Sunday, December 23, 2007

O Little Town of Hyde Park

For a hundred and fifty years the little town of Hyde Park in the state of New York has always displayed a life sized Nativity scene in the park during the Christmas season. The park is on public property. It inspired and uplifted so many of the townsfolk. I can picture parents and grandparents recounting the story of the birth of Jesus to little children and imparting a message of peace to all.

Then along came the Jewish Federation, which lamented and demanded that the man-sized crèche be torn down pronto. It offended the sensibilities of some non-believers. Clearly, the offended beings constituted a minority.

The solidarity displayed by all of the Christian and non-Christian residents of Hyde Park, which was done firmly but gently caused the Jewish Federation to back down and send a letter of apology to the town and to all its people.

"It was never my intention to hurt anyone," declared the sender, a woman.

I say, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s Christmas. The Angel announced "Glory to God in the Highest and on earth Peace to men of goodwill.”

Here’s my point. I am sure many will agree with me. Let the Jews; place a Menorah in the park if they wish. Hopefully, they will have the sensitivity and good taste to place it as far away as possible from the Nativity scene. After all, Chanukah or Hanukah commemorates the massacre of the Syrian Seleucids.

Some of my Jewish friends call its celebration “one of self-determination.” Fine, it that is how they wish to define it. Blood flowed like water whichever way you want to look at this particular prism. Render to Caesar (the state) the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things which are God’s.

In Daley Center Plaza, Chicago, a group of concerned Jews on behalf of The American Jewish Congress mounted a lawsuit against a public building - Daley Plaza, because Christian citizens for thirty some odd years had been erecting beautiful Nativity scenes. The U.S. district court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled against Gruzmacher V. They defeated the American Jewish Congress’s suit. It reaffirmed the First Amendment, which grants private citizens or groups the right to express religious beliefs on public property.

Incidentally the case number is 87C10746,The American Jewish Congress (Gruznacher V) vs. The Public Building Commission of the city of Chicago. The present chairman of the Nativity Scene Committee of Chicago is Terence Hodges.

Bravo Chicago! As Ole Blue Eyes would sing, ”My kind of town, Chicago is.”

In the late 80’s on Piazza Barberini in Rome, the commune set up an exquisite Nativity scene, which was a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s painting. They then asked the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff if he could prevail upon his community to set up a Menorah. The average Roman, who hardly ever thinks because it’s too much work, did not care one way or the other. Those of us who lived in the vicinity of Piazza Barberini thought it was a good way to show our Jewish residents / merchants tolerance. Via Barberini had lovely shops many of which were owned by Jews indifferent to their religion except during Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. At the time, I was living in Palazzo del Drago, which lies between the Quirinale and Piazza Barberini. I was a client of most of them. I could not have found a better class of merchants to deal with.

The Menorah was a gold leafed affair. That got the attention of the normally inattentive Romans. Cries of “Caffone" (tacky) they thundered from their cars as they rode around Piazza Barberini.

I considered it a beautiful Menorah. Gold leaf on what is supposed to be a sacred symbol is elegant not tacky. I felt that it was case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t for the Jewish community. The following year they used Bermuda grass and carved a Menorah out of it. That was original and it seemed to please everyone.

By the way, the very first person to publicly create a crèche – nativity scene was Saint Francis of Assisi. He used real animals and people, including the infant for the Christ Child. It could get cold in Assisi in December and sometimes snow blanketed the earth, the roofs and the church spires. But Il Poverello- the Poor One as the people so lovingly called him never ran out of helpers and volunteers for his Christmas tableaux. Just one more reason why he was recognized as a Saint.

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