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Et tu, Garrison?
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Et tu, Garrison?

A liberal colleague had the line of the month yesterday: “We get Jimmy Carter back, but we lose Garrison Keillor?”

She was talking about the news that the former president apologized to Jews for some of his anti-Israel rhetoric, while the host of A Prairie Home Companion is in hot water for a nasty column blaming Jews for undermining Christmas.

Carter’s apology came in the form of a letter released to JTA, the Jewish news service. Carter offers the Jewish community an “Al het” (plea for forgiveness) for anything he might have said that might have “stigmatized” Israel. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation called the statement a “beginning of reconciliation.” But Foxman isn’t the leading indicator here; Carter won’t be fully rehabilitated until your bubbe says so. Jews don’t have a pope — we have grandmothers with long memories.

Keillor’s provocation came in a column he writes for The Baltimore Sun. In full Andy Rooney mode, the bard of Lake Wobegon bemoans the secularization of Christmas. It’s a mild rant about putting God back into “Silent Night,” but then he runs off the rails:

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.

Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.

Et tu, Garrison? I’ve been listening to his radio show for 20 years and always regarded him as a champion of public radio ecumenism. He books the Klezmatics during his December broadcasts, and I think it was on his show that I first heard Tom Lehrer perform “Hanukka in Santa Monica.” As a connoisseur of the American Songbook, Keillor must surely appreciate the artistry of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” or Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Silver Bells.”

His diatribe also clashes with his famously liberal politics. The author of Homegrown Democrat once called the Republicans “the Christian party that conceals enormous glittering malice and is led by brilliant bandits.…” That’s why conservative bloggers had a field day with his column, calling him intolerant, hypocritical, or worse.

One thing I’ve always liked about Prairie Home Companion is its treatment of religion. It’s the rare national entertainment that finds humor in Christianity (as opposed to laughing at Christianity). He incorporates gentle religious stereotypes in his monologues, ribbing Lutherans, Catholics, and Unitarians. Try to name another entertainer who even acknowledges the differences among various Christian denominations.

Jews don’t play a big role in his Lake Wobegon mythology, but I once heard him tell a New York audience: “To my Jewish friends who volunteer to cover our shifts on Christmas and Easter? Butt out — some of us don’t want to be with our families in the first place.”

That’s a good, curmudgeonly joke. And it makes me think that his Christmas column is not anti-Semitic — it’s just not very funny. It reminds me of Michael Richards’ racist rant at the nightclub — the former Seinfeld star was trying for something funny and edgy, but lost control of the joke…and his career. We’ll see if Keillor has to issue an Al het.

Keillor’s column uses hyperbole in a way that’s familiar from his radio show. In fact, had he said it on his show, before an audience on his wavelength, I doubt anyone would have objected. As Jackson Williams, who defended Keillor at Huffington Post, told me, the column “wasn’t aural, it was written. That may be part of the problem. Tone and inflection would likely have softened the mistaken notion of anti-Semitism.”

As a piece of writing, however, the joke falls flatter than the Minnesota prairie. Keillor doesn’t sound like Andy Rooney. He sounds like Pat Buchanan.

As for his main point — about the secularization of Christmas — he’s not the first writer to point out how Tin Pan Alley’s Jews “de-Christed” the holiday, to use Philip Roth’s memorable phrase. “You could argue, for instance,” writes David Lehman in his new book about Jewish songwriters, A Fine Romance, “that Christmas became a secular holiday thanks to the efforts of Irving Berlin, who gave ‘White Christmas’ to a fearful nation in a state of total war in 1942.”

But Berlin only wrote the song — it was gentile Americans who embraced it. Blaming Jewish songwriters for secularizing Christmas is like blaming the Beatles for long hair. There’s a connection, but it’s not causal.

And, on the off chance that Keillor wasn’t joking, I offer this bit of advice to him and the rest of the “War on Christmas” crowd: No one is keeping you from celebrating Christmas any way you want. But if you’re trying to find the spirit of Christmas, I’m not sure what you’re doing in the mall in the first place.

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