Thursday, December 18, 2008

Being Jewish at elementary school "holiday" concerts

I live in a small farm town in Michigan with a population about 1100. Jewish population: Me, my wife, and my two little scholars. But to the best of it's ability, the town has been good to us and accepting of us. The day care my littlest one goes to is bumping and jumping to the sound of Shiralala's Chanukkah album to the point where parents have commented positively on their kids singing some of the songs at home. The elementary school fumbled a bit last year around the holiday (Chanukkah is NOT part of "Christmas around the world"), but recovered this year. The music teacher made a point of including a Chanukkah song in the 1st grade portion of the concert. My elder scholar was proud as punch to have her Christian friends singing it with her and was well aware they were doing it for her.

So why am I still so frustrated with the whole thing?

Was it the guy in the Santa suit in the foyer getting his picture taken with some of my scholar's classmates? Was it the fact that that the other two songs in 1st grade set were Rudolf the Red Nosed Raindeer and All I want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and it was hinted that the school was somehow being noble for our benefit by singing 'secular' Christmas songs instead of religious ones? Is that I'm still bitter about being sent to the principals office in 4th grade for not singing even "secular" Christmas carols in a school assembly? I don't know. Mostly it's that this country is confused about how to deal with religion that no matter what anyone does their wrong.

I can think about it from two perspectives, neither of which give me much help. First, I can think of from a community perspective because, after all, the school is focal point of the community. Its part of how the community's children are raised and part of the community's pride and identity (9 out of 10 newspaper articles that reference my town refer to a school sports event). And the this community has a dominant religion, with some variation (Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and I think, Lutheran). Who am I to tell them to pretend they don't have one? But because of me they're forced to. They present Santa and Rudolf instead of Jesus and Mary because Santa and Rudolf are safe, secularized, cartoon icons. Honestly, I'd rather see Nativity scene on stage because that's what Christians actually believe and value. Now that this community has Jews too, it's nice that our traditions get included in the community events. Except that what's put on stage has as little to do with my real traditions and beliefs as Santa does to a Christian. The Chanukkah song the kids sang mentioned Hanukkah and a candle, but otherwise could have been about anything. It's not that being at an event that is so stridently Christian makes me uncomfortable or feel alienated. It doesn't. It's just that the whole thing feels like such a sham.

Another perspective, one encouraged by the National Assocation for Music Education (MENC) and the Anti-Defamation League, is to ask schools to justify everything they do in terms of their educational mission. A major portion of Western music is Christian religious music. Western music can't be properly taught without dealing with religious music and teaching music includes performance. This clearly justifies the inclusion of Christian religious music in performance in schools. But only, according to the Supreme Court as paraphrased by the MENC, if it can withstand these questions...

"1. What is the purpose of the activity? Is the purpose secular in nature, that is, studying music of a particular composer's style or historical period?

2. What is the primary effect of the activity? Is it the celebration of religion? Does the activity either enhance or inhibit religion? Does it invite confusion of thought or family objections?

3. Does the activity involve excessive entanglement with a religion or religious group, or between the schools and religious organizations? Financial support can, in certain cases, be considered an entanglement."

I like this test because it implies that a holiday concert could put a Nativity scene up on stage along with the redication of the temple by the victorious Maccabees and have it meet the criteria. Even at a first grade level, having a bunch of first grader's sing a Chanukkah song at least teaches them that there are Jews out there. But the concert as presented, I feel, violates, 1, 2, and possibly 3. It's not that my scholar was asked to sing a Christian song. I, and she, have no problem with that. The problem is that there was no awareness of any educational mission by anyone. What was the educational reasong for having Santa in the foyer posing for pictures? Making everything educational would make a museum of our lives.

So I'll continue to struggle, as will lots of other Jews and Christians, with the question about how to deal with religion in school and in school concerts in particular. But it's alright. I love my town and my religion and the one is accepting of the other. That's enough for now.


Migdalor Guy said...


Glad to see you citing the MENC criteria. I wish more schools would read them and follow them.

As a Jewish religious professional (and one who also has a degree from the Divinity School at Vanderbilt) I really don't care for namby-pamby "kumbaya" let's all celebrate what we have in common interfaith discourse. We have to be up front about what we believe, and where we differ, if there is to be real dialog. The same is true musically.

I spent 8 years in north central Indiana. The school system I worked for as manager of their performing arts facility mounted a major Christmas Pagaent each year, one with a full nativity, and modeled after the old traditional Radio City Xmas shows. Now that may have been a bit over the top, but since all the good Xmas songs were written by Jews anyway...

As a Jewish musician, I have no problem playing Xtian religious music in churches and other places and religious gatherings. If I can help enhance their worship experience, so much the better. I just wish I could find more non-Jews willing to do the same for me-by playing *real* Jewish music, and not cute little sort-of Hanukkah songs.

Migdalor Guy (aka Adrian)

Jack said...

We're in agreement on all counts. I'm curious as to whether your Indiana school district had a non-Christian population (they must have) and how they approached them relative to the Christmas Pagent. Were representative non-Christmas music and themes included? Were non-Christians expected to perform and attend?

By the way, I should say that my thoughts on this have changed a lot over this last year. Even 6 months ago I would have said that I would prefer my kids to sing about Santa than Jesus in a school production. Now, I'd say I'd rather have it be Jesus IF real Jewish content was involved as well.