.  It has nothing to do with Jesus.  It is not the Jewish Christmas and it is as much an insult to Christmas to make this false connection because it ties the birth of Christianity’s most important figure to an insignificant holiday birthed in violence.

3.  Nevertheless, Christians go out of their way to include Jews around Christmas time and acknowledge Channukah even though our most important holidays (and the bulk of our holidays) occur in the Fall.  Rarely do Christians know about these holidays, acknowledge these holidays or put up decorations then.  It’s clear that the only reason Christians acknowledge Channukah is because it falls around Christmas.  This shows that attempts to include Judaism on any serious level are disingenuine, that no real attempt to research or understand my religion was made.  At best it shows Christians recognize that most of the country becomes preoccupied around Christmas time and doesn’t want Jews to feel left out and alienated, but this leads to another problem…

4. We don’t want or need to be included around Christmas time.  Judaism is sufficient on its own.   I am proud of my Jewish heritage and identity.  I don’t need to be included in Christmas in order to feel like I am a part of something great and I am not missing out on anything because I have my own wonderful traditions.  Some of my Jewish friends do put up trees and Christmas decorations and I disagree with them 100%, but that debate is beyond the scope of this note and, frankly, not the business of anyone who isn’t a member of the tribe.  Many others come from mixed-religion homes and for them both Judaism and Christianity are important parts of their identity.  Many Jews, however, myself included, abhor the notion of doing anything remotely related to Christmas except to the extent that we are supporting our Christian friends in their own private celebrations (for example, I will attend a friend’s tree trimming party just as I’ll invite her to my Channukah party, but you will never catch me trimming a Christmas tree in my own home or putting up lights).

I’ve had people actually tell me they feel “sorry” for me that I don’t “get” to celebrate Christmas.  I don’t want to celebrate Christmas.  I have no interest in commemorating the birth of a savior that I don’t believe in.  I’ll happily attend interfaith ceremonies that are genuine and that truly treat each involved religion as an equal player, that are aimed at creating understanding between different peoples without implying that any particular religious tradition is superior to another, but most attempts at inclusiveness are fake, half-assed, poorly researched, patronizing and more offensive than just leaving us out of it entirely.

For instance, my landlords put out a Christmas tree and many large Christmas decorations in our lobby every year, plus they play Christmas music over the hall speakers.  They also put out a dinky menorah off to the side on which the candles are never lit and over which the right blessings are never said.  This year Channukah came super early and overlapped Thanksgiving, but they didn’t put out the menorah until they started putting out the Christmas decorations.  That means that they didn’t put out the menorah until after Channukah was OVER.  How is this including Judaism in any kind of way that is meaningful?  They have relegated the menorah (actually guys, it’s called a Channukiah) to the status of a Christmas accessory.

5. There appears to be an internal battle within Christianity as to whether Christmas is a secular holiday, and the government is a central player in that battle by taking “secular” Christmas symbols and placing them on public property as though they are not religious and are in fact part of some greater secular American culture.  Christians should be alarmed by this because the American government is seeking to define their religious beliefs for them and that is exactly what the government is not supposed to do.  As an American I am alarmed.  I am also alarmed as a Jew.  Taking on indicators of Christian identity is a denial of my Jewish identity.  For the government – or for anyone – to tell me that symbols like Christmas trees and Santas and wreaths are actually part of secular American life is equivalent to telling me that if I don’t take on some aspects of Christian identity – thus denying my Jewishness – I’m somehow less American.

I love being Jewish, and I love being American, and I am equally proud of both facets of my identity, which are not mutually exclusive.  I would not be American were it not for the fact that I am Jewish because my family came here generations ago to escape religious persecution.  I could not be Jewish were it not for the fact that I am American.  All my relatives who remained in Europe were killed during WWII because they were Jewish.  This means that America basically saved my life.  If my family had not immigrated here they would have all died and I would never have been born.

So it is an offense to imply that I am supposed to assimilate myself into some secularized, watered-down version of Christianity in order to be American when my Jewishness is a core part of my Americanness, and when true freedom and equality for all religions and peoples is one of the great founding principles that make America, and not Israel, the country I consider to be my homeland.  All this public celebration of Christmas plus patronizing inclusion of Jewish symbols offend me as a Jew and, more importantly, as an American.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.