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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2001/ 5 Teves 5762

Suzanne Fields

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The season of snowflakesand 'The Simpsons' -- IT'S the most serious of seasons. It's the most unserious of seasons. For all of our political correctness, we're still looking for a grand era of kindness, tolerance and brotherhood. (Uh, better make that siblinghood.)

Officials in Ramsey County, Minn., banned "red poinsettias'' from display at the capitol in St. Paul because they're symbolic of something, presumably religious. Exactly what the symbolism is is not quite clear, since the plant was named for James R. Poinsett, an early U.S. minister to Mexico, who discovered it there in 1828. As Freud might have said, sometimes a red poinsettia is just a red poinsettia.

When the town council of Kensington, Md., an affluent suburb of the nation's capital, banned Santa Claus at the community tree-lighting ceremony -- to enforce patriotic solemnity, the officials solemnly said -- the citizens rebelled, and a gang of Santas rode in on a red fire engine. That jingled their bells.

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, along with other homosexual groups, are stuffing the Salvation Army's red kettles with phony $5 bills (passing counterfeit?) because the Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian organization, opposes as a matter of religious doctrine the "normalization of homosexual relationships.'' The characters in Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls,'' played in the movies by Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, took bets on whether Jean Simmons, a lovely Salvation Army lassie, was seducible, and would never understand. (She wasn't.)

The children in Washington public schools no longer make Christmas or Hanukkah presents (although this year celebrating Ramadan is probably OK). They can't decorate trees or light menorahs. Snowflakes are OK, though a few flakes of my acquaintance should sue, alleging discrimination.

Now that Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey is being sued for animal abuse for prodding an elephant with a hooked stick into the circus parade, the animal rights flakes will next demand that Santa motorize his sleigh and put Donder, Dancer, Prancer & Co. out to the great reindeer pasture in the sky. Then the enviro-geeks can decry sky pollution at the North Pole.

The National Labor Relations Board should investigate whether his elves have been denied a union. The fat people lobby could claim discrimination by building codes, which should be changed to accommodate fatter Santas. The feminists should demand affirmative action for Mrs. Clauses (fat or not), and it's an outrage that we don't have multicultural translators for letters received at the North Pole. (Everybody knows that Santa, bigot that he is, speaks only English.)

Well, I exaggerate, but not by much. The holiday spirit ain't what it used to be.

One of my fondest memories at John Greenleaf Whittier Elementary School in Washington was the year I was assigned to be one of the three kings in the Christmas pageant. It was no secret that I was one of a tiny number of Jews, and was thought, inaccurately, to be rich, "like most Jews.'' (My father didn't even own a department store.) When I was asked to carry my very own jewelry box, overflowing with imitation diamonds and rubies, I was flattered. Today the American Civil Liberties Union would lean on my mother to sue.

Hiding differences, it seems to me, hardly prepares anyone for the real world. Better the example at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich., in a course called "Animated Philosophy and Religion,'' which highlights the wit and wisdom of the "The Simpsons,'' the animated television cartoon. This two-credit course might not really belong in the philosophy department, but it could sharpen the ability to understand the humor and biases in the popular culture. Writers for Homer Simpson have a sharp eye for hypocrisies.

Homer goes to church where he goes to sleep, and only prays out of desperation (unlike most people we know): "G-d, if you really are G-d, you'll get me tickets to that game.'' Such lines are unseriously serious. When a pious character shows himself to be overly righteous, the exasperated parson asks him: "Have you thought of one of the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same.''

One quirky character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is a vegetarian who sells spoiled meat at his Kwik-E-Mart while trying to remain a good Hindu (speaking of adapting to American mores). Apu is urged by another character, a mobster, to pretend to have been born in America, subtly mocking multiculturalism and its antagonists. "Remember you were born in Green Bay, Wis. Your parents were Herb and Judy Nahasapeemapetilon.''

What "The Simpsons'' acknowledges is that religious and ethnic differences are well integrated into American life. We ought to delight in difference rather than dictate sameness, even, maybe especially, in our public institutions. Then we could lighten up and enjoy the poinsettia, red or not.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS