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