The holiday season can be a tricky time of year for a Jewish kid in public school. Trickier still if you’re a Jewish kid in a Department of Defense school, stationed in Japan. Christmas so often plays a central role in the lessons taught in December, and for parents it’s hard to figure out where to draw the line. Do you allow your child to participate, do you ask that your child be excluded from all assignments pertaining to Christmas, or do you contact the teacher and insist such assignments cease and desist?
The other day I got an email from my daughter’s kindergarten teacher explaining that the kids would be writing letters to Santa and taking a field trip to our base post office in order to address the standards of “learning to write with a purpose” and “learning about jobs in the community” (with the added bonus of a promised response from St. Nick himself in time for Christmas). It was a creative way to teach that was highly relevant to 95 percent of the class.
So what’s a Jewish mom to do? I want my daughter to learn about other religions and cultures, and the importance of respecting both the differences and similarities she has with her friends. I don’t want her to sit out of an activity and feel ostracized, nor do I want her to feel that she’s “less than” due to her religion. This is a particular danger in the very Christian world of Navy brat-dom. On base, every “holiday” reference everywhere you look pertains to Christmas. Every inch of every store, every advertisement, every baked good, every fir tree, light, ornament, greeting on the street, TV show, song on the radio–really everything–is Christmas-related. Is this a bad thing? No: It meets the wants and needs of the masses. Is it often isolating and ostracizing? Absolutely. It is hard to explain to a 5-year-old staring at a sparkly tree in a storefront with presents piled high that this is a scene that she won’t see at home–much less explain that to a 5-year-old who has been told in school that Santa will come while she’s asleep and bring a ton of gifts. She needs to learn what it feels like to be a minority–it’s a good lesson for any child–but it’s hard for me to watch her learn it.
I decided to talk to my daughter about the upcoming assignment. She knew that Santa was for “Christmas people” and that we are “Hanukkah people,” so after her initial reaction of wanting to write to him and get presents, she said, “He probably won’t want to read a letter from me because I’m not a Christmas person.” I explained that I was sure he’d happily read whatever she wrote, but that writing to ask him for presents for herself was not really an option, since he wouldn’t be visiting our house. Instead, I chose to discuss the Jewish concepts of doing mitzvot (good deeds) and tzedakah (charitable giving), and suggested she write and ask him to bring toys to children in need. Then I tucked her into bed and waited to see how she’d handle it in school the next day.
The following afternoon, I received a very sweet and apologetic email from her teacher, who feared she had made my daughter uncomfortable with the assignment. As it turns out, my daughter had asked if, instead of writing to Santa, she could write to her parents, requesting things for Chanukah. Her teacher readily agreed. I was blown away by my daughter’s understanding of the bigger picture, by her bravery, and by her ability to speak up for herself. I was kvelling!
And then the mommy guilt kicked in. I’m asking so much of my Jewish Navy brats. There are the frequent goodbyes that go with deployments and living far from extended family; there are the moves every 1.5 to three years; there are the countless new schools, new countries, new languages. And while I firmly believe that the resilience, resourcefulness, and flexibility developed through all of this will serve my children well in the future, it’s the Jewish Navy brat part that I grapple with.
On our base here in Japan, my daughter is likely the only Jewish child in a school of more than 1,200 students. That is a huge role for a tiny person. Even outside of school, I can count the number of Jews here on my fingers; so she doesn’t get to celebrate Jewish holidays within a large community, and especially not with extended family. She’s at it alone (with our support, of course): learning about our traditions, enjoying them, explaining them to others.
It’s a tough road to walk, and our dedication to serving our country has forced her on it. Are we making the right choice? I don’t know. Did I respond properly to this introduction to “everyone else celebrates Christmas but not you”? I don’t know. I do know I emerge from it neither angry nor upset, but highly aware that this is just the first challenge of what will surely be many as we continue to proudly raise our Jewish Navy brats.