There’s an old joke about a Hasidic merchant who ran a Manhattan store with a gentile partner. The shop specialized in providing trinkets for tourists, and during the holiday season, the owners would make a small fortune selling ornamental crosses for Christmas. Being somewhat uncomfortable with this merchandise, the Jew would leave this part of the business to his non-Jewish partner, who would deal with the supplier and the buyers. But one year, the gentile was out of the country before Christmas, and the Hasid realized that their inventory of crosses was depleted. So he steeled himself, dialed the supplier, and in a thick Yiddish accent nervously mumbled: “Hello sir. As you know, Christmas is coming, and it seems that we are short of crosses. Would you be able to rush us a shipment?” There was a brief pause, and then the response came from the other end of the line: “Mit Jesusluch oder ohn Jesusluch?” “With the little Jesuses, or without the little Jesuses?”
The joke is funny because we recognize the inherent absurdity of a religious Jew selling Christmas paraphernalia. And because we empathize with the discomfort of the awkward Jewish merchant who’d rather not be trafficking in Christian iconography. But based on the accusations being leveled at Hobby Lobby, a crafts store chain owned by devout Christians which doesn’t offer a Hanukkah or Passover selection, it is difficult for some Jews to similarly empathize with religious Christians who might feel the same way about Jewish merchandise.
“Sadly,” writes Tablet contributor Jillian Scheinfeld at Kveller, David Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, “equates being a Christian with disregarding Jewish holidays.” When one store reportedly explains that it doesn’t carry Hanukkah materials “because Mr. Green is the owner of the company, he’s a Christian, and those are his values,” Scheinfeld dubs this “fluff talk for what appears to be unequivocal anti-semitic feelings.”
But now pretend that Hobby Lobby’s David Green is our Hasidic merchant. Perhaps he feels uncomfortable stocking items that symbolize a faith which theologically opposes his own? After all, according to Pew’s new study of American Jews, belief in Jesus is basically the only opinion that is still anathema in our community, with 60 percent saying such a belief is incompatible with being Jewish. (By contrast, wide margins say neither atheism [68 percent] nor Sabbath violation [94 percent] gets your Jew card revoked.) For a traditionalist Christian like Green, that Judaism denies Jesus is no trivial matter–it is the very heart of his religious faith. In other words, because he takes his Christianity seriously, and because he takes Judaism’s own theological claims seriously, he doesn’t feel the two are compatible shelf-stockers. For Green, attempting to profit off both religions would be deeply dishonest. Many Jews, by contrast, view their Judaism more as a cultural rather than theological accessory and are thus mystified and offended by Hobby Lobby’s exclusionary policy. For them, Hanukkah trinkets have little connection to a broader worldview that negates Christianity. What we have here, then, is not anti-Semitism, but mutual misunderstanding.
It’s an impasse we can overcome, however, by channeling our inner Yiddish shopkeeper. Undoubtedly, some Jews might feel comfortable hawking baby Jesuses during the holiday season, while others might not. Both are very real, very human positions. Surely we can extend the same empathy and understanding to non-Jews with similar perspectives? This doesn’t mean one has to agree with Hobby Lobby’s decision. But it does mean we should refrain from tarring its ownership as bigots.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.