In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), one of the two or three largest school districts in the United States, this Thursday, September 25th, was a school holiday. Some weeks ago, in studying the 2014-15 school calendar so that, as a parent of two teenage children who attend two different schools in the LAUSD school district, I could be better prepared in planning my children’s schedules and my own, I noticed that September 25th was listed as a holiday and described as “an unassigned day”. The calendar doesn’t explain what an “unassigned day” means; and I wondered what the occasion might be for a school holiday. Apart from the long winter recess, which of course revolves around Christmas, and the spring recess, LAUSD’s holidays generally follow the pattern found in the rest of the country, and the holidays are meant to mark significant milestones in the country’s history or celebrate the lives of notable individuals, such as Martin Luther King Jr—though, of course, the King holiday is of comparatively recent vintage, and aroused enormous resentment among those who were hostile to him or thought that far more eminent (white) Americans had not been similarly honored. In California, though apparently not in most of the nation, Cesar Chavez is dignified (as indeed he should be) with a holiday: the LAUSD school calendar lists April 6th as an “unassigned day”, but a note explains that the holiday is meant to mark the observance of Cesar Chavez’s birthday. The United States also observes, rather strangely, President’s Day: if the intent here was to celebrate the founding fathers who rose to the office of the President, or “great” American presidents, such as those figures—Jefferson, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln—who have been conferred immortality at Mt. Rushmore, one can imagine many Americans nodding their head in assent. President’s Day in actuality marks the birthday of George Washington, but not every state celebrates it as Washington’s birthday; indeed, there is the tacit recognition, signified by the designation of “President’s Holiday”, that every American president is to be felicitated. But why should that be so? Are Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Martin van Buren—assuming that anyone remembers him at all—Jimmy Carter, and George Bush to be equally honored? Should war-mongers among the presidents be honored or rather pitied, critiqued, and ostracized?
This is all by way of saying that a good deal can be inferred about a country from its holidays. That much should be obvious, once we set our minds to thinking about little things like these; though it is these little and often unremarked upon things that reveal far more about a nation than the more common representations that a country encourages and engenders about itself. The world observes Labor Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, on May 1st—but, as is commonly known, in the United States Labor Day is observed on the first Monday of September. One might explain this away as yet another instance of American exceptionalism, as yet one more illustration of some insatiable need on the part of the United States to signify its difference from others and proclaim itself as the last great hope of humankind. Just about the only other country where Labor Day is similarly celebrated in September is Canada, but this is barely surprising: notwithstanding its pretensions at being a ‘softer’ state than its neighbor to the south, more humane and sensitive to the considerations of common people, Canada is clearly incapable of having any independent policy and has slavishly accepted the American lead in most affairs of life. (Yes, I am aware that Canada has nationalized health care.) We need not be detained here by the history of how it transpired that the United States came to observe Labor Day in September: suffice to say that a certain American president, Grover Cleveland, was alarmed at the proximity of Labor Day (May 1) to the commemoration of the Haymarket riot (May 4), and wanted to ensure that celebrations of Labor Day would not furnish a pretext to remember the communists and anarchists who, it was argued, precipitated the Haymarket riot.
For the present, however, I am rather more animated by how Thursday, September 25th, became a school holiday in Los Angeles—an “unassigned day”, though most other holidays are known by their proper names, such as Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and so on. (Schools in the Los Angeles school district are shut down for the entire week of Thanksgiving; the first three days of that week are also marked as “unassigned days”, though it is understood that they are appended to Thanksgiving Day and form part of a week-long recess.) I am also struck by what appears to be a wholly unrelated fact, but on reflection helped me unravel this puzzle. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I have been teaching for two decades, is commencing the fall quarter rather late. The fall quarter always begins on a Thursday, since later in the quarter Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday; this ensures that there are ten complete weeks of instruction. Ordinarily, classes commence in the last week of September; this year, fall quarter instruction begins on Thursday, October 2nd. As in almost any other major American university, the Jewish element is disproportionately reflected in faculty ranks; indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that in some departments, whether at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, and other like institutions, Jewish faculty predominate. (Thankfully, the American university is one institution where Jews could go about doing their work relatively unhindered, though this is scarcely to say that the university has always been free of anti-Semitism or that Jews did not have to struggle against all odds to find a hospitable home.) And it is surely no coincidence that the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, this year falls on Thursday, September 25th.
In poring through the LAUSD calendar for 2014-15, it becomes palpably clear that only the adherents of Christianity are openly permitted their holidays. Nothing in the school calendar confers similar recognition upon Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists, and so on; much the same can be said for the UCLA academic calendar. The Buddha’s birthday, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali: none of these auspicious days is given the recognition that is conferred upon many of the principal holy days in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Never mind the fact that universities such as UCLA are increasingly greedy for foreign undergraduate students, many of them Hindus and Muslims, since they furnish the dollars that help universities maintain their bloated administrations. The Hindu can have his holy cows just as long as the cash cows make their way to America and its “world-class” universities. We are accustomed to much noise about the greatness of America as a multicultural nation, and one is almost nauseated by the constant and rather pious sermons about the need to value “diversity”. If Hermann Goring wanted to reach for his gun whenever he heard the word ‘culture’, I am tempted to reach for Shiva’s trident whenever I hear the word ‘diversity’. There was never any doubt that the United States has been and remains a resolutely Christian nation; nevertheless, it is critical to inquire why, and that too in a state which describes itself as the vanguard of progressive thinking and liberal attitudes, the academic calendar reinforces the notion that we all live under the Christian dispensation. In religious matters, it seems, there is to be little or no diversity, and certainly no parity among the religions.
Having said this, the question about “the unassigned day”, which turns out to be the Jewish New Year, remains to be resolved. Why isn’t the day simply declared a Jewish holiday? Does this subterfuge arise from the fear that if Jews are openly permitted their holidays, the practitioners of at least some of the other ‘world religions’ will have to be allowed similar concessions? On the other hand, the idea that Jewish people might remain unrecognized is altogether impermissible in American society. The Jewish presence in Los Angeles is considerable; in certain sectors of American society, among them higher education and the film industry, the Jewish element is all but indispensable. Then there is the consideration, to which I have already alluded, that the Judeo-Christian tradition is commonly viewed as the bedrock of American society: if that is the case, it becomes perforce necessary, and critically vital to any conception of American politics, that Jewish customs and traditions be acknowledged and given their just due. Yet, to complicate matters further, a latent hostility to Judaism and to Jews is inextricably part of the Christian inheritance, and there is a tacit compact which underscores the idea that the Jew in America should never be altogether visible. Here, as has so often been the case before, the liminal status of the Jew—thus the “unassigned day”—is once again reaffirmed.
There have been, and continue to be, societies where religious pluralism is understood differently. In my previous blog, in reviewing a book on Iraq under sanctions, I was struck by the authors’ claim, which is substantiated by other accounts, that in Iraq each religious community was permitted its paid religious holidays before the commencement of the Gulf War. To admit this much does not diminish the other horrors of living under a dictatorship. India is scarcely without its problems, and no one could say that religious minorities have not experienced discrimination; but it is nonetheless an unimpeachable fact that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs are all recognized by the state and that the religious holiday calendar has some space for each community. The notion that the founding fathers of the United States were deeply committed to the separation of church and state, and that this principle has ever since guided American society, is part of American ‘common sense’ and rarely questioned. It is this cunning of reason, this fundamental dishonesty, which mars America’s engagement with the question of religious pluralism.