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To Play or Not to Play Carols

December 2004

This article is reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News.

WHIPPANY, N.J., Nov. 30 (JTA)--The "December dilemma" came early this year, with the annual tussle over church and state sounding some sour notes in and around Maplewood, N.J.'s Columbia High School.

The musical question on the program was whether the public school's brass ensemble would be allowed to play instrumental--but not vocal--renditions of Christmas carols.  

Based on a memo issued by the school's musical director, the 40-member brass band must confine its playlist at its winter concerts in December to such nonsectarian numbers as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Walking in a Winter Wonderland."

The directive has led to derision in the press and in cyberspace, quizzical reactions from area Jews who don't remember previous concerts being a problem and confusion as to just what sparked the school's change of policy.

Quoted in the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange, Maplewood-South Orange School District Superintendent Peter Horoschak said the district was seeking to prevent a recurrence of complaints received in previous years that the band had sounded notes with religious overtones. "If you're familiar with the tune, you know the words," he said.

Reached by New Jersey Jewish News, however, a spokesperson for the district could not specify what songs were performed in the past or who found them objectionable.

Nevertheless, Nicolas Santorro, director of the district's fine arts programs, wrote a memo to music teachers last fall warning against a repeat performance.

Santorro wrote that, in choosing music for the holiday concerts, "We will avoid any selection which is considered to represent any religious holiday, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, etc."

The mandate apparently follows a policy on "religion in the schools" written in 1994 and revised in 2001, which states that "religious music, like any other music, can only be used if it achieves specific goals of the music curriculum" and "shall not have a religious orientation or focus on religious holidays."

School officials said the practice is an attempt to eliminate, or at last reduce, the coercion Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian students may feel when religious motifs of Christianity waft over the wall of separation between church and state.

Radio commentators have had a field day with the new policy. WABC morning hosts Curtis and Kuby went so far as to announce a Christmas carol contest for school choirs and bands. The New York Post ran an Op-Ed from a former Maplewood, N.J., student headlined "The Grinch Who Stole 'Messiah.'"

The conservative civil liberties group Alliance Defense Fund, associated with evangelical ministries, delivered a letter to the school district saying the ban is uncalled for.

"This sanitizing of religious expression is the result of a huge deception that Christmas is essentially forbidden in the public schools," said ADF-allied attorney Demetrios Stratis, in a statement. "No court has ever ruled that the Constitution demands school officials to censor Christmas carols, eliminate all references to Christmas, or silence those who celebrate Christmas."

Jewish observers, meanwhile, say they did not seek the ban, although they don't necessarily oppose it either.

Etzion Neuer, the New Jersey regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he does not recall any objections to Columbia's music programs in the recent past.

But he said in an e-mail that the new policy is consistent with a longstanding ADL policy that "schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays," which is permitted, "and celebrating religious holidays," which is not.

"Religious music or drama may be included in school events, but the reason for including that music must be to advance a secular educational goal," he said.

Neuer said he believes such controversies can be handled "with balance and sensitivity" and that, as a secular field of inquiry, "religion does have a place in school."

David Mallach, a Maplewood resident and former executive director of the Community Relations Committee at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, said that in previous years, Jewish students, including his own daughters, "had some uncomfortable moments" coping with Christian themes in the town's public school system.

"You really don't need to do the Christmas thing," he told New Jersey Jewish News. "But beyond my cynicism, I agree with the school board's policy. In an increasingly pluralistic country, to impose a special religion is not part of our common heritage."

Mallach, now managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, said such impositions didn't occur around Christmas alone.

"The music played in school sets a tone, and the kids are not stupid," said Mallach. "They pick up on the kind of message that it sends," particularly at a time of year when so much holiday music is Christian-oriented.

Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, N.J., suggested that the ban on instrumental carols may have been more divisive than helpful. "It's not as if someone discovered an evangelist mole in the school's music department," said Cooper.

The rabbi added that playing instrumental versions of Christmas carols makes it "very hard to say where a line is being crossed. I think there are far more important issues to be discussed, such as teaching tolerance and inclusiveness and respect. When I was in school, I sang in a choir and we performed some of the most Christian-sounding songs you can think of. Look what happened. I became a rabbi."

Still, Cooper said, the controversy sparked a "very interesting conversation" about religion, education, and culture.

"It's not a real church-and-state issue. It is not about the government at any level mandating religion," he said. "It is about providing an introduction to various cultures without providing an incentive or opportunity to evangelize and create a climate where children feel pressure to accept someone else's faith."

Rabbi Daniel Cohen of South Orange's Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel declined to take sides in the musical debate. In an e-mail to the Jewish News he noted "how unfortunate it is that issues such as this emerge" on a nearly annual basis in some form "within a month or so of the holidays--when emotions run high and the immediacy of the issue calls for swift action in one direction or the other."

Cohen suggested a cooling-off period until the weather gets warmer.

"To my mind, such issues are better addressed in the spring or summer, when the immediacy is not so great and people can have cool, calm, thoughtful discussions," he wrote.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Robert Wiener is a staff writer for New Jersey Jewish News. He can be reached at

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