When we were looking to buy property in rural Maine, we were concerned about anti-Semitism. We were pretty sure that people in small, homogeneous Maine hamlets had never met a Jew in their lives. I had been told that people in Maine could be wary of people “from away” but everyone we met seemed welcoming and friendly. Then again, they didn’t know we were Jewish. So when we went to the Town Office to let the Town Clerk know that we had bought property and would need to record the Deed, we were somewhat apprehensive, to say the least.
Imagine my surprise when after presenting our request, the Town Clerk looked us up and down, put down her paperwork, stood up, and came over to embrace me. “MAZEL TOV!” she cried.
My jaw dropped to my chest, I was so flabbergasted.
The Town Clerk told us she grew up in a rough Irish neighborhood in Boston, but many of her neighbors were Jewish and she always admired and loved them. She was happy that we would be moving to the area. I only hoped that the other villagers would share her sentiments. I certainly planned on laying low in the meantime.
Meanwhile the Town Clerk “adopted” us. She was extremely helpful in referring us to various workers and services that we required. She told us of great hiking and biking spots, gave us the names of a good veterinarian and doctors, and the location of the best bargain shopping venues. Besides her job as Town Clerk, she was also the Town Tax Collector. There was nothing she didn’t know, personally and professionally, about each and every resident in the town.
We were happy to be on her good side, until the day I got this email:
“I am inviting you to the Town Holiday Party! I really hope I can count on you to be there. I am asking you as a special favor because I want you to come and tell the village children all about Chanuka.”
It seems that the Town Clerk had mastered the art of Jewish guilt.
The last thing I wanted to do was speak about Chanuka at a “holiday party.” Who are we kidding – – it wasn’t a “holiday party,” it was a Christmas Party, where we simply don’t belong. I don’t have any problems with a Christmas party – – if it’s for Christians. My fear is that the townspeople, who until now have celebrated Town “Christmas Parties”, would suddenly be faced with a new phenomena under the guise of political correctness called a “Holiday Party.” And I would be held responsible for that change, a change I did not seek and did not want.
I know that gentiles are very resentful that Christmas has been taken away from them: they must now wish everyone “Happy Holidays” lest Jews, Muslims, atheists and the ACLU be offended. Some public schools are no longer able to put on their annual Christmas pageant nor sing carols or have a decorated tree, all in the name of separation of religion and State. Personally, I say let them have their holiday. I don’t feel like Chanuka has to “compete” with Christmas nor do I think that the presence of Christmas (decorations, songs on the radio, and excessive gifting) threatens my Jewish identity.
Nor do I think my concerns were unwarranted vis a vis my little Town. The next town over has a billboard sign that reads, “It’s okay to wish someone Merry Christmas!” So the last thing I wanted to do was impinge Chanuka on the townspeople, who couldn’t care less about the significance of Jewish holidays, especially one that is smack in the middle of their own merry-making.
But our Town Clerk would not take “no” for an answer, so I decided to address my concerns to her in person.
Filled with trepidation, I came to her office to give my little speech. I told her how much we appreciated her helpfulness and how nice it was to be welcomed in such a friendly manner. But that we simply felt uncomfortable about attending the party and hoped that she would forgive us if we declined.
Our Town Clerk is a friendly, giving person, but trust me, you don’t want to be on her bad side. That’s when her rough-and-tough upbringing comes to the fore. She is a small, tomboyish woman with very short hair and a large presence. She looks and acts tough, and can out-swear any sailor. So imagine my surprise when, immediately following my little speech, she burst into tears.
“Let me tell you something,” she said between sniffles. “I would never, never put you in a vulnerable position or in danger. By your refusing, you are telling me that you don’t trust me! That really hurts me!” and she continued to cry.
“You see, I came to this town 14 years ago, and I wanted to be sure people accepted me for who I am, a gay woman. I suffered a lot, growing up as I did. You know why I love Jews? Wherever I’ve lived, it was always the Jews that treated me right and were nice to me, regardless of who I was or what I stood for. I know a lot of the people here in town are set in their ways. But I wanted to teach them, to open their eyes, to rid them of their prejudices. Because I am a fighter. And I won’t allow injustice – I simply won’t allow it, and I’m not going to allow small-mindedness in our Town. So I want to expose people to different cultures and religions, and let them know that there is a wider world out there, even if it’s outside their comfort zone, and that they had better be accepting of anyone and everyone! You can’t live in fear! I want people in our Town to know who you are, and be ready to defend you because we are all together in this. Do you understand what I am saying? My G-d! Please don’t be a wimp!”
What would you have done?
I admit, she intimidated me into coming to the party. My husband spoke for 5 minutes about Chanuka while I passed out dreidels and Chanuka gelt to the children. I still felt uncomfortable, and couldn’t wait to leave. If our neighbors thought we were somehow “different” before, now it’s because we’re Jewish, instead of just being “from away.” We’re marked.
The good news is that such a reality check forces us to examine our true role here as Jews. It’s an incredible responsibility to be an “ohr l’goyim” (a Light unto the Nations). We have to be super conscious of our every move, that we always speak and act in a modest, friendly, polite and responsible manner, that we are exceptionally honest in business dealings, and that we do not live in an ostentatious or unseemly manner. We have to make a Kiddush HaShem on an ongoing basis.
There was one guest at the party who was also new to the Town. She and her husband moved here this past summer. And, as it turns out, they are also Jewish! So now our town has the distinction of being the fastest growing Jewish community in the entire United States: we doubled our Jewish population in six months! From two people to four (in a town of 234 souls). Watch out . . . soon we’ll be taking over . . .