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A Chanukah Carol

A Chanukah Carol

In one moment of silence, my Jewish identity was born.


In fourth grade I transferred from an almost all-Jewish public school to a Quaker prep school.

I have made other big transitions since then. But that move to Mrs. Mitchell's classroom at the Friends School of Baltimore was by far the most traumatic transition of them all.

I was painfully shy, sincere, and insecure, a toxic combination for the new eight-year-old on the block. I kept on failing the tests on Greek history, which was the focus of the 4th grade curriculum, so day after day I was forced to stay inside during recess in order to study. This was actually a relief, though, since I was also failing in the playground. One day, the daughter of a judge with an alligator on her shirt came up to me with a group of snickering friends and asked, "Did you get your clothing from a junkyard?"

Music class was the worst. In earlier grades, my new classmates had learned a complex system of hand gestures that represented the notes of the songs we sang, but I had never learned these hand gestures in public school. I was always looking at the person next to me, trying to do what everyone else did, trying desperately to just fit in.

And then there were the preparations for the annual Christmas concert.

I was the only student who did not know the Christmas carols.

I was the only student who did not know the Christmas carols. I also found the words confusing. During a rehearsal of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" I asked our teacher, "Excuse me, Ms. Vidor, what does the word 'Christ' mean?"

Ms. Vidor, a devoted member of her church choir, lit up. "Excellent question! The word 'Christ' means the 'the Lord.'"

I smiled, "Then why do we sing "Christ, the Lord"? It's silly to say "The Lord, the Lord!"

Ms. Vidor gave me a sour look, and did not respond. I was embarrassed.

I had been a bad girl.


Things started looking up when I began junior high school. I had learned, more or less, to dress like my classmates, to talk like them, to act like them. I was beginning to fit in at long last. It was a dream come true.

One snowy December day while waiting for the city bus to the Jewish area of Baltimore, my classmate, Erin, asked me "So, what do you do during the Christmas carols?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean when they sing 'Jesus' and stuff. We're Jews, we can't say that."

For all those years, I had never thought about it. It had never occurred to me that I should do anything different than our Christian classmates.

But I admired Erin, who later became our student-body president and an Off-Broadway director. The last thing I wanted to do was make waves. But I knew that she was right.

So during that year's Christmas concert, when we got to the chorus of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" I looked towards the alto section and I followed Erin's lead. Right after we sang "Oh come let us adore him" Erin clamped her mouth shut and did not sing "Christ, the Lord." With a racing heart I did the same.

For the six years from that concert until my high school graduation, I clamped my mouth shut year after year and never discussed it with anyone.

But it was significant.

In fact, looking back, I realize that this was probably the most important annual event of my childhood.

With this moment of silence I am telling you that somewhere deep down I know that being a Jew is something important.

It was my own small way of declaring in front of my favorite teachers and my dearest friends, "Look, I don't know much about being a Jew. I pretty much only know that it means that I should not sing these words. But with this moment of silence I am telling you that somewhere deep down I know that being a Jew is something important. Deep down I know that it means that somehow I am different...

"And I really hope that doesn't mean that I'm a bad girl."


I am a person who cries a lot. I cry when I listen to Country and Western songs, when I read the Weddings section in the Sunday Times, when I hear the Israeli national anthem, when I read

But nothing makes me cry like my daughter's annual Chanukah play.

This year, for the fifth Chanukah in a row, I will watch one of my daughters perform in the Chanukah play at nursery school. This year, my Ma'ayan will stand with all the other four and five-year-olds, wearing a crown shaped like a flame, and singing the same song that they sing every year about driving away the darkness. Then Ma'ayan will hold a doll and a prayer book and sing the same song that they sing every year about hiding from the Greeks in the caves in order to live as Jews.

I will look around me at the other mothers with their dry eyes and their digital video cameras, and I'll know that when these mothers were children, they were singing these very same songs at their own Chanukah plays.

And I will cry because I will remember that Ma'ayan in her crown like a flame is the child of that same girl who was standing on those bleachers singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

I will cry because my heart cannot contain the disbelief mixed with thankfulness that I feel when I remember that that girl with her moment of silence became the mother of children who fill the family's Shabbat table with stories from the weekly Torah portion, whose favorite song is "Jerusalem of Gold," who have no idea that Chanukah is not the only holiday that comes in December.

But more than anything else, when I see Ma'ayan singing these Chanukah songs at the top of her lungs, I cry because I realize that I am raising a daughter who will never ever have to worry that by being a good Jew she is being a bad girl.


December 17, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 41

(38) Sondra Brown, February 15, 2015 9:06 PM

Acculturate or assimilate?

In the 1950's we tried to fit in in Public School- we infuriated our Catholic teacher when 25 voices refused to finish Silent Night

(37) Anonymous, December 30, 2014 2:30 PM

We Are Blessed

No matter what hapens to us, our Jewish neshamim find a way to shine. No matter what. B''H.

(36) Penina dror, December 24, 2014 9:17 PM

Similar story

I am 42 and became observant in college. I grew up in a house where I was told that we are Jewish . However, it was an empty 6 letter word. We observed nothing. No shabbat, an empty mezuzah on the door post.... And kosher ??? Lol!!! Rosh hashanah and Yom Kippur were regular days that I attended school. I also, miraculously , understood that singing those Xmas songs was simply, not right. I was always one of the leads in the school " holiday" concerts , and I would simply lip synch joy to the world, and the rest of the Christian music! It is so comforting to know that other Jewish children survived the subtle pressures of assimilation . Btw, I am bh married to an amazing Israeli man from Yerushalaim and we have three beautiful children who attend yeshiva and are very proud of their history ....oh, we were married on the 8 th night of Chanukah 18 years ago! Chag Chanukah Samayach!!!! Am Israel Chai!!!

(35) Anonymous, December 24, 2014 3:48 PM


I was so pained to read this. It makes me realize how fortunate I was that my parents sent my 4 siblings and to Yeshiva from nursery though high school graduation.My brother attended Yeshiva University and was ordained a Rabbi by my father had been. My father was raised in a secular home and attended prep school called Fieldston.the “Ethical Culture School”.
My mother’s parents sent her to live with strangers when she was 6 so that she could attend Yeshiva.I believe she was traumatized for life as a result of being boarded with complete strangers.She spent part of her childhood in Yeshiva,and part in public school.Neither of my parents ever mentioned singing Christmas carols in school.My mother must have, in public school. I do not know if the “Ethical Humanists’at Fieldston believe in Christmas.I am pained for the author and all Jewish Children who are subjected to what the author has been.I am grateful I was spared.I am so glad the author’s daughter Ma’ayan is singing in a Chanukah play,and not Christmas carols.I hope that all Jewish Children will be free some day from being subjected to the celebration of Christmas in the schools. Happy Chanukah to all.

(34) Marjorie Petersen, December 24, 2014 3:13 AM

I amasses me how jewish children all over the country can make the same des idiom . I thought only my classmates and I did this in the 1950 s . We never talked about it we just stopped singing and since almost the entire class was jewish a large quite would depesend on the room.

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