When I was four weeks from my due date with my first child, my husband and I moved into our first home in a small enclave of Los Angeles. After renting in an area that was Hipster Central, we were stunned to find ourselves smack in the middle of a quasi-suburb. But then again, after turning the corner into new parenthood, we generally found ourselves stunned at all times.
Forward a few blurry years to last fall when my then 3-year-old son just started preschool. My husband and I picked a co-op that emphasized play-based learning, involved parents, and a seemingly diverse community. All was well until the holiday season settled in and I heard the songs that he would be learning during December. Many were what I’d call “American standards” rather than explicitly Christian-themed — “Jingle Bells,” and “Rudolph and Red-Nosed Reindeer,” much of which struck me as ironic in the 70-plus degree weather. There was the token “Dreidel, Dreidel,” but a deep-seated dread began to creep in as I realized this nod to Hanukkah was just the start of a long road in which my young son would learn that when it came to celebrating religious holidays, both in school and within American culture at large, such a small place would be made for him.
READ: ‘Mommy, Sometimes I Wish We Were Christian’
My classroom workday fell during the week of the all-school holiday party and his teacher, I suspect a little panicked about the upcoming performance, singled out my boy to shout “Merry Christmas!” at the end of their practice. I lurked in the back and cringed. I had brought latkes that day for the class snack, only to hear his teacher introduce them to the kids as “hash browns.” In the moment, I was too baffled to know what to do.
Years ago, as a literature graduate student, I fell in love with Laurie Colwin’s writing. Her descriptions of mood were always disarming and charming in their accuracy. But the phrase that won me over described being seated at a dinner party and having the “only Jew at the dinner table” feeling.
I should have known this day was coming — that the early corollary for the “only Jew at the dinner table” feeling is being the only Jewish kid in your class. Feeling left out, or included, is simply part of American culture I rationalized to myself as I listened to the singing. But recognizing what now seemed inevitably difficult for my son was a bad feeling. What would happen next year when more of his preschool classmates could talk about Santa? Another previously unknown dilemma started to take shape when I considered how to handle the “is Santa real?” question.
READ: How Do I Make Hanukkah Fun Without Forgetting the Meaning?
I grew up in a suburb of Miami Beach where all the major Jewish holidays so emptied out the public schools I attended, the principal decided that no one needed to fill out an excused absence form on those days. I would see half of my schoolmates, at least, at our local shul; I swear my social life peaked the year I turned 13, as some weekends filled with a trio of events divvied up between Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening bar and bat mitzvah parties. I knew that being Jewish meant being in the minority—statistically and otherwise—in the United States, but it didn’t feel that way in the suburb where I lived.
By contrast, my husband grew up overseas as a “Foreign Service brat” where he suffered a sense of double exclusion—often enough, he was the only American, nevermind being the only Jew as he attended a range of private schools. There was no exemption from chapel. For him, being Jewish is practically defined by isolation. After his birth in Hong Kong, his parents tried to fly in a mohel from Japan so they could hold a bris, but in the end couldn’t arrange it. His Jewish identity is a long series of trying to embrace a sense of absence.
In the Reform household where I grew up, we disdained anyone who had a “Hanukkah bush,” and were openly critical of the commercialism of the Christmas season. Neither my husband or I yearn for the pageantry of Christmas, although I do think it’s a natural reaction to finding yourself always on the outside looking in. We’re still figuring out how observant we want our household to be, particularly as we come from communities that were so polar opposite in how comfortably we were able to wear our Jewish identities. But I had never before thought about how my son would have to navigate his own sense of exclusion and inclusion, and how difficult it would be to watch him recognize he will likely be the one left out.
READ: On Observing Hanukkah Miracles, Big and Small
The year before, when we lit the Hanukkah candles, our then two-year-old burst into a round of “Happy Birthday” at seeing the colored candles and matches emerge. I got to see the light reflected back in his tiny, enraptured face as he understood that something beyond a birthday, but equally special, was taking place. And he has definitely caught on about presents.
Since the moment he’s been born, realizing all the ways my child could be hurt has been a painful preoccupation—worse yet is the thought that there’s only so much I can do to prevent any of it happening. How to handle his burgeoning education — religious and otherwise—is something my husband and I are still learning. Standing in the back of his classroom and realizing how inevitable it is he will feel the loneliness of being the only Jew in the classroom was suddenly a lot to swallow. At the moment, it feels like all I can do is counter this with the sense of celebration I hope he’ll also know, and the knowledge that within the array of experiences that growing up Jewish carries, a sense of difference is something also shared.