Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in The Rake Magazine, December, 2006. In honor of the first day of Hanukah, and the rest of the holiday season, we decided to republish it here. Cause we like it.
Years ago, when I had just recently graduated from college, the brother of my girlfriend came to stay with us for the holidays. He was younger than we were and aloof and melancholy. A few months earlier he had spent three days in jail for dealing pot at his high school. He was as cool as I imagined I wasn’t. For some reason I felt hopelessly square around this guy, and I worried that my girlfriend would dump me as soon as he told her this truth about me.
Then one day, while we were sitting around the living room smoking some of his pot, he decided to let me know that he—unlike his parents—didn’t have any problem with his sister living with a Jew. He liked Jews, he said. He just didn’t think he could be one because it was such a cynical religion.
“Cynical?” I asked. “How so?” Until that moment, I hadn’t considered that my cynicism was a genetic by-product of my Semitism.
“Well,” he said, as though it were obvious, “refusing to accept Jesus as Christ, and all.”
Oh . . . ooooh. I assured him that I wasn’t cynical at all about Jesus. I simply didn’t think about him. Jesus wasn’t really a part of my universe. Like Australian football. Or menstrual cramps. I neither denied him nor accepted him. Being Jewish, I honestly didn’t give him a second thought.
I think I offended the poor kid.*
A few days later, his parents showed up at our doorstep with shopping bags full of Christmas gifts. They even brought a big, beautifully wrapped present for me. “For your Hanukkah,” they said. Such a lovely menorah they gave me.
“Apparently, you think that the only appropriate gift for a Jew is a Jew gift?” I did say that, out loud. I couldn’t help myself.
We offend when we assume that everyone is like us, shares our values, our sense of humor, our assumptions and experiences of the world—or, at least, we feel that they should. We take offense for the same reason. We give and take offense when we don’t see the individuals in front of us and acknowledge their right to be different from us. I don’t care whether you actually love Jews because they’re so smart and funny. Or if you think that writers make good, sensitive husbands. I’m offended when you see me as a category instead of as a person.
The perfect gift, on the other hand, is the one that affirms individuality. The perfect gift shows how specifically the giver cares for you as a distinct individual. For Hanukah one year, my wife gave me a pocket watch with an inscription from a Pablo Neruda poem; you probably wouldn’t want it but it’s priceless to me.
Offense is much easier to give than the perfect gift, however, and the results can be the same. My girlfriend’s parents may not have seen me as an individual when they arrived, but they certainly did by the time they left. Plus, I understood that they gave me a gift at all because they meant as well as circumstances allowed. A boy they did not know, who practiced an entirely foreign religion to them, was living with their daughter, out of wedlock. I had offended them first, the moment I signed the lease with her.
As a result of that holiday many years ago, I’ve developed a certain appreciation for giving and taking offense. In fact, if you don’t know how to give someone the perfect gift, consider giving offense. If you’re lucky, they’ll take it. Then you’ll really have something to talk about around the Christmas tree—I mean holiday tree—I mean Kwanzaa bush—I mean, what the fuck are you calling it these days? Have a happy December.
*For the purpose of this essay, consider "offense" an involuntary and sincerely-felt emotion, rather than anything someone takes just for the fun of it. It is distinctly different from a recognition of systemic discrimination, unconscious bias, and actual violent, oppresive acts. Perhaps, I think, if we saw moments of offense as opportunities to learn about the individuals in front of us (rather than reasons to escalate confrontion), we might be better equiped to address aspects of these other, more dangerous issues.