Call me the Grinch of Penn Station.
By the time my partner Tatyana and I had reached the station on the night of Dec. 12 on our way back to New Jersey from a reception in the city, I had been cringing for weeks at the inescapable flood of Christmas songs pouring out of the hub’s industrial-size PA system.
But on that night, the overly saccharine nature of it all was suddenly too much to bear, and I decided to do something about it.
Why do these songs bother me so much? I figured out in therapy a few years back that hearing them triggers unsettling memories of my childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and ‘60s, when I was a lonely Jewish kid growing
up in all-gentile suburbs of Pittsburgh and Chicago and groping with some king-sized identity issues. But as I’ve often reminded myself, being assaulted with Yuletide shlock is an unchangeable part of December in America, so why get so worked up?
Missing the 9:25 to Millburn — and realizing we’d have to endure “Chesnuts Roasting” and “Hark the Herald Angels” for an hour — didn’t help. And neither perhaps did the effect of several drinks from the reception still coursing through my bloodstream.
So I approached an information desk with a stout middle-aged woman behind it and asked who I could talk to about getting the Christmas carols turned off. She looked startled at the request, so I replied that I was Jewish and since there didn’t seem to be any Chanukah songs in evidence, I couldn’t see why commuters like me should have to endure a constant diet of songs celebrating someone else’s heritage.
I was directed to speak to Amtrak representative Michael Gallager, who I tried to reach the next morning. I was connected with Cliff Cole, a personable Amtrak spokesperson who was quick to tell me that despite the mainstream sound of his name, he is Jewish himself and could sympathize with where I was coming from. After specifying that Amtrak is subsidized but not owned by the U.S. government and is not following any particular government policy in relation to Christmas, Cole sought artfully to distance Amtrak from the controversy by saying, “Whether or not to play the [Christmas] music is up to the station manager, Mr. Gallagher, and is not an Amtrak company decision.”
Yet when I requested Gallagher’s phone number, Cole refused to provide it, saying the station manager is covered by an Amtrak policy forbidding its employees to speak to the media.
After much prodding, Cole acknowledged that “Mr. Gallagher ultimately responds to Amtrak.” So why then does Amtrak sanction such a heavy diet of Christmas music at a train in the most Jewish city in America?
Cole responded, “The Christian population is our largest client base and we entertain for that group. … Why aren’t the Jewish holidays represented? I don’t know. Maybe in the future we could mix it up a little bit.”
Cole called back later to say that Amtrak “considers the music to be secular and seasonal, rather than religious in nature and is satisfied that the music is not offensive.” He added, “If we had been getting complaints from the public, that might be a consideration, but this is the first such complaint I have ever received.”
Could that really be possible? As Cole himself said, more than half a million people pass through Penn Station every day, including, presumably, many thousands of Jews. It seemed unlikely that not even one other person had complained.
But then I called the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee and was surprised by the lukewarm response. I left several messages with the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, America’s supreme arbiter of all things anti-Semitic, but the usually accommodating Foxman never called me back. Ironically, the same week I was pestering him, Foxman released a statement upbraiding presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee for injecting too much religiosity into the campaign, calling such behavior “unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”
The AJC’s top spokesman on church-state issues, legislative director Richard Foltin, at least returned my call, but he too seemed unperturbed about the situation at Penn Station. “Yes, this is a pluralistic society, but one that is largely Christian,” Foltin said. “The courts have recognized that a secular recognition of the holiday season is appropriate and will not be totally absent of [content] showing the religious roots of [American] culture.”
But has not the AJC been active in recent years making legal challenges to the display of creches and menorahs in front of public buildings across America? Sure, Foltin said equably, but the agency sees such displays as an overt government endorsement of religion, whereas it does not consider the canned music, wreaths and Christmas tree at Penn Station to be “overtly religious symbols.”
Foltin then threw me a sop, remarking, “I can’t see AJC going to court to stop the Christmas music at Penn Station, but to the extent that Amtrak recognizes the pluralistic nature of society, it would be appropriate to recognize Chanukah as well.”
Foltin’s last comment left me with the modest hope: If a few people who read this article take the time to call Cliff Cole to complain, the unreachable Mr. Gallagher might next year condescend to play “I Have a Little Dreidel” amid all the “Hark the Heralds” or perhaps display a menorah among the Christmas wreaths.
But as a professional at a Jewish organization said to me, “Walter, it is high time you figured out that you are living in America, not Mea She’arim. I mean, get a life. Do you know how many Orthodox Jews pass through Penn Station every day and don’t get all bent out of shape by the PA system playing ‘Silver Bells?’ They just tune it out. Why can’t you?”
Those therapy sessions still haunt me, I guess. So in lieu of moving to Mea She’arim, I plan to keep pushing Amtrak to make sure we get a dreidel or two at Penn Station next December. Now that would be a real Chanukah miracle, the miracle on 33rd Street.