Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
When I tell people what I do, they are pleasant and appreciative. The world needs more experiential Jewish educators focused on social justice! When I tell them where I come from, they don’t try to hide their surprise. How did Gainesville, Georgia, produce a family with not one, but two professional Jewish educators?
It’s simple: our mother was the first Jewish educator we encountered, and she was exceptional.
I was one of two Jewish kids at my rural high school with about 1,200 students. My family worked hard to make sure I grew up with a strong, proud Jewish identity and a clear understanding of Jewish traditions and teachings. I loved being Jewish, being different, knowing this secret code that none of my other friends had ever heard spoken aloud (Hebrew! Yiddish! So exotic!). In the early years, however, there was always one season that presented a challenge for my parents: Christmastime.
Not wintertime, mind you. In Gainesville, it’s “Merry Christmas” or nothing at all. But the Glazers forged our own path. My mom, a small business owner, cheerily wished her customers “Happy Holidays” and patiently explained that no, Santa wouldn’t be visiting her girls this year. When my teachers inevitably brought out the reindeer crafts and song lyrics about a certain baby boy, my parents sighed and steeled themselves to navigate another well-meaning speech from my teacher about how “the spirit of the season is for everyone.”
At my second-grade class’s winter celebration, my dad was shocked to see my handwriting in a letter to Santa hanging in the hallway. (“Dear Santa, please give my presents to a poor Christian kid, because my parents are going to get me everything I need for Hanukkah.”)
That spring, I found myself in a new, more diverse school with staff who were excited to welcome my family’s expertise about our culture and traditions. Every December from then on, my mom came into my classroom toting all of the Hanukkah essentials: dreidels, gelt, a menorah that always had some wax we couldn’t quite scrape off, candles, and, if we were lucky, a box of jelly-filled donut holes. Sometimes she set up stations and empowered me to teach my classmates the story behind the phrase “Nes gadol haya sham. A great miracle happened there.” Sometimes we made a trifold board with clippings from the local newspaper featuring us carefully lighting the candles. Every time, I beamed with pride.
All of these images come rushing back whenever someone asks how I ended up becoming a Jewish educator. I didn’t have Hebrew school; there were no other kids at our small, nomadic congregation. I wasn’t a Jewish sleepaway camp kid, so I didn’t have cool counselors to look up to. How could I choose a career that was never modelled for me?
In reality, I had the best Jewish educators right in my own house. My parents advocated for us fiercely at school, in extracurriculars, and even with big chain stores whose paltry Hanukkah end-caps were understocked in a town with fewer than fifteen Jews. (On one occasion, my mom tracked down the CEO of Toys “R” Us to express her horror at a Hanukkah party popper she had bought for my kindergarten class which showered confetti of playing cards and dice. The item was immediately pulled from stores.)
When I asked her why she chose to dedicate herself to teaching my classmates about Hanukkah, I expected an answer about cultural visibility and diversity education. Instead, she gave me the kind of straightforward response that resonated with me all those years ago: “I was learning as I was teaching.”
My mom converted to Judaism right before I was born, so when I was in elementary school, it was all still new and exciting for her. She enjoyed sharing our stories and rituals with people in our hometown who had likely never met another Jewish person before. Since she understood the perspective of her curious students, she was able to help them connect to the ideas in an accessible way.
This Hanukkah, I’m rededicating myself to her teaching style. I aspire to learn as I teach, to see the content from my students’ point of view, to make learning fun, and to speak up for my values whenever possible. I hope to bring as much light to learning as she always has.