My daughter is in first grade, and she is the only Jewish kid in her class.
This is familiar territory for us: As a child, I was the solo Jew in my public school classroom, too. This made me unique, and I always felt special being Jewish amongst my throng of Christian friends. Around the holiday season, my friends loved celebrating Hanukkah with me, and often gifted me eight presents while I handed them my one Christmas gift in return.
The other week, I learned my oldest daughter was assigned the role of Christmas Tree #2 in the school holiday play. (Other important parts included Santa, Mrs. Claus, reindeer, and two other Christmas trees). At first blush, I felt triggered by this news — and yet I didn’t want to be that mom, the one who complains and inadvertently casts a dark shadow on everyone’s holiday happiness. If her class was putting on a Hanukkah play — and to be clear, it’s highly unlikely! — I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the thought of 20 six-year-old Maccabee soldiers charging the stage. So why make a stink?
We live in an area with a small yet strong Jewish community. My twins are in the JCC pre-K this year; all of my girls are enrolled in Sunday School and/or Hebrew School; we light Shabbat candles and bake challah on the regular. We are very clear on our Jewish identity, and I felt that assigning my daughter the role of a Christmas tree is in direct contrast to her Jewish identity.
If she grows up to become a professional actor and lands a Christmas role in the latest Hallmark holiday movie, it would be fine. But she’s a 6-year-old still discovering the world and figuring out her place in it. And this just didn’t feel right.
In all things, I like to follow the edict of “don’t oppose unless you can propose.” So, with this in mind, I wrote an email to her teacher to say how excited my daughter is about the play. I didn’t reference my feelings about the play. The truth was, I realized that I didn’t care if she played a Christmas tree, replete with tinsel, but I was going to balance it out with some Hanukkah hoopla, too. Therefore, I added a request to come to school and share our Hanukkah traditions with the class. I visited her kindergarten class the prior year and it was a big success. Still, I was nervous about clicking “send” on the email.
But to my great relief and joy, my daughter’s first grade teacher’s reply could not have been more accommodating. Not only am I welcome to bring my electric menorah (no open flames) to share with her class, but she said they are “traveling around the world” this holiday season. The class will learn about traditions, religions, and holidays from cultures around the globe. What’s more, her teacher offered to write a new part for my daughter into the play: a dreidel. She then suggested ending the play by singing “The Dreidel Song.”
When I shared this news with my daughter, her face lit up at the thought of being a Hanukkah symbol, because, as she said, “I’m Jewish, Mom!” (Yeah, I know, kid.) She jumped at the idea to teach her classmates about Hanukkah, and got excited about including Shabbat and Purim in the mix.
But then, her expression morphed into concern when she shared her trepidation about being the only dreidel in the show. She doesn’t want to be the lone dreidel, which is its own emotional hurdle to overcome. She is proud of her Jewish identity, but keenly aware of being singular in this. Presently, there’s not much I can do about this except acknowledge her feelings (or move to Israel, which isn’t in the cards).
Nevertheless, the teacher rose to the occasion, yet again: she promised my daughter comfort amongst her friends and fellow classmates. She won’t be standing by herself, the lone dreidel onstage; instead, she’ll maintain her pre-assigned spot, nestled between Christmas tree #1 and Christmas tree #3. In other words, she will be the happy Hanukkah symbol surrounded by festive Christmas trees — and that’s a story of inclusion and holiday happiness at its best.