For years I have been one of the only Jewish people at my places of employment. I am currently the only Jew who wears a kippah at my office every day. In my heavily Southern Baptist and rural town, one would think I would be quite familiar with the consequences of being such an outsider.
But, as any honest minority will tell you, that singular idea of what America must be like simply is not accurate. This image often lives exclusively in the minds of those intent on viewing the world as a hostile place, filled with bigotry
This reminds me of a woman who illustrates this disconnect perfectly. For a long time, in my early working years, I felt extremely uncomfortable around Christmas time. I was far more liberal then and far more suspicious of Christians around me.
I would walk around listening to Christmas music while attempting to block out all religious connotations. I would drive past Nativity scenes on public property and scowl at their imposition of Christian faith on everybody. I bitterly frowned at the lack of Chanukah-related decorations at the local stores. I felt completely outside of society, looking in from the cold at happy families eating their large Christmas dinners.
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
An older woman who worked with me then gave everyone a personalized Christmas card each year. The card even had a small, hand-placed candy attached. The first time she gave me a card, I instantly frowned with disapproval, as the cover featured a glittery Nativity scene. I tossed the card aside and shook my head at her utter lack of respect for my religious beliefs.
She did not seem to notice. The following year she did the same, with another new religiously inspired card bearing another carefully placed candy, and a rosy smile as she handed each out.
In secret, I wanted to enjoy her gifts. I would even sneakily eat the candy hoping no one would notice. I instinctively smiled inside only to force a frown on the outside on pure principle. I often convinced myself that even if I wasn’t that offended, other people might be and it was my responsibility to speak up for them.
I felt a social obligation to educate her on the inappropriateness of her actions, while inside I intermittently felt envious of the others who so fully enjoyed them. In my loneliness her act of kindness gave me a moment of comfort. I chose to replace that with resentment.
She was otherwise a lovely woman whom I generally enjoyed, but I viewed her as an object of validation to my belief in a totalitarian and fascistic Christian Right attempting to take over the country. Her sheer audacity in providing me with a clearly religious symbol felt like an intentional assault, and in the third year I anticipated it with hostility.
When she once again presented me a hand-signed card, I stood up and marched to Human Resources, waving it in the air as evidence of being discriminated against. I angrily complained that her intentions did not matter as long as I felt the offense and the act itself made working there feel unsafe. So they spoke to her about the issue.
Overcoming Narrowness with Generosity
Although many of the other employees enjoyed her yearly gift and scorned me for complaining, I felt justified in my actions. She never confronted me, but she avoided wishing me a Merry Christmas for the rest of the season. I felt validated. But I also felt profoundly empty.
I watched each of my coworkers laughing and fully enjoying the spirit of the holidays, sharing gifts and treats with one another completely unburdened by self-consciousness. As I sat at my bare desk, the bright colors, glitter, and celebration of all things Christmas taunted me. My lone Chanukah teddy bear did not comfort me.
The last year I worked there, she once again presented everyone with a Christmas card. This time the cover was a Christmas tree with no religious iconography. I was busy when she approached my desk and I remember her pausing, smiling down at me, and saying, “I hope you have a lovely holiday,” before setting my hand-written card on my desk.
I stared at it for a long time before finally reaching for it and opening it. It was a simple message, and she wished me happiness and joy in her own writing inside. As I held the card I felt a tingle of recognition of what she did for each of her coworkers every year when she did not have to. I felt a pang of guilt.
A Coworker I Can Never Forget
I left for other opportunities, and over the years as my conservative worldview came into focus and the heavy cloaks of victimhood shed to the ground behind me, I often thought of her and her kindness. I have worked with many people who chose to give everyone at the office a personalized gift, which were often religious in nature. Despite HR warnings against religious imagery or politically correct scolding on diversity and religious tolerance, many chose to offer kindness anyway. It took me a long time to recognize that I was choosing to be offended.
That wonderful lady passed away this week, and as I lit my Chanukah candles I thought of her. Despite my cold and bitter temperament, she tried to warm my heart with a small and simple gift every single year she had the opportunity to do so. She provided a moment of joy and happiness to so many people with a small act. I remember her kind face and perfume as she walked by. I remember her soft voice and wide smile. I remember how nice she was to absolutely everyone she encountered.
Curious onlookers often ask me about my religious beliefs, and every year as Chanukah approaches I receive many an enthusiastic inquiry into the precise dates and practices. People always want to make sure they give me a gift at just the right time. They don’t want to miss the holiday and make me feel left out.
Sometimes those Chanukah gifts have images of Jesus on them. Despite what our media presents and my younger self firmly believed, this is not an act of aggression but one of innocent compassion. A person who gives a gift featuring his or her sacred religious iconography is reaching out, showing kindness and sharing his or her faith with others.
I’m a Jew, Yet I Love Christmas
These days I find myself loving Christmas and the cheer, colors, sounds, and small acts of kindness surrounding me. People love to make other people smile and they do so with hand-crafted gifts, treats, and homemade goods. They relish in watching the people they engage with daily partake in delicious candy and cookies, and they eagerly post cards they have received all around doorways and on walls.
I still receive Christmas cards with Nativity scenes on them, and they line my desk and my doorframe with pride. I appreciate the gifts others give me now, and I know it is always with the best of intentions at heart.
It is so easy to be offended, so easy to feel hostility and suspicion. Victimhood is attractive because it gives people permission to be judgmental without consequence and feel superior in doing so. It creates a sense of being special, enlightened, and above it all. But this merely traps people in a cycle of bitterness and loneliness as they fight the urge to simply enjoy the holiday season with everyone else. Ironically, the fact that they receive the same gift as everyone else demonstrates their inclusion in the group rather than highlighting their difference.
As a Jew, I can say that I appreciate Christians’ gestures during this time of year. Although it has become more risky over time, I encourage Christians to continue providing them. That kind woman could have ignored me after the first year when I threw her card in the trash in open sight. But she didn’t, and that matters.
Kindness matters. Even when the objects of your kindness reject your efforts, just know that deep down you are touching a part of them that they will hopefully come to appreciate in time. Not everyone will, but just enough of us can be rescued to be worth the effort. Your small act of generosity means more than you know.