What if you were the only Jewish student in your grade school, middle school, or high school? Would you take a stand and teach everyone about your traditions, or would you go quietly about your day trying not to draw attention to your different beliefs?
What if you attempted to do both?
Welcome to my upbringing in a medium-size town of North Dakota. Christmas was not only a national holiday, but it was also a city-wide pastime from October through December. Like a Shamash on the menorah, I was that lone Jewish student.
From kindergarten through sixth grade, my mom, dad or both would visit school with a suitcase full of Hanukkah ritual objects—dreidels, Menorahs, a prayer book and a vinyl record to play Hanukkah songs. Some years, the teachers made a big production and served latkes. Other years, my mom’s signature dreidel sugar cookies were passed around. As middle school drew closer, my tween angst would get the best of me, and what was once a source of pride and identity became dramatically downplayed. The incessant questions might be what did me in.
- “Do you really get to celebrate eight days of Christmas?”, they’d ask with wide-open eyes imagining all the presents. No, it wasn’t like that. My parents gave me one present a night. Maybe there was a family gathering on the first night when we’d get together with my grandparents, Aunt, Uncle and cousins and I’d open more; however, the bounty wasn’t bigger than my gentile friends collected for Christmas.
- “How do you play dreidel?”; “Those don’t look like letters!”; “Those marks all look the same, how do you tell them apart?”; “Isn’t this a form of gambling?”; they’d ask as they reviewed the foreign letters hashed along each side of the plastic tops and inspected the pile of pennies to give or take from the pot following each round. I appreciated their interest in playing, however, this is the point when I’d quiet them down with a dreidel cookie or a handful of chocolate coins.
Call it nature or nurture, but yes, I did find a way to embrace the other side of that chocolate coin with my Christian brethren. Of course, my pride runs deep for the nature of my Jewish heritage. Yet, all those years of Christmas exposure did nurture a guilty pleasure for the spectrum of Christmas music. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous: Hi Heidi.
My love for these ear worm tunes started when I was in grade school. Each year during the Christmas season, the choir teacher would break out the old standbys. “Here Comes Santa Claus”, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”, and so many more.
Those fateful days after choir practice, you’d find me humming the tunes around the house. I remember belting out “The First NOEL” while taking my evening bath, my bath toys singing back up. I can only imagine what ran through my parents’ minds.
When it came time for the Christmas concert, I’d dutifully go out on stage to sing a solo tune of “Dreidel, Dreidel”, or the rousing “In My Window”, which had eight repetitive verses with only the numbered night swapped out.
Following my solo, I’d return to my spot on the top level of the risers to belt out “Jingle All the Way”. (That designated high-level row was cemented in fourth grade following a premature growth spurt, causing me to tower over my classmates.)
Maybe a small-town Jewish girl can straddle the cultural divide through a love of music. Maybe she can take pride in teaching her peers how to celebrate and appreciate her traditions. And, maybe she also can acquire an appreciation for the little town of Bethlehem, worry about Grandma who got run over by a reindeer and smile when she sees snow fall for a White Christmas.
However, on Christmas Eve, you’d have found this grown-up Jewish girl eating Chinese food. On Christmas Day, I’ll be watching a double feature at the local movie theater. And…as I commute to these secular events, I’ll have my radio set to 107.9 FM, all Christmas music, all season long.