“Mommy,” my 3-year-old asked, “why don’t we have a Christmas tree?”
“Because we’re not going to be here for Christmas,” I answered matter-of-factly, though my answer was not entirely a matter of fact.
Where we were going to be was back in our suburban New Jersey home, 8,000 miles from our high-rise apartment overlooking Hong Kong Harbor.
At 3 years old, my eldest child didn’t remember attending the Jewish preschool she did when she was 2, as well as Jewish camp that previous summer, the summer my husband’s law firm relocated our family to Hong Kong. It wasn’t that I had no choice but to deny our Judaism while living in Hong Kong. I had visited numerous schools while on our look-see trip that past December, including the perfectly acceptable, well-established Jewish preschool that had an opening.
Instead, I chose to send my daughter to a cute little international preschool that was more “academic” in its approach to early childhood education and not religion-centered.
When it came time to fill out the application, however, I deliberately left the religion question blank. I rationalized it wasn’t anyone’s business, a lesson I learned the hard way a little more than a year earlier after being told my daughter, then 20 months old, was no longer welcome in the mommy and me class we were attending in a nearby, predominantly not-Jewish town back in New Jersey.
During our third and what would become final session of the class, I had mentioned in passing to one of the other mothers that we were Jewish. A few days later I received a call from the director of the program informing me that a handful of parents had complained that my daughter was disruptive (she wasn’t) and although she was a “beautiful child,” he would be refunding my money for our prepaid sessions, no questions asked.
Shaken, I immediately disputed what these women had claimed and voiced my suspicions about the timing of his call with the discussion I had about my religious affiliation. I accused him of being an anti-Semite. He would hear none of it and refused to change his mind. My child was no longer welcome.
So when it came time to register my daughter at her new school in Hong Kong, I was determined not to expose myself to even the possibility that such a situation could occur again. But because I chose to keep my religious affiliation a secret, when the Jewish holidays arrived one after the other, there was no mention made of them at school. My daughter celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chung Yeung, Diwali, and American Thanksgiving all before December arrived. And she loved every minute of it, eagerly participating in and honoring the traditions of numerous cultures and religions—just not those specifically her own.
As the school began preparing for its celebration of Christmas and its annual Nativity play in which every child was expected to participate, I curiously watched as my daughter became enraptured with a holiday that was not ours. At school, my daughter created cards and art. She baked Christmas cookies with her class and ate Shepherd’s pie. And she began singing Christmas carols at home with such exuberance I didn’t have the heart to break the news to her—that we were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights,” and she should be singing a song about making a dreidel out of clay.
On the day of the Nativity play, my husband and I looked on as our daughter stood in a manger scene dressed as a farm animal, celebrating the birth of Christ. I leaned over to him and whispered in his ear, “Do you hear the rumbling? That’s your grandmother rolling over in her grave.”
We returned to our suburban New Jersey home for winter break where my daughter received Hanukkah presents from friends and relatives. But the distinction never clicked, and I did little to help click it for her, fearful of being outed when we returned to Asia.
And, oh, did I have a secret to out.
At the same time my eldest child was being indoctrinated in the Christian faith, her younger sister by only 14 months was being indoctrinated in another—Judaism. Because the international preschool only accepted children who were 3 and above, the only choice I had if I planned on sending my younger daughter to school was to enroll her in the Jewish program which took kids at 2.
More reminiscent of our school at home, this preschool only acknowledged the Jewish holidays, not the Christian ones, and paid homage to the national customs of the country in which we lived, the Diaspora I had learned so much about during my Hebrew school days.
And there I found myself, caroling with the Christians and kibitzing with the Jews, all in a single day. Two little girls, two religions, and one double-life, and I was pulling it off, Lifetime movie-style. I did have a close call once when my “Jewish” daughter came running from her classroom around Passover and Easter time holding one baby Moses in a basket and her older sister yelled out in front of a group of parents and the school director, “Look, Mommy, it’s baby Jesus!”
I knew that lying to my children and the people around me was wrong. Not only was I confusing my kids, I was also sending them a message that being Jewish is something to hide. Also, if there was to be an issue with our ethnicity, what could I accomplish by avoiding it? But I convinced myself I was already in too deep, and instead of coming clean I decided to save face. My husband called me paranoid. But, in my defense, he wasn’t the one on the phone that day, debating with a hostile stranger the reason underlying why my daughter was no longer allowed to return to her mommy and me class.
And so I carried on like this, despite my Christmas tree-less apartment beginning to raise suspicions among my friends, especially when we didn’t return to New Jersey for the holidays the following year because I was pregnant. By that time, I had enrolled my second daughter in the international school, justifying that she should be with her sister.
When my eldest daughter again questioned me about why we didn’t have a Christmas tree, I finally broke the news to her: “We’re Jewish.” To which she replied, “No, we’re not.” After going back and forth trying to convince her otherwise and seeing the disappointment mount in her eyes that Christmas didn’t belong to her, I gave up.
Both girls participated in that year’s Nativity play and all was quiet for a while. The following fall, the last we would spend in Hong Kong before moving back to the States, another child enrolled at the international preschool, a Jewish child.
That December, when the teacher told the class during a lesson that some kids, including their new classmate, “David,” receive gifts on Hanukkah instead of Christmas, my younger daughter spoke up, too, proudly announcing, “My grandma gives me those.” All the while letting me know that Mommy doesn’t always know best.