Excerpted from "Spoiled Rotten America, Outrages of Everyday Life," by Larry Miller (Regan, 2006). Reprinted with permission.
Larry Miller and friend
First of all, I'm a Jew. (Now there's a grabby start, eh? Probably cut into sales of my book in France, but what the heck.) The thing is, there are certain subjects in life where it's a good idea to say what you are before giving your opinion. Maybe it's a factor, and maybe it's not, and maybe it won't be necessary in 1,000 years, but it still helps in the present as a qualifier, disclaimer, badge, shield, whatever.
Like it or not, one's background affects the way we receive his opinions on a given issue. Whether you're hawkish or dovish on war, it helps your credibility if you've ever been in one. (Since my own uniformed service ended with the Cub Scouts, I try to avoid sentiments like, "I say we drop the big one.")
Let's say there's a bill in Congress to give every American under 5-feet tall $100 million. (Don't kid yourself, it's not that far-fetched.) This may or may not be a good idea, but if someone writes a column saying he supports it, and that, yes, the short folk should definitely get the money, it adds at least some perspective to have a note afterward saying, "The writer is 4-feet-11 in height." Therefore, saying you're a Jew is probably the right way to start a discussion about Christmas (or a date with Claudia Schiffer).
Second of all, I use the word "Jew" intentionally. I always use it. I never say Jewish, I say Jew. Being Jewish is easy for me, because it's about responsibility and ritual, and knowledge and morals and worship. Being a Jew is hard, because no one means it as a compliment. So I embrace it. Like other religions, being Jewish is done in private, with others who are the same as you, or alone in prayer. Being a Jew, though, is what I am in the world, and if you're one, too, I hope it doesn't come as a giant shock to hear that that's almost all anyone who looks at you will ever see.
Even if you've never said a prayer and have no beliefs, no matter how hard you try to please others and be invisible, even if you wear sandwich boards that say "Not me!" or "No Jew here!" and become a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Calvinist, a Rosicrucian or a Wiccan, you're a Jew, so you might as well start loving it. Try getting off the train at Auschwitz 60 years ago and telling the guy pointing to the room where you drop your shoes and get naked that there's been a terrible mistake, because you're not religious.
Maybe you're thinking, "Don't pull that concentration camp stuff anymore, it's ancient history." OK, maybe you're right. Try being a door-to-door salesman in Fallouja, then, and saying to everyone, "Oh, you don't understand, I'm a secular Jew and really don't follow the whole thing. Thank you, I'll be glad to come in. I mean, we go to temple on Yom Kippur -- everyone does, you know how it is -- but just for a little while, and most of the time I'll have a cup of coffee and a cigarette as soon as we get home.
OK, OK, I'm kneeling, take it easy. Anyway, the most Jewish thing I ever do is the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. Or try to, heh-heh. I had an uncle who used to do it in ink. Say, those sure are some weird banners you've got up there. Can I go now?"
And maybe you're thinking, "Don't pull that Fallouja crap, either. The only reason they'd do that is because we've invaded their country and ruined all their kite flying." Okay, maybe you're right again. Try it in Egypt, then, or Saudi Arabia. Or Yemen. Or Turkey. Or Chechnya.
Try it in Paris.
No, if you're Jewish, you either know you're a Jew, or you're an idiot, and if you're an idiot, don't worry, I've been one, too, lots of times. We all have. Perhaps, though, now would be a good time to stop, since the world's not going to change anytime soon.
Of course, you may be a resident of that rarest of wards in this asylum, the incurables, the ones who say, "The only reason any of it is happening is because of Israel." Then I can't help you. Your soul is so torn and in such frightened denial you wouldn't know your head's been cut off even after the video of it has won for Best Newcomer at the Al Jazeera Emmys.
Speaking of which, "I'm a Jew, and my parents are Jews" is the last thing they made Daniel Pearl say. And when they first snatched him and called their bosses to ask what to do, they didn't say, "We have a reporter," or "We have an American," or "We have a capitalist from the Wall Street Journal." They said, "We have a Jew." If that's still not enough, you might as well go all the way, like one of us, and become the attorney for Hamas.
Which, hooray, finally brings us around to ... one more word about Jews. (I know, for a chapter on Christmas there hasn't been an awful lot of it so far. Hold onto your yarmulkes, I'll get to it.)
Actually, this next point brings us right to Dec. 25, because Christmas, you know (unless you've all forgotten, which is increasingly possible), doesn't celebrate the birth of Santa, but the birth of Jesus, and Jesus was a Jew.
That may sound like overstating the obvious, but it's not. You might say, yeah, we all know that, let's move on, but think about it. Jesus wasn't a Christian, that all came after. He was born, lived and died a Jew, a rabbi, in fact, and it's worth taking a good look at it: Jesus was a Jew, his parents were Jews, everyone he grew up with and knew was a Jew, the disciples were Jews: St. Paul, who built the church; St. Peter; James; Mark; Thomas; Mary Magdalene; the guys crucified next to him on Calvary were Jews; everyone sitting on the grass listening to the Sermon on the Mount; and the first 10,000 Christians.
John the Baptist wasn't a Baptist, he was a Jew who baptized.
They were all Jews, and that's a lot for such a small people. In fact, so far as I know, the first non-Jews Jesus ever ran into were the ones with the whips and the nails.
By the way, most people don't know that tens of thousands of other Jews were also crucified in the same way, and in the same period, by the same sweethearts, the Romans, although Jesus was the only one who rose and grew to be worshipped by millions, unless you count Miramax.
We may not know what color Jesus' eyes were, but it's a cinch that Joseph and Mary looked a lot more like Elliot Gould and Lainie Kazan than Brad Pitt and Ann Heche. Anyway, we're finally on to Christmas.
After one more point. (Come on, don't be mad.)
Here's the thing. Every ethnic group, tribe, people, and race has its bragging rights, but I think the Jews have had a vastly disproportionate effect on the world over the centuries to their numbers. For goodness' sake, if you list just three, Jesus Christ, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, I can't imagine any other trillion people added together who have so shaken up heaven and earth, can you? Now, is that just a coincidence?
You put us down anywhere in the world, and one generation later you've got the best hospitals, furniture stores, schools, libraries, delis and 97 percent of anything funny that's ever been written.
Be honest, if you needed an emergency heart operation in 10 minutes, and you had to choose your surgeon right there, right then, that second, and the list they handed you had only six names, and you were in a strange place and didn't know any of them, and the six names were: Dr. Bush, Dr. Kennedy, Dr. Giuliani, Dr. Arafat, Dr. Sharpton or Dr. Lieberman.... Which one would you pick?
Yes, yes, I know, it's a terrible question. I feel awful and don't know how I'll ever get over it.
All people are obviously exactly the same, and I'm certain each one of them is a magnificent doctor, but... which one would you pick? Hell, Bin Laden would probably pick Lieberman, and you know it. I wish he wouldn't, but he probably would. The cherry on top is that Dr. Lieberman would enthusiastically use all of his talents to cure him, which follows my long-held theory that every Jew is just smart enough to be his own worst enemy.
Are Jews over-represented in all sorts of important fields? You're damn right we're over-represented in all sorts of important fields, but isn't that an amazing thing? You might have thought over the years folks would look at the Jews and say, "These people are incredible and astonishing. Let's be more like them." The actual response has been, uh, slightly different, more along the lines of "These people are too good at everything they do. Let's kill them."
It's another of life's ironies that the England in which William Shakespeare created Shylock had very few models for The Bard to go on; zero, actually, those of the Hebrew persuasion having been invited to leave Her Britannic Majesty's realm just a hair before Elizabethan times, in 1290. (They weren't asked back till the Restoration by Cromwell, who looked around and realized no one in England had had a decent argument for 400 years. My opinion of Shylock, by the way, is that he was a candle lit by Shakespeare in the darkness.)
I'm a short-run pessimist and a long-run optimist, and I believe deeply that one day, for all peoples, the lion will lay down with the lamb. When that will occur is anyone's guess, maybe even God's. (That'd be a kick in the head, wouldn't it? You get to heaven and God says, "Me? I was waiting for you.") The odds for universal brotherhood hitting the charts in the next short while are not good, but whether it's the long run or the long, long run, we'll just have to wait and see. It will probably come somewhere between the United States winning a World Cup and the sun burning out, both of which are going to take millions of years, anyway.
In the meantime, I think Americans have made astonishing progress embracing tolerance of all people, and often adopt many aspects of varied cultures into the melting pot, so much so that sometimes it gets a little silly. A few years back a national fast-food chain added a snappy little item to their breakfast menu: ham and cheese on a bagel. I still don't know whether that's a giant leap forward, or the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life.
Anyway, come on, folks, lighten up on the Jews. Any group that survives thousands of years of attempt after attempt to destroy them and can still consistently pop out people from Pushkin to The Three Stooges should be given a pass or two, and maybe even allowed to have their own country the size of a book of matches in the middle of a football field.
And now, if no one has any further interruptions, I'd like to talk about Christmas.
The issue, as you know, is what we should call it. "The Holidays" has become a popular dodge, which is interesting considering the word "holidays" comes from a contraction of "Holy Days," which is the one thing the people who insist on using it don't want to acknowledge in the first place. And you've all heard the eye-rolling contortions like Winter Solstice Break.
I guess I'm in the group that shrugs and says, "What in the world is so wrong about your dry cleaner, and (gasp!) the evening news, and even (double gasp and grabbing of chest!) your senator saying "Merry Christmas?" I don't get it, I swear I don't. Ninety percent of the country is actively or inactively or nominally Christian, but they all celebrate Christmas. Does that make America a Christian country? Not officially, maybe, and it never has been, but doesn't it kind of make it one unofficially? The main thing is... who cares? I don't. In fact, it's fine with me. Look, folks, in case you didn't know, or went to public schools after 1970, the United States was started by Christians, thought up by Christians and grown by Christians, and I can't speak for you, but I'm glad they did.
Personally, I like being The Other, the guy on the outside of the whole thing, because every time I get too assimilated and start thinking I'm Alistair Cooke, Christmas comes along to remind me I'm probably closer to Sam Cooke.
This keeps me honest, and I love the dissonance. As a kid I adored "The Nutcracker Suite," and I finally saw one onstage a few Christmases ago. It was dandy, but as Tchaikovsky's gorgeous music unfolded, all I could think of was what my ancestral Russian brethren had been doing on the night it premiered. Probably not dressing for the ballet, I'm guessing. As the wonderful comic Richard Morris used to say, "My grandfather had a very rare job for a Jew in Russia at the time. He was a liaison between the soldiers' horses and the ground."
Forget calling America Christian for a minute. Forget Christmas, or Snow Time Pagan Fest or The Thing With The Gifts, or whatever you don't want to call it. How many people have to do a thing, or be a thing, or support a thing, or celebrate a thing, before we say they are the thing? Look: Men like to make love to women, right? Not every single man on earth likes to make love to women, but I think it's still fair to say... Men like to make love to women. Yes? No? Kind of? Move on to the multiple choice?
I don't mind being silly, in fact I spend a lot of my life trying to do it, but sometimes we all get a little too silly and need to look at it. One of these days (soon, probably) a major American city is going to have a black mayor, a black police chief, a black fire chief, a black school superintendent, a black city attorney, and a 100 percent black city council at the same time, but if they all came out in favor of something like vouchers, someone will call them racist (and probably someone white). Now, with everyone who runs the city being black, does that make it a black city? Of course not, it's just a city in America.
But some of my black friends call Atlanta a black city, because it has a large black population. (I've worked there at least 50 times, and the only characteristic I've come away with is that their late-night drinking population is huge. Or so I'm told.) Can my friends call it black? Why not? Is it an American city? Sure. Wait, though: What if 2 percent or 6 percent or 10 percent of the people who live there aren't American? Does calling it American offend them? If it's over a certain percentage of noncitizens, should we stop calling it American? Can the noncitizens call it something else if they want? Brussels, maybe? If so, there ought to be another set of stationery with the city seal. This may not reflect every group, though, so why not 10, or 50?
In other words: How dumb are we prepared to be?
By the way, I've been saying "African American" instead of "black" for a long time, but the last two paragraphs just used it too often, and I had to go back to "black." I mean, "African American" has seven syllables. Trust me, if you reread the last half page and replace them all, you'll see what I mean.
I don't need anyone's help knowing what I am, or how to tell my kids what they are. When they asked, "Do we have Santa?" I said no, that's for all our Christian friends who celebrate Christmas.
When they asked if we could put up some lights, too, I said no, Jews don't do that, it's for our Christian friends. Same with a tree. And it provides me the chance to point out that we Jews are only a tiny group in the world, and not everyone is thrilled about us still hanging around popping out Marx Brothers, but that America, Christian America, with all its mistakes and sins of the past (just as we all have) has not only given us the best place in the world to live and grow, but was instrumental in creating Israel and helping it survive.
That no matter what bones I have to pick with Christendom over the last 2,000 years, and there are a few big ones, it wasn't Christian Germany that murdered so many, it was the explicitly, exuberantly, required-to-formally-and-publically-leave-Christianity-and-turn-your-back-on-it-or-you-couldn't-get-ahead Nazis who did; and that the biggest friend Israel has in the world today, by a huge margin, is Christian America.
So far, calling the winter break Christmas vacation, as I do, and watching "It's A Wonderful Life," as we do, and calling the spring break Easter vacation, as I do, and watching "Easter Parade," as we do, doesn't seem to have hurt their baseball games. And believe me, in observance, ritual, schooling, intensity and outlook, it would be difficult to be much more Jewish than we are. (Actually, we only watched "Easter Parade" once, and were bored stiff by it. Truth to tell, it's not one of my favorites, but I figured it was kind of a classic. You know, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, and the colors and the costumes and the dancing. "On the avenue... Fifth Avenue..." OK, I hate it, too.)
By the way, I don't give them big, fire-hose blasts of this stuff. One of America's blessings is that we can allow our children to be innocent about evil in the world, and to just open their Hot Wheels toys and watch Daddy grumble while trying to put them together. And they're definitely too young to need to know that there's a group of folks in the world, a very, very big group, and a very, very motivated group, who would slaughter every Jew -- and every American, and every Christian -- in an instant, if they could, and dance all day afterward. And that that group, whatever else they may be, sure doesn't celebrate Christmas. No, plenty of time to tell them that in the future.
So Merry Christmas to all the Christians of America and the world, this year and forever. As far as I and my family are concerned, you may say it all you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. In fact, I hope you will. In fact, I insist you do.
And to the folks who get all red in the face over that and want to pass laws that forbid it, OK, do what you've got to do, and Happy Hannu-Kwanz-Mas to you, too.
For myself, I believe this year I'm going to try to find a bar with an old jukebox and that great Bing Crosby "White Christmas" on it.
"White Christmas," by the way, in case you didn't know, was one of thousands of hit songs written by a guy born in Russia named Isaac Baline, who moved here as a boy and changed his name to Irving Berlin, and was, in addition to many other things, a Jew.
Actor-writer Larry Miller has been in numerous movies and TV shows, including "Pretty Woman," "Keeping Up With the Steins" and "Best in Show." He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons.