When my twins -- Princess Leia and Elroy Jetson* -- were in second grade, their teachers asked them to bring a plain white sweatshirt to school, upon which they would paint a reindeer. The sweatshirts were to be their required dress for the upcoming holiday concert. I was on board with the idea, so it caught me off guard when a week later the kids excitedly showed me their sweatshirts, which, instead of reindeer, had giant yellow menorahs painted on them. The flyer sent home to parents didn’t mention anything about design options. How did the teachers even know my children were Jewish? Then I remembered an English assignment a few weeks earlier asking the children to write a letter to Santa Claus. Elroy Jetson wrote, Dear Santa, I’m a Jewish boy but I’d like to meet you anyway. Technically, the children are half-Jewish, since their father is not Jewish. But apparently having one Jewish parent was enough to earn them a yellow Star of David, I mean, Hanukkah menorah plastered on their chest at the elementary school holiday concert.
In the 1980s a slew of Supreme Court cases examined the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. These decisions paved the way for Christmas trees and reindeers to be permitted in public schools, but ixed-nay baby esus-jay. The Court reasoned that so long as public schools could not been seen as promoting one religion above anther, Santa Claus was kosher. As a result, the common practice where we live is that the kids’ public school puts up a seven-foot-tall decorated Christmas tree in the school foyer, complete with prop presents and faux snow, and then scotch tapes to the wall a paper menorah, bought at the Party Store for $3.99, and calls it even-steven.
It’s not so much the tree and surrounding accoutrements, but rather the gratuitous nod to Hanukkah that bugs. I understand it though. Hanukkah is probably the most easily accessible holiday to non-Jews, not like Yom Kippur where there aren’t any props like a Menorah and certainly no candy. But Hanukkah has nowhere near the same level of importance to the Jewish people as Christmas does to Christians, not even close, not even in the same solar system.
And please don’t misunderstand. I like Christmas. Really. I’m married to a Christian. I look forward to spending Christmas Eve at my in-laws every year eating homemade cookies. I love driving around at night with my kids, oohing and aahing at the decorations on our neighbors’ houses. I listen to the Holly channel on satellite radio and never complain about the throngs of people at the mall. Christmas shopping is the best—the sales, the fantastic selections, how nice people are. Though in all candor, I should admit I love shopping any time of year. Quite simply, I enjoy everything there is about Christmas, minus the Jesus thing, of course.
So I was totally cool with my kids wearing reindeer and more than slightly troubled when the teachers singled them out for their religious differences. “It’s no one’s business what religion we are,” I complained to anyone who would listen. But I knew the teachers were only following the Supreme Court directive, albeit clumsily. They needed to ensure that they were celebrating all religions if they wanted to have a tree, reindeer, and letters to Santa in the classroom. Incidentally, there were a fair number of children of Indian descent in the class that year, way more than my two Jewish children, but I guess Pancha Ganapati was a bridge too far.
Once my kids were outed as Jewish, then came the religious harassment. I got multiple emails and calls asking me to read a Hanukkah story to my kids’ class. Would I lead the students in a game of dreidel? The school librarian wanted me to cook potato latkes for 75 second-graders using only a hot plate in the library.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Despite having both sets of grandparents emigrate to this country from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, I’ve never made latkes in my life.
The teachers were persistent. Their entire Christmas celebration and December lesson plan (which might have been one in the same) depended on my willingness to embrace my Jewish heritage. “This is such a great opportunity to teach the children about your religion,” one said. A valid point but I still said no. Who was I to teach anyone about being Jewish? I essentially cheated at my Bat Mitzvah when the Cantor slipped me the English transliteration of my Torah portion as I was about to start reading the Hebrew. And just as I wasn’t crazy about my children becoming the class token Jews, I wasn’t comfortable becoming the class token Jewish mother.
Then my 76-year-old mother offered to come to the kids’ school and read a Hanukkah story. The teachers were ecstatic—a real-life Jewish Bubbe! The offer surprised me coming from my feminist mother who routinely disparaged the archetype of the “doting Jewish mother.” I’m too busy earning a six-figure income to stay home and make matzo ball soup was a common refrain heard in our house growing up. Our celebration of Hanukkah entailed nothing more than my mother reminding the housekeeper to turn the next bulb on the electric menorah before she left for the evening each night.
When the day came, my mother read Sammy the Spider’s First Hanukkah. She passed out mini-dreidels and chocolate gelt to each student and led the class in a game of dreidel, explaining the meaning of the Hebrew letters on all four sides. She did a good job keeping the kids’ attention. I watched from the back of the room, happy to observe.
Later I asked my children how they felt about their grandmother coming to class and wearing a yellow menorah amidst a sea of reindeer. “I like being different!” Princess Leia declared with a level of confidence I knew I would never possess myself, not in a million years.
Four years later Elroy Jetson and Princess Leia entered middle school and became acutely aware of whether they fit in with their classmates. All of a sudden everything about their parents and grandparents embarrassed them. And when their teacher asked the class who celebrates Hanukkah, Elroy Jetson and Princess Leia, perhaps picking up on my own ambivalence, sat on their hands and turned mute.
*Not their real names
It’s been a while since I’ve posted on the blog. I’ve been preoccupied with my children’s B’nai Mitzvah, which was last month. Even if you regularly watch Jon Stewart, you might not know that a B’nai Mitzvah is when a boy and a girl have their Bar and Bat Mitzvah together. I have twins -- son Elroy Jetson and daughter Princess Leia* -- so for me, it was a double “simcha,” which is Hebrew for “joyous celebration.”
As the B’nai Mitzvah approached, I worried about many things. My son gets the occasional nosebleed when the weather gets dry and cold. Once we attended a friend’s Bat Mitzvah and Elroy’s nose started bleeding in the middle of the service. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the size of the donation we would have to give the temple should my son get a nosebleed during his Torah reading. Is it even possible to clean blood from a Torah scroll? There must be a place in Brooklyn that specializes in such things but I didn’t want to have to find out. Then on the day before the B’nai Mitzvah, I woke up to find I had gotten my period . . . five days early. God was testing me, not unlike when he tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac (which coincidentally happened to be the kids’ Torah reading the following day). And it wasn’t like, “Oh, my period is just beginning.” No. It declared itself as boldly as when Moses turned the Nile to blood.** “Better you than me,” said Princess Leia. I worried it was going to be the first mitzvah service in five thousand years of Jewish history with an intermission. “And to think you were worried that Elroy might bleed on the Torah,” said my husband.
But most of all, I worried about that cringeworthy Jewish tradition--the Horah, which is Jewish for embarrassing chair dance that may cause injury or psychotherapy. From what I learned on the Internet, the Horah has its origins as a Romanian folk dance. It was commandeered by the Jews 100 years ago, then mashed together with the Jewish tradition of lifting a bride and groom on chairs, which probably came from the tradition of carrying royalty on chairs. When my ancestors came to this country from Russia and Poland in the early 20th century, they brought with them the Horah and bagels.*** Since then, the lifting of the honoree on a chair has expanded from brides and grooms, to the Bar and Bat Mitzvah child, to parents and grandparents of the guest of honor.
Generally it goes like this. The band or DJ plays Hava Nagila, the Israeli folk song that accompanies the Horah. As soon as the first few bars of the familiar clarinet riff is heard, like a Pavlovian response inbred from years of living in the shtetl, Jews stampede the dance floor forming giant clumsy circles. The guest of honor is seated on a chair in the center and the chair is lifted up and down in time to the music, more or less. It’s not all that different, really, from riding a mechanical bull in a country western bar.
I didn’t want to be in that chair. I don’t like being the center of attention in that way, which I realize seems ironic coming from someone who blogs about her life. It may have something to do with my own Bat Mitzvah experience over thirty years ago. Suffering from a clinically diagnosed excessive perspiration condition at age 13, the last thing I wanted was to be hoisted on a chair above 100 people with my mother yelling at me to raise my arms for a picture when my armpits were like the day after a tsunami—water everywhere.
But I knew I would be expected to be in that chair. And, it wouldn’t be enough to just submit to the Horah. I had better look like I was enjoying it. I had relatives coming from the old country (Brooklyn) and they expected it. Doing the Horah was viewed as a crucial part of the B’nai Mitzvah on par with the Torah reading, lox spread, and photo booth. And if you think the pressure from my Jewish relatives was bad, the pressure from my gentile friends was worse. Being married to a non-Jew, half the party was going to be non-Jewish and they wanted an authentic mitzvah experience.
I tried to imagine how the classiest people I could think of would do the Horah. How would the great Meryl Streep hold herself while being lifted in the chair?
I asked my older sister Lisa Simpson* for advice. We combed the Internet looking for inspiration. From our research, we determined that a strong straight posture is important or you risk looking like you’re seated on the toilet. Women must also keep their ankles crossed to avoid flashing Uncle Mordecai while he’s grasping a chair leg. And above all, you must look like you’re having fun. I can’t stress this last requirement enough. You need to convincingly show you’re capable of celebrating appropriately or cousins you haven’t seen in 10 years will gossip that you’re too uptight to enjoy the moment, and for all the success you’ve achieved in your life you haven’t learned what’s truly important, which makes you a terrible mother and role model to boot.
At the luncheon, as soon as Hava Nagila started playing, the crowed grabbed Princess Leia. So petite, she floated up on that chair like a helium balloon. Then came Elroy Jetson. He wore the same expression as when he rode the Frog Hopper at the amusement park last summer, saying it was fun, but not scary. My husband said he never believed he was in any danger of falling when he was in the chair, but from all eyewitness accounts, it looked like a real possibility.
My brother grabbed me when it was my turn. Within seconds I was above the crowd. My friend snapped a photo with his phone and I’ve been studying it like Torah ever since. I was sitting straight up with my back away from the chair, grasping the sides of the seat, my ankles crossed. My eyes were closed and mouth open. I don’t remember much during my 20 seconds in the chair except making one loud continuous noise somewhere between screaming and laughing. Lisa Simpson said my form was perfection.
*Not my children’s or sister’s real names.
**The first of ten plagues Moses brought upon Egypt in an effort to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery in ancient times.
***I realize they brought over other more important things too, but I’m not focusing on those right now.