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Shver Zu Zein Ein Yid (It’s Hard to be A Jew)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Everything here is different.

Or, at least, it seems that way. At times. To all five of us.

December is proving to be particularly difficult for Poppyseed. It wasn’t that Christmas was ignored back in California. In fact, it certainly seems as though it was everywhere. If only we had known…

When I was a congregational rabbi, parents would often ask me what to do about the overwhelming number of Christmas songs in the annual “Holiday” concert. Or wonder if I was going into my kids’ classrooms to teach about Chanukah. I had my own beliefs about how to handle the “December Dilemma” as a Jewish family and felt secure with our choices.

But Poppyseed is right; things are different here. There is Christmas music playing in the lobby of Poppyseed’s elementary school. And on the daily morning announcement.? And in the classrooms. Christmas trees are all over the school. Yeah, we had them in high school. But Poppyseed is only in the third grade.

Now Poppyseed wants me to ask the teacher if there can be a menorah put next to the tree. And I so desperately want to say, “no.” No, we cannot ask for a menorah to be placed in the room because religious symbols do not belong in the public schools. And just because the United States Supreme Court has determined that neither the tree nor the menorah are religious objects when placed in a predominently secular setting, doesn’t mean that they aren’t religious. No, we cannot try and create parity where there is none just because we are feeling as though everyone was invited to THE party…except for us. No, because our Festival of Lights commemorates the belief that we are different and have been willing to sacrifice our lives to protect our right to be different.

And then I look in her tear-filled eyes. The pressure of being one of the few Jews in a new school, in a new town, and without a spiritual home is weighing her down. She didn’t ask to be removed from the warmth of our former community. Or to be brought to what must feel to her like galut.

What happens to my principles if I am willing to push them aside, albeit reluctantly, for the sake of my child? Not to save her life, but to make her feel more comfortable? What am I teaching her by standing my ground?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, 14 December 2011 4:28 pm

    “What am I teaching her by standing my ground?”
    Perhaps you’re teaching her that sometimes one needs to stand one’s ground.

  2. Wednesday, 14 December 2011 5:16 pm

    It’s interesting that her debate is not about “standing her ground” as a Jew – that is given – but standing her ground with her democratic principles.

  3. Debra permalink
    Wednesday, 14 December 2011 6:57 pm

    It doesn’t have to be about standing your ground vs. giving up your principles, does it? What about a third option? What about considering a different way of living in the courage of your convictions? Not because there’s anything wrong with how you have done it thus far, but because there may be more than one right answer? (Hello? Two Jews, three opinions? :))

    I was delighted to teach about Hanukkah in my child’s school last week (incidentally, not in her class, but for the first grade, where they are studying celebrations–personal, national, religious–of all stripes). We did not celebrate Hanukkah in the classroom; we learned about it, including the idea that Hanukkah is completely different from Christmas, is rooted in both historical and legendary events that Jews consider as miracles, and is a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar.

    Given the ridiculous ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States, why not bring in the Hanukkiah, and then take that as an opportunity to teach *about* Hanukkah? Because if Christmas-celebrating children don’t gain knowledge and understanding of religions, cultures, and practices other than their own in school, where will they learn about them?

    I know this opens up the possibility of Santa Claus coming to school to teach about where he comes from and why we see him everywhere at this time of year, but frankly, I’d rather see that than what we have: most of our society simply accepting the omnipresence of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and stars of Bethlehem as a secular, seasonal norm. (Incidentally, I was in my child’s classroom this morning to monitor a visit from Santa Claus, and I’d have much preferred an explanation of the story of Santa Claus, without judgment either way about whether Santa Claus is “real,” than what we had, which was a rather pathetic reading by SC of “The Night Before Christmas.” Nothing more nor less.)

    Separation of church and state doesn’t mean that each must pretend the other doesn’t exist. In an ideal world, we’d keep the trees and the menorahs at home. But in our world, maybe a little information in the classroom about what Poppyseed’s family’s celebrations look like at this time of year (the time when, let’s face it, everyone is celebrating *something*) wouldn’t be such a terrible thing.

    We can’t control others’ actions. But we can reconsider our own, while still sticking to our principles.

    Good luck, Frume Sarah.

  4. Wednesday, 14 December 2011 9:45 pm

    Why would it be wrong to do something kind just to help our children not feel left out? We are supposed to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and not make newcomers feel left out. If we can smooth the way for our kids, why shouldn’t we?

    You may think that the Supreme Court got it all wrong in Allegheny County, but don’t forget the genesis of that decision: it started when the Jews wanted to display a menorah to publicize the miracle.

    If it’s okay religiously to publicize the miracle and what you believe to be a legal mistake inures to the benefit of that, then go for it. You’re on safe ground. And when Poppyseed recalls this time in her life as an adult, she can remember feeling special when her beautiful mommy came to school to show her new friends how cool Chanukah is . . . instead of remembering how left out she felt in a new place with people who didn’t understand. (Trust me, I have years of the left out memories.)

    So publicize the miracle and don’t fret so much. Blink and it’ll be Tu B’shvat already.

    • Friday, 16 December 2011 12:46 pm

      *The* Jews didn’t want to display a menorah to publicize the miracle. *Some* Jews wanted to display a menorah to publicize the miracle. We have no Sanhedrin, no one to speak for all of us. But even if we did, and they did, it wouldn’t matter. A religious object is a religious object, even if in a minority religion.

      And being Jewish in America usually means that our children *are* left out. And a mom coming into school to explain why you are different may or may not make a kid feel left out, but it will certainly make her feel singled out.

  5. Alyson Kassorla permalink
    Thursday, 15 December 2011 1:15 am

    I completely agree with Debra. It’s not about celebrating the holidays, but about religious studies. Yes, Isabella is learning about being Jewish at temple, but what about learning about many (not all because that’s unrealistic) of the other religions. Education is such a big part of helping people to feel comfortable.

  6. Thursday, 15 December 2011 6:17 pm

    We moved to Memphis one month after Rev King was assasinated. My sister and I were the only Jews in our school. Most Jews at that time I do not know what happens today, sent their chldren to private schools, but being a Jewish professional my family could not afford it. Even though the public schools were no place for Jewish children, my sister and I did not matter to the resident Jewish community and they did not provide my family with enough of a living so that we could be placed in the same safe haven they provided their own children. By the way anytime you would like to har what it was like to grow up the child of a Jewish professional email me, it is why I have nothing to do with the organzied Jewish community apart from the years we belongd to a synagogue.

    Not only did we not have the opportunity to put a menorah in our public school classroom but we were openly ridiculed by the teachers for our beliefs. We did not sing Christmas carols, so we were excluded from the Christmas pageant. My sibling and I were not allowed to sit with the other children, segregated to the back of the gym because we would not sing the songs. When in violation of the law, a girl read the passage in the New testament to the class, how the Jews killed Christ and I stood up and said that was not true, the teacher told me to shut up that I didn’t know what I was talking about. That was third grade. The next year I was actually left alone in my classroom during the Chirstmas pageant as everyone else went to the auditorium for the Christmas show.I was in fourth grade. There are more stories but I think you get the idea.

    The reality is that I would have welcomed the opportunity to have explained hanukkah to my classmates and to have explained a menorah. I would have liked to be seen as an American with the same rights that everyone else has. No living through these events did not stem my love of Judaism, the Jewish people ot Eretz Israel. But having a menorah in the classroom would have made life a little bit easier for the only Jewish child in the school.

    You do not loose your values or your ethics because you foster a feeling of belonging in your children. It is something we all try to do as parents everyday of their lives. My children ‘s schools always had Christmas trees and menorahs. My children also grew up in a very heavily jewish area. The children also grew up singing carols, hanukkah songs and even songs about kwanzaa in school. There is nothing wrong with it. We are all part of the tapestry of the Untied States and we all must learn to respect one another. The only way to do that is to make teach and if it begins with a symbol then so be it.

    My boys also know who they are and what it means to be Jewish adults. We never celbrated Chirstmas int heis house. We made a huge delineation between the holdiays. Yes it was hard when they were little, but they were taught that it is not their holiday even though it is celebrated in some fashion in school. Today they are proud young Jewish men. I annot see into a crystal ball to say that is how they wills pend their lives dedicated to their jewish ehritage, but I know that they will always knwo who they are and what it means to be Jews.

    Honestly, there are times in life when you need to bend a little so that your child feels welcome. There are going to be Christmas trees in school, and while we know that a menorah is a highly religious symbol even though the Supreme Court does not, it might make a little girl very proud to walk into school and see herself represented and welcomed.

  7. Meira permalink
    Friday, 16 December 2011 10:24 am

    Amen, Elise. Though perhaps I agree with you in some part b/c my family moved to Memphis when I was 11 years old. No Christmas pageants at my school that I recall, but if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I was going to hell b/c I’m Jewish . . . oh, and? ALL the songs were Christmas songs, not even a little “dreidel” thrown in for good measure!

  8. Keshet Starr permalink
    Sunday, 18 December 2011 7:12 pm

    Love this post–so thoughtful. I was one of 3 Jews in my 1,000 person elementary school, and I remember to this day how it felt every Christmas. I think in the end though, standing on principle isn’t always the best choice, especially if you can see the other side. This parenting thing definitely is not easy!

  9. Monday, 26 December 2011 11:11 am

    This is what I was getting at in my post. For Jewish children fortunate enough to grow up in a close community, it hardly feels like anyone celebrates Christmas at all. And then they hit public school. And it’s a shocker.

    I remember begging for a Hanukkah bush, and my father’s booming voice saying: “There is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush!”

    Now that I am a parent, I understand my father’s rigidity. He was scared that if he opened the door that he was going to send us sliding down a slippery slope. That we would say I don’t want to go to shul on the High Holidays, that I am missing too much work, that if I miss practice I will be benched for the game, etc.

    The reality is that none of this mattered. While I married a Jewish man, my brother married out of the faith. In the end, our children will make their own decisions about these things. The best way to ensure that they have a positive Jewish identity is to expose them to positive Jewish experiences. (Studies have shown that children who attend Jewish summer camp are more likely to marry a Jewish spouse and remain in the faith.)

    So we do the best we can.

    It is lovely to be able to share information about our holidays, but it always feels like it is barely scratching the surface. I wish my son wouldn’t have to wait until college to take a formal course on World Religions. It seems a little late to learn about each other.

  10. Monday, 26 December 2011 2:03 pm

    I enjoyed this post very much. I grew up one of three Jewish kids at my school and wore my identity proudly. I still hear from childhood friends how much they enjoyed learning about our traditions when we were kids. It was their first exposure to Jewish people. We send our kids to a private non-sectarian school so they won’t have religion in the classroom and they still overdo Christmas at every level, no matter how much we try to tell them that if they are going to celebrate this one holiday, they should celebrate EVERY holiday on the calendar all year long. My kids feel left out. I have gone to their classes for years to teach about Rosh HaShanah and Chanukkah, but it doesn’t feel like enough.
    We discovered the Lemmony Snicket book this year and love it. We want to buy a copy for every classroom and all of the staff.
    I look forward to reading your blog. Aloha.


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