‘Tis the Season for Solidarity

Growing up in Great Neck, NY, the “quintessential Jewish suburb” (Goldstein, 2006), December was a time for Chanukah candles, not Christmas lights. Still, I remember the few houses around town that were decked out for that holiday. I loved and hated those lights. I loved to see them twinkling through the crisp winter nights. I hated that they reminded me of this great big and seemingly amazing thing I wasn’t a part of.

Today, I live in Columbus, OH where most of my family, friends, and neighbors celebrate some derivation of Christmas. At times I have felt uneasy participating in their seasonal traditions. Afterall, as the Chanukah story teaches us the Maccabees fought the Greeks for the right to be different, not to blend in.  But, as I’ve written in this space before, I now feel comfortable sharing the joy my friends and family feel at this time of year. (See, for example: “Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home,” and “Our Craftiest Christmas to Date.”)   In turn, I’ve shared my Chanukah traditions and together, we’ve found light in the darkness.

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Sharing the magic of Chanukah candlelighting with some non-Jewish friends.
(Columbus, OH 2007)

Times seem pretty dark for many of us at this moment in time, and it’s not just because the sun is up fewer than 10 hours a day. Many of us are afraid of the direction our country will go when our president-elect takes office in January.

The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Senior Counselor to the President set a lot of Jews on edge. We fear that with someone like Bannon in the White House, someone who has supported racism through the spread of white nationalist messages on Breitbart “News” Network, prejudice and violence against minorities will not only increase, but be condoned. When the story broke of Richard Spencer’s speech at the white nationalist movement conference in D.C. last month, our worst imaginings seemed even more like real possibilities.

After watching Spencer’s talk and the response from his audience, I had a sickening thought. With Chanukah around the corner, would I feel comfortable setting our menorah in the window per tradition? I voiced this fear to my husband, Dan, who was raised Catholic but does not associate himself with the church any longer. While he is not Jewish, he is supportive of my commitment to my Jewish heritage and my desire to raise our daughter, Cora, with a sense of Jewish identity. Dan assured me we would light the candles and display them for the world to see, and that we would get others to join us. (I really love that guy.)

So, here’s your invitation.

If you are Jewish and haven’t lit Chanukah candles in a while, please join us.
If you are a friend of Jews, please join us.
If you want to show the world that you are not afraid to stand up for those who have been persecuted for following beliefs that don’t mimic the dominant culture, please join us.

The Jewish calendar is lunar based which is why our holidays don’t fall on the same secular dates each year. This year we’ll be lighting candles for eight nights beginning December 24th. I’m excited by the idea of millions of chanukiot (a name for menorahs used on Chanukah which have 9, rather than 7 candleholders) taking their place beside Christmas trees, Kwanzaa Kinaras,  that night.

There are lots of ideas for DIY menorahs out there as well as well as information about the candle lighting traditions. If you have a Jewish friend or neighbor, they might have an extra one you can borrow.

Dan and I made up the following secular blessing which we welcome you to use if you are so inclined. It speaks to the spirit of the traditional Hebrew blessing, but is something we believe Jews and non-Jews can say without fear of contradicting their own religious or philosophical beliefs.

“Thank you for being here with me tonight,
to celebrate the miracle of the Chanukah light.
Peace out.”

(NOTE: I hope to come up with a catching #hashtag we can all use to connect on this project, but I need help. Please send your suggestions or post them as a comment below.)

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Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home: Part II

Many people responded to my post last week about developing a relationship with Christmas as it pertains to my ability to be culturally responsive in both personal and professional situations.  In that post, I wrote a lot about my husband, without whom I would likely never have participated in the holiday to begin with.  But what I left out of that post, was any discussion of Dan’s efforts to learn about and relate to my culture.  And there is much to say on this front.

Flashback: December 2007
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I realize it is a total cliche to get engaged during the holiday season, but I couldn’t help myself.  I had just traveled to Mexico with my mother to celebrate her retirement and my PhD.  I missed Dan while I was away, although I have to admit my mother and I had a wonderful adventure together.  We spent a lot of time talking about our lives and work; she was at the end of a long career as a physician and I was at the beginning of my work in academia.  Naturally, we also talked at great length about my relationship with Dan and what our future might bring.

Our trip ended just as Chanukah was beginning and I spent the first few nights of the holiday at my folks’ house before returning home.  During that time, Dan sent me the following message:

“Hi Baby, We kicked off in style last nite.  We didn’t have the traditional Hebrew candle lighting words so we made up some sh*t about not being assimilated.  I quoted some stuff from Star Trek on the topic.  Finished with Peace Out.  Wished you were here.  Ate some (curried sweet) potato latkes that were not too bad, if I may say so.  It was fun.  Gotta go get the kids up and ready for the day.  I hope your trip back was OK.  Hearts, -d”

And that was it.   I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life this man; a man who could make me laugh, a man who could cook curried sweet potato latkes, a man who would light the Chanukah candles even when I wasn’t home and he wasn’t Jewish.  The next time we spoke, I told him so and the wedding plans began.

Present-day: December 2012
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For the past six years, I’ve attended the “holiday” party at Dan’s company and criticized its Christmas-centricism.  There was really nothing ecumenical about it.  Each year, just before everyone bowed their heads to thank Jesus Christ for the meal we were about to eat, the executive staff sang Jingle Bells.  And each time I would lean over to Dan and ask, “Do you think this will be the year they sing I Have a Little Dreidel?”  The first time he shot me a look as if to say, “Don’t be ridiculous.  And, please, don’t embarrass me by shouting out a request for it.”  But this year was different.

As the the holiday season was getting under way, Dan came home and told me about a discussion in his staff meeting.  Some folks had decorated the office and one proudly announced that it was now Christmastime in the department.  Dan tried to correct her by suggesting it was The Holiday Season to which she balked, “What do you have against Christmas?”  He suggested that while he loved Christmas, it wasn’t right to assume that everyone in the office felt the same way.  No effect.  So, he reminded her that I am Jewish, and tried to help his co-workers understand my perspective this time of year, the way I have historically felt like an outsider when conversation turns to Santa and the baby in the manger.

I’m not sure his message made an impact on that woman or anyone else in the office that day.  But the story made an impact on me.  It let me know, again, that he respected where I came from.  It showed he had been listening all those years when I told him I was uncomfortable.  And, it proved that culturally responsive teaching can impact students of various ages, not just young children in our nation’s schools.

Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home

DSC_0394So, I grew up super Jewish.  Well, not super Jewish by New York standards, but compared to most of the Jews I’ve met since I’ve been in the midwest, my family was VERY conservative.  When I was a kid, December 25th meant only one thing, Mom’s birthday.  Christmas didn’t have anything to do with it.  My interaction with Santa Claus was relegated to seeing him at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and on the rooftop of a house in an nearby neighborhood.  I felt absolutely zero connection to the fat man in the big red suit.  My husband still can’t quite believe that Christmas wasn’t part of my consciousness, but then, I haven’t brought him to Great Neck yet.

Dan and I met in the month of November and Christmas was fast upon us.  He LOVES Christmas.  He loves shopping and he loves people so buying gifts to make people happy around the holidays is a win-win for him.  There’s no Christ in his Christmas which made it easier for me to accept on the one hand, and difficult to appreciate on the other.  The anti-consumerist is me has a very hard time with all the conspicuous consumption that goes seems to count for Christmas, or as we refer it in our house, StuffMas.  What was the meaning of all this stuff if it wasn’t tied to a big birthday party for Jesus?

When I decided to spend my life with Dan, it meant making room for Christmas.  This didn’t come easily for me.  I am often the only Jew in the room, which I am fine with, but this makes me feel like I should be more Jewish, that I should actively work against assimilation.  The first year I lived with Dan and had to share my living room with a (dying) tree for the month of December, I felt like I was in some parallel universe.  I was sure my grandparents were mourning for me, wherever they were spending the afterlife.

But I was determined.  If I was going to live through Christmas, I was going to have to find a way to embrace it.  Like Charlie Brown, I was looking for a meaning to the holiday.  And though I didn’t realize it at the time, I did just what Lucy Van Pelt advised Charlie Brown to do to find that meaning.  “You need involvement.  You need to get involved in some real Christmas project,” she prescribed.  While I didn’t learn about Christmas at Hebrew School, I did learn about making traditions.  Through my love of cooking and crafting, I made peace with Christmas.  This time of year my desk is covered in felt, jingle bells, googly eyes, and thread in the process of becoming ornaments.

Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time educating others about Judaism.  This happens when you are part of a minority culture.  I don’t intend to give that up any time soon, but, I hadn’t really thought about how much I could learn from to be opening myself up to experiencing aspects of the the dominant culture that I had missed growing up.  In order to be a culturally responsive teacher, I need to have an understanding of my students and their experiences.  Most of them celebrate Christmas at this time of year so while I am happy to share Chanukah traditions with them, I also need to be able to appreciate what they are experiencing.

Culturally responsive teaching is a buzz phrase in education at the moment, so it seemed obvious to connect this to my relationship with Christmas.  But, I also realized I need to prepare myself to be a culturally responsive parent. When I started to orchestrate ornament and cookie making sessions with my stepkids, we were able to share experiences that would not have been open to me had I stayed holed up in my own culture.  And now that Cora is on the scene, a 50/50 mix of me a Dan, I have to accept that part of her is genetically predetermined to Christmas.  I’m still not sure how I feel about indoctrinating her into the Santa story, but I’ll be there for her with construction paper and cookie cutters.