Here’s a lesson for Jewish kids I came across this December — which is a pretty good lesson for adults, too.
One of my favorite things about teaching young children is watching their faces relax into a trance when they are absorbed in a read-aloud storybook. The dreamy look on a child’s face as they listen to a story read is amazing. It’s unlike any kind of entertainment a mere screen can provide, new doors opening as a child is completely absorbed into the story.
At our last Children’s Shabbat at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, I was privileged to read aloud the wonderful book, The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff. This book tells a story that begins with a Jewish child sitting in a classroom as the teacher announces that for that day, they will be making Christmas decorations. From there, the child decides to create a new club called “The Only One Club,” as she is the only Jewish child in her class. One by one, each of the children join The Only One Club as they each have something unique and special about themselves that qualifies them for the club.
After reading this charming story, we went on to create our own unique Hanukkah wrapping paper with hand and foot prints which of course the kids loved!
At this time of year, it’s a nice reminder that we are indeed unique — and that we should celebrate not only what makes us special, but also what makes everyone else special. It’s like the Margaret Mead quote: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if all of us adults looked in the face of “the other” and marveled at their own uniqueness instead of fearing the differences between us? That’s a lesson I think we can take from Hanukkah and carry right on forward with us into the new year. Here’s to a great 2015!
Recently, I was sitting in my office listening to a Hanukkah mix on Spotify (one of the many reasons that I know that I will always, always be a Jewish professional). A song came on that immediately transported me to the back-roads of the Mississippi Delta: Neal Katz’s “Be A Light.”
The Neal Katz “Be a Light: Chanukah Songs for Grown-Ups” CD graced the middle console of the ISJL van when I was an Education Fellow (2010-2012). I often listened to it on long drives, regardless of the season. Seriously, have I mentioned I am destined to forever be a Jewish professional? The chorus begins: “Be a light, be a light / Shine proudly and loudly in the dark of the night.”
Humming this song, which I had listened to approximately 22 times as the holiday approached, I rang in Hanukkah with a Google Hangout. I set up my menorah, and placed it in front a computer screen. This doesn’t sound very intimate or personal, but let me explain.
For the last three years, my cohort of 2010-2012 ISJL Education Fellow alumni has spent one night of Hanukkah virtually together. I invite them to a video chat, and from three different time zones, we kindle the lights, singing the blessings down South, up North, all over. It’s certainly a “Shehechiyanu moment,” if there ever was one.
This year we had a special guest in our virtual midst—ISJL Education Director Rachel Stern, our old boss. We all spent over an hour talking and laughing and reminiscing about our collective time together. When we hung up, close to 11:00pm EST, we agreed that we would have to try and gather on our computer screens every Jewish holiday. And I know that it will really happen.
This virtual candle lighting—a symbol of unity, of community, of family—is a tradition that I can see continuing forever. The ISJL Education Fellowship fosters and nurtures continued relationships like these. Friendships that sustain themselves long after we go on our last community visit. I never could have imagined the power and the importance of these friendships in my life, of these Fellows in my family. Lighting the candles together once a year is a gift that I cherish, a gift that constantly reminds me of how lucky we are, and how brightly and proudly we shine our Fellow lights.
The hashtag #OnceAFellowAlwaysAFellow has become a joke among all Fellows. You use it whenever something magical and ridiculous converges, or when you have a Fellow reunion, or when you listen to things like “Be A Light” on repeat in your office. It started as something that was just sort of a joke, but as our candle lighting tradition reminds us, it’s not really a joke—it’s true.
Once a Fellow, Always a Fellow.
For that, I am thankful—this Hanukkah, and every Hanukkah to come.
I am engaged to a wonderful man – who is not Jewish. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve talked a lot about what our interfaith life will look like. But talking about a Christmas tree, something seemingly so small, was always put on the back burner to make room for conversations about what traditions the wedding ceremony will involve, and how to raise our future children.
Last year was our first Christmas together living under the same roof, and we were saved from the discussion yet again because our apartment was too small to even conceive of displaying a tree. We have since moved to a larger, more tree-accommodating apartment, and this year the conversation became real. It was very deep, and went something like this:
Erik: Can we please get a tree?
Erik: Like, right now?
And off we went to pick out our tree and all of its fixings. A couple of hours later, our living room glowed from its lights and we sat on the couch tired, happy, and thoroughly impressed with ourselves. Then, my mind began to wander.
What did this mean? What would my mother say? Am I going to be judged for putting this up in my apartment?
I found myself in an after-the-fact December Dilemma, and all of my thoughts were verbalized through the sentence, “I can’t believe there’s a Christmas tree in my apartment.” I didn’t know that uttering those words would lead to a learning experience!
My fiancé Erik, who is originally from Ukraine, told me that in the Soviet Union, in the Communists’ effort to stifle religion, Christmas trees were forbidden. So instead, folks put up New Year’s trees – a tradition that many continue today. The tree therefore can carry with it cultural as opposed to religious significance.
“Cool!” I thought. “We have a New Year’s tree – NOT a Christmas tree! So much easier to explain to family! So much easier to confess to friends!”
It appeared that my personal December Dilemma had been solved thanks to a quick history lesson from my fiancé. I have learned through this process that feelings about Christmas/New Year’s trees are fluid. So where are my feelings now?
Well, the tree has been up for a few weeks, and with each day that passes… I love it more. I appreciated the history lesson from Erik, but I’ve since realized that labeling the tree is unimportant to me. What is important is that it makes someone I love comfortable and happy, and, whatever its significance or connotations, that’s enough for me. Appreciating a part of his identity doesn’t take away from my identity, and I understand now that that is why it was so easy for me to agree to get one. My heart got it before my head did.
There is no single “right answer” that will apply to everyone, when it comes to deciding on shared practices and rituals—at this holiday season, or at any time of year. I am also very glad that there are so many resources, like Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism, that can support interfaith families in navigating these conversations and choices in respectful, informed ways.
This year, when I look at the Christmas/New Year’s tree, with its ornaments hung so precisely and its laughably-too-small skirt, all I see is joy, understanding, and respect. I am proudly Jewish, and the tree does not diminish that – and in fact, while a Christmas tree might not be part of my identity, the qualities of joy, understanding, and respect, are ones I try to embody every day.
On the first night of Hanukkah, Erik and I took out our brand new chanukiah (which we also picked out together). We said the blessings, and the candles glowed right alongside the Christmas lights. Who knows how our interfaith traditions will evolve over time, but for now there is no December Dilemma in our apartment. There is love, and learning, and a whole lot of lights.
From my interfaith family to yours, Happy Everything!