Rules Are for Schmucks: Spoilsports

Photo by noblige / 123RF

For many years, Montgomery County, Maryland has staged a “Harvest Festival” on the first weekend of October. It’s like county fairs used to be in the good old days: a low-key celebration of agriculture and rural life, giving young suburban children the chance to learn that animals like sheep and pigs really exist beyond their depictions on television, and that when you get close enough to pet these animals they don’t smell very good.

This year, literally on his first day on the job, the director of the Montgomery County Parks Department, which puts on the Harvest Festival, was confronted with a problem: complaints from some Montgomery County Jews that the first weekend of October coincides with Yom Kippur—the “Day of Atonement” and the most solemn holiday on the Jewish religious calendar. How insensitive to hold a festival on that day, they argued, especially since Montgomery County has one of the largest Jewish populations in the country.

The same conflict had arisen several years ago and the festival went on as planned. This year however, Parks Director Mike Riley cancelled the festival. Not rescheduled—cancelled. No sheep will be petted in Montgomery County this year while (some of) its Jews are busy atoning for their sins.

There are a number of adjectives that come to mind here. I’d go with “outrageous.” If individual Jews want to set aside a day to atone for their own sins, fine—self-flagellate all you want. But what gives them the right to impose that misery on someone else? Especially on children, who are the main beneficiaries of the Harvest Festival?

How about the vendors? There are honest people who make part of their annual incomes from what they sell at the annual Harvest Festival. How would you like a quick 2 percent of your annual income suddenly cancelled because members of a religious minority decided they’d be offended if you earn money on a particular day by honest sale of your products?

One irate resident who loves the annual festival notes, quite correctly, that since the Harvest Festival is always held on a Saturday, some Orthodox Jews can never participate because they can’t drive on Saturdays. Therefore, the decision to cancel this year’s event but not the others really just favors one group of Jews over another.

The famous Marylander H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.” Every Montgomery County Jew who participated in the whine-fest that led to this cancellation has a big new item to add to his or her list of sins to atone for.

Jews sometimes complain that they are forced to observe Christian holidays while Jewish holidays get ignored. We’re starting to hear the same thing from Muslims, with demands for days off from school for everyone because the 1 percent Muslim population observes some particular (undoubtedly fictional) event. When you look at it carefully, though, the only Christian holiday non-Christians can have a real beef about is Christmas. Easter is now just a weekend like any other, and most school systems have a “spring break” that may or may not coincide with it. And Christmas has been sidestepped in brilliant fashion by surgical extraction of most of its religious content. It’s the easiest thing in the world now for those of us who do not believe in the virgin birth to have wonderful Christmases by focusing on snowflakes, presents, and over-sugared children. Garrison Keillor got in trouble a few years ago (probably with the same folks who killed the Harvest Festival) with a tongue-in-cheek complaint about Jews ruining Christmas by writing non-religious songs:

If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Some of us (most of us, actually, if market research is to be believed) really like those “lousy holiday songs.” We appreciate whichever Jews or non-Jews took the time to write them, making it easier for us non-Christians or nominal Christians to enjoy a winter holiday.

Most Christians, Jews, Muslims, or what have you are quite content to observe their special days in their own way, without imposing on everyone else. Then there are “the jerks,” to use a mild word. What’s needed is more people with the gumption to stand up to mousy bureaucrats like director Riley and let them know that the path of least resistance is not to cave in to religious special pleaders. It’s to do what’s best for the community as a whole, leaving religion entirely out of the equation. Even more people will be angry if you don’t.

Tags: ,