Once again it is December, that time of year that has me reflecting on how I was born in America as an “other”; my dad being from Israel, my mom’s parents being Holocaust survivors. These facts have me reflect on my recent ancestors’ choices which led them to live here in America, home of seemingly homogenous Christians, especially during this time of the year. How is one raised in a land of media promoted, homogenous Christianity while being taught about ancestry and traditions that are Jewish, or anything but Christian?
When I was four I recall being and feeling outraged that Hanukah was not represented in any of the stores around me. Nothing represented anything that was my heritage where we lived. Then I eased up. In high school I thought, as I studied various histories, that we lived in such a neat, tolerant place with so many people from different backgrounds. I thought about how lucky we all were to live here in Los Angeles. Later, I came to work in the inner city and realized how segregated we actually still are. We seem to be okay with Latin Americans, Asians, and others of these natures in some of our public schools. And while African Americans have a choice, so we say, there is a definite demarcation when it comes to where they live in the city, and what schools the majority do attend.
Then I came to work through a Craigslist ad, at a mostly pleasant, easy-going job at an Orthodox Jewish School. It was the job that presented itself two years ago, even though I was not brought up or ever around Orthodox Jews. My own grandmother’s Orthodoxy seemed to end with not mixing meat and cheese, and a fuzzy belief in a God of some kind.
At this Orthodox school I work at, I learned that this side teaches their children that the word Christmas is something evil to say, as it holds a name of a deity in it. This seemed as intolerant to me as a student who once retorted to me when he realized I was Jewish, that he didn’t think his mother would like it if she knew a “Jew” was teaching him. He was a nine year old in fourth grade. We had a calm discussion about why that was not okay to say out loud, and what that kind of intolerance can do.
This year I have my third grade class of girls reading Little House in the Big Woods. It is an excellent tool to teach about what life in the middle of the U.S. was like just a hundred and fifty years ago. It has also turned out be a good tool for pointing out the commonalities of the Orthodox Christians and Jews. There is a whole chapter titled Christmas, which highlights how simply this family lived, and how special the few gifts they exchanged and meals they ate were to them. Not to mention just how very strict their own Sabbath was.
One of my students reflected on the Christmas chapter, and told me a story about how her neighbor beckoned her and her mom to go upstairs to the apartment to take a look at her Chirstmas tree. Aviva continued to tell us that her mom told her to pretend to look at the tree, but not actually look at it, to only look at the couch.
I said to the child and class that this was a shame. That there is nothing wrong with appreciating other peoples' cultures and traditions. Why, growing up I had Mormon neighbors and friends, and Catholic friends, and we would go to their homes as children and help them decorate their tree as a way to learn about their holidays. They in turn would come to our house and help us light our menorah and get to eat possibly their first latkas. That if she had a beautiful menorah, wouldn’t she want to share it with others? This is what makes America so special, that we can all have our own backgrounds and celebrate them, and by law we are tolerant of each other’s differences.
And then there is the place where I tutor. Students from all different backgrounds walk in that door, especially students who are from lower income brackets from October to May, who come for free through a government grant for thirty hours a year. Normally, we see wealthier students whose parents can afford $54 dollars plus an hour of tutoring. Due to the special program though, we get to help students who often need help in school the most, but wouldn't normally receive it.
The young assistant, still in college, from Bakersfield, who had never heard of a Jew before last year, draws on the big whiteboard the name of the month, the student’s names and their birthdays if in the current month, and loaded it up this time with pictures of Christmas lights, tree ornaments, holly, and snowmen wearing Santa hats. I asked her if she could put something somewhere that represented Hanukah. She said she put nothing religious on the board, that anything about Hanukah would be religious.
Yet, those other things clearly, while benign, represent Christmas. Meanwhile, both ladies who currently run the center are Jewish. And perhaps, if I wasn’t spending so much time trying to teach my students to be tolerant of the white Christians in whose country our parents chose for us to live, I would be more tolerant of ignorant Christian people who choose in a place of students and business, to be blind to all other people, cultures, and feelings other than their own. It may seem like a small thing, assuming we are all homogenous and the same.
How do I feel about Christmas now? I think here in America that Christmas is a time when people pause as they rush speedily to the New Year. They pause and maybe show a moment of appreciation for their coworkers, neighbors and acquaintances through small obligatory gifts of wrapped bars of soap, cookies, and tchotchkes. Sometimes places of business acknowledge their workers with a party, and maybe a monetary bonus.
Perhaps we as Americans feel festive, and have a sense of a period of time drawing to an end. So I can see the merits of an American holiday such as Christmas. However, it is important to me, deep within my soul, that we don’t go out of our way this time of year to assume that we all believe in the same way. We should not wish everyone the same happy holiday. We should respect each other’s backgrounds and cultural differences. We should not institutionalize the differences and go out of our way to feel superior to others, or make others feel inferior to our grand way of thinking and living. Maybe we could just wish each other a happy season, from one human being to another.