Have a holly jolly winter break

Frosty_1Dawn Eden, a longtime music writer and now a copy editor at the New York Post, today celebrates her first appearance on an op-ed page with her witty piece “The Grinch Who Stole Messiah.” Eden criticizes the South Orange/Maplewood School District’s policy of banning religious music — now including instrumentals — during students’ holiday concerts.

Eden is a Christian, which is clear in her Dawn Patrol blog, but for this commentary she draws instead from her family’s Jewish heritage:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I missed the era of institutionalized celebration of Christianity in schools. Back when my Jewish father went to public school, it wasn’t unusual for the kids to have to sing hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Even when I was growing up — under the modern rules that require religious music to be presented in a secular setting, as an expression of tradition rather than a devotional exercise — it wasn’t always easy being a Jewish kid in the chorus. The Christmas songs went on about Jesus, while the Hanukkah music usually got no deeper than “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel.”

As Eden points out in her blog item about this same story, all-out bans on religious music have attracted criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, The American School Board Journal, the National Association for Music Education and the First Amendment Center. But Eden shows that a principled atheist also can see the folly of such policies:

Even First Amendment lawyer Ron Kuby, an avowed atheist, is on the side of the angels. “Unfortunately, it’s always easier to stifle the speech than to risk a lawsuit,” he says. “But this serves no one’s interest. It infuriates the religious community without any corresponding benefit to maintaining the separation between church and state.”

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  • silow-carroll

    I know the writer — she contributed to the Forward when I was its managing editor — and while she mentions in the piece that she has a “Jewish father” and that when she was a student in Maplewood “it wasn’t always easy being a Jewish kid in the chorus,” she does not mention, as she one told Gawker, that “I am indeed a Jew who’s accepted Jesus as the Messiah.”

    Does it matter? I think so, in this case: Among the objections some parents might have to school-sponsored religious music is the fear that their children will be influenced by others’ religious ideas. In that case, Eden’s syncretic beliefs embody these fears. This topic begs for a discussion of those fears, even if to dismiss them; a writer as personally invested in the blending of Christian and Jewish ideas as Eden, and one who brings other biographical information into her essay, is being coy when she leaves her current beliefs out of the mix.

    Her current beliefs also seem germane in the context of Eden’s concluding line: “one of New Jersey’s greatest music programs goes from Handel to scandal — all so that students barred from singing about a living God can instead sing about a living snowman.”

    Were readers aware of her religious beliefs, they might interpret her use of the phrase “living God” not as a clever rhetorical trope, but the kind of theological assertion that is central to this issue. Is Eden arguing for musical literacy and “the power of inspirational music to bring people together,” or does she want students exposed to the words of “the living God”?

    The Jewish Telegraphic Agency retracted a story earlier this year when it turned out that the freelance writer who they assigned to cover a debate featuring a messianic Jew was herself a messianic Jew. My point, like theirs, is not that messianic Jews have no place writing about religion — hardly. And nothing that Dawn wrote for the Forward suggested a conflict between her subject — pop music — and whatever her religious beliefs were at the time. But there are cases, and this is one, in which editors and readers deserve to know when a writer’s personal and professional attachments to a story may influence what they write on the subject.

  • AH

    “But there are cases, and this is one, in which editors and readers deserve to know when a writer’s personal and professional attachments to a story may influence what they write on the subject.”

    In principle if that’s true here, it’s true everywhere, including Dan Rather’s worldview, political and charitable contributions, and social and family circle. And I’m all for it.

  • http://www.dawneden.com/blogger.html Dawn Eden

    I understand Andrew’s concern, and I respect it. I did think about mentioning in my op-ed that I accepted Jesus at age 31, over 14 years after I graduated high school.

    The reason I didn’t mention my conversion was because I was given 600 words to make my case against the holiday-music ban, and I (a) didn’t think I could explain my relatively new faith, and dismiss the high-school songs’ influence, within that space, and (b) more importantly, I was writing honestly about my past.

    It would be different if I were making up the emotions I felt at the time I was in high school. Everything I wrote in that piece was completely honest, drawing from my own experience, and not exaggerated. I own my past, and I have the right to write about it as I remember it.

    With regard to the last line of my op-ed, again, I understand Andrew’s point, but I’m not sure if he understood mine. I was saying that kids are either going to be singing historic, educational, challenging music about a living God, or cliched pop fluff about a living snowman. They don’t have to believe in the living God to sing about Him, neither do they have to believe in the living snowman.

    So if they’re not going to believe what they’re singing either way, what’s worse, singing the good music or the mediocre music?

    Andrew’s point seems to be that it’s better that kids sing mediocre music–otherwise they might be influenced by the religion and turn Christian 14 years later. My question is, what will become of the children 14 years later if their education is based in mediocrity?

  • Duncan Maxwell Anderson

    “Among the objections some parents might have to school-sponsored religious music is the fear that their children will be influenced by others’ religious ideas (A) writer as personally invested in the blending of Christian and Jewish ideas as Eden, and one who brings other biographical information into her essay, is being coy when she leaves her current beliefs out of the mix.”

    “her use of the phrase ‘living God’ the kind of theological assertion that is central to this issue.

    Last time I checked, the Jews’ God was living, too.

    What’s missing from Silow-Carroll’s response is a sense of proportion. There are 6 million Jews in the U.S. and well over 200 million Christians. With proportions like that, why is it a shocker that most Americans feel the need to sing Christmas carols with the, er, onset of winter? Why is Miss Eden’s later conversion to Christianity pulled out by Silow-Carroll like an October surprise, as if you’d need to have a special axe to grind if you marvel at the Left’s continuing attempt at spiritual genocide in America?

    The real shocker is that anyone would take seriously the idea of suppressing Christmas songs at “winter concerts,” since, if it weren’t for Christmas, there would be no such concerts.

    There is a nasty spiritual envy lurking in these discussions that usually gets a free pass, as long as its target is Christianity.

    Hanukkah became a big deal for non-orthodox American Jews as a competitor for Christmas, and that’s jolly.

    What’s genuinely evil is that some non-Christians and disaffected Christians feel entitled to drive religion from public schools, as if America’s Christianity were not as important a part of her nature as apple pie and the First Amendment.

    To disclose my own “attachments,” I’m the descendant of Spanish and Polish Jews and Scots-Irish cattle thieves who grew up with atheists and Communists and became a Catholic.

    My attachments have taught me that what annoys the Grinches of New Jersey is that their religion, nihilism, is less attractive than God coming to earth as an innocent baby.

  • Silow-Carroll

    Dawn writes: “Andrew’s point seems to be that it’s better that kids sing mediocre music–otherwise they might be influenced by the religion and turn Christian 14 years later.”

    Actually, not my point at all — nowhere do I indicate above where I come down on the music issue. I just think NY Post readers would be better served if they had a fuller picture of the spiritual journey of the writer who undertakes to write on spiritual matters. If Dan Rather were to write an oped on faith in light of the 2004 election, then yes, I think he should disclose where and how he worships. (Conversely, if he wrote on how the networks covered the elections, he wouldn’t have to disclose much of anything — his bio and expertise on the topic speak for themselves.) Or my example — if I wrote an oped analyzing how NJ Jews voted in the 2004 election, then I need identify myself only as the editor of the NJ Jewish News. If I opined, however, on the dilemmas of centrist Conservative Judaism in an age of religious polarization, then I should disclose that I am a Conservative Jew with a presumed stake in the outcome of the debate.

    {And lest I be accused of “evil” or “spiritual envy,” I actually agree with Dawn’s oped — I sang Handel and Bach and played the lead in the sixth grade production of “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t” and think I’m a better person for it.)


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