It would be hard to imagine an American president interrupting Christmas Eve, a holiday moment sacrosanct to millions of American families, with an 8 p.m televised address on terrorism and religious bigotry. Kids across the country putting cookies and milk out for Santa Claus while mom and/or dad (or mom and mom, or dad and dad, because 2015) have their Yuletide peace and goodwill jarred by an almost unprecedented presidential discussion of fear and bias.
Yet for American Jewish families, that’s exactly what happened Sunday night.
President Obama took to the airwaves in the early evening to discuss with Americans how the 21st century Internet can help terrorism grow across borders, and how we should all endeavor to be mindful and fair in our relations with our Muslim neighbors, coworkers, and friends and not demonize Islam for the actions of a hateful few of its adherents.
The latter part of that is a great message that needs to be heard, loudly and repeatedly. But it didn’t need the President of the United States seizing the nation’s attention to relay that message of religious tolerance smack in the middle of the opening moments of a religious holiday sacred to a few million other Americans.
The photo atop this post is of a page in the popular Pajamagram holiday catalog. Thumb through it and you’ll find spread after spread of families in their Santa sleepwear, waking up on Christmas morning in front of a tree. Clearly, the Pajamagram editors treated their one, lone Chanukah spread the same as the Christmas layouts that make up the rest of the catalog. The spread depicts a Jewish family gathering around a menorah in their PJs to celebrate Chanukah with morning sun streaming through the windows behind them.
It is a ridiculous, highly culturally insensitive image.
You don’t need to be a particularly observant Jew (because Chanukah is not a complicated holiday) or even a Jew at all (because Google) to learn that Chanukah is celebrated entirely at night. Jewish families gather after sundown to create sacred space, light eight nights of candles, and celebrate several millennia of Jewish continuity.
There is no morning component. There is no daylight component at all. The candles are lit as near after sundown as possible–generally dinnertime or the early evening. And the first night–yes, the one with the fewest candles–generally is considered the most important. It’s the one with the greatest guarantee that Jewish families are gathered together in celebration. The one where we say the Shecheyanu prayer that marks reaching a special occasion.
And smack in the middle of the most important moments of the most important night of Chanukah, President Obama forces Jewish families to choose between their faith and a presidential address.
The address could have been Saturday evening, after the Jewish Sabbath and before the Christian Sabbath. Or Monday night, in terms of Chanukah, a less important night for Jews than Sunday. Sunday evening was most likely chosen for its importance to the weekly political news cycle, and its guarantee of millions of American families being at home and in front of their televisions, anyway.
Except for American Jewish families, who had their religious holiday pushed aside by President Obama for the sake of a message about religious tolerance.
Think about that for a moment.
So often, Christians simply assume other religions operate like theirs does. Hence, pajama catalogs with breakfast-time Chanukah celebrations. Hence a president needing to take to the airwaves to urge Americans to respect people of other faiths. Perhaps the White House didn’t think a prime-time POTUS address on Erev Chanukah was a big deal. But I have a hard time imagining Rahm Emanuel’s president not knowing exactly when and how Chanukah happens in America’s Jewish homes.
In fact, I’m sure the irony of the timing of Sunday night’s message was not lost on a White House clearly exasperated with Israeli leadership and a moribund peace process. Bernie Sanders was berated on Twitter Sunday night for tweeting a Chanukah greeting during Obama’s address. Some asked why he wasn’t watching the address, instead.
The real question is why an American president decided to deliberately interrupt his religious holiday in the first place. And the answer is likely beneath the Presidency.