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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.


Published: December 16, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 31

(31) Anonymous, December 25, 2008 5:21 PM

I was bawling

thank you for your story and the photo is exquisite. G-d bless

(30) Lori Palatnik, December 22, 2008 12:06 AM

"Don't say his name.."

This beautiful and touching article brought back a lot of memories: sitting on the floor in the gymnasium of our public school with all of the other kids. Being handed song sheets to sing together. One of the teachers would be at the piano, and we all sang the Xmas songs together. My sister, 2 years younger, leaned over and whispered to me, "What do we do?" I answered, "Just don't say his name." Even back then we had a sense of who we were-- who would guess that years later my sister would lead the way in our family's return to Torah and mitzvahs. Today she lives in Monsey with her 6 kids and granddaughter, my brother and his family now living in Eretz Yisrael. Chanukah is truly a time of miracles.

(29) Chani Ganz, November 17, 2007 9:23 PM


This is a beautiful and moving story that I am hoping to share with my students at a sunday hebrew school where all of the children go to public school. Thanks for the inspiration!

(28) Anonymous, February 6, 2007 12:50 PM

i read this article with tears in my eyes and pain in my heart. i was raised in a society where public schools were either catholic or protestant and jews were deemed "protestant" for public school purposes. jewish parochial was financially out of the question for the people in our neighborhood but we went to jewish school monday through thursday and on sunday morning.

i still remember recoiling at the little songs we were taught and my parents would tell me,"just don't let those things into our personal lives just as we didn't allow them to do in europe."
ican still feel the loneliness we felt even though our school was 75% jewish.

i make it a point since then to let everyone know who i am and what we stand for. they may not always love me but they sure do respect me.

(27) Anonymous, December 31, 2006 3:41 AM

This article about a Chanukah Carol rings a familiar bell, to my childhood in a Public School in Akron,Ohio. We were one Orthodox family among very few, except for the Rabbi and Rebbitzen of our Orthodox shul. I to had to attend a public school in our area. I attended Talmud Torah after school.

When the non Jewish holiday season came around I to was expected to sing in the Christmas choir or play. I asked my Mother A"H what to do. Should I participate? She told me I shouldn't make waves, the school was very antisemetic and I was already suffering from it's ways.
She said I can sing the words, until I come to the words about their Lord and then I can loudly sing Hashem is our Lord and no one will be the wiser, or I could open my mouth, and think of Hashem and not let the words they expected me to sing come out of my mouth. That's what I did.
I sang without words when it came to those words.

I never doubted my Yiddishkeit and stuck to what my Mother A"H taught me to do.
Nobody could dissuade me otherwise.
I was the only one who could never be
the attendance monitor because I missed
school on the Yom Tovim. It's the only times I missed school. I was never out for sickness. I didn't receive a perfect attendance award at the end of the year because the only time I did not attend school was on the Jewish holidays. I felt sad that they did not recognize this and punished me in their way because of this.
However, I knew I was doing what was right and never sorry that I suffered the consequences for my beliefs. It made me stronger and more involved in my Yiddishkeit.

I thank my Mother, may she rest in peace, for the way she taught us to get along with everyone and accept them for their religious beliefs, while respecting other religions. I never wavered on ours. This is how I've led my life into my Senior years and have taught my children and grandchildren the same . B"H my children and grandchildren are frum and have attended and are attending frum Yeshivas.

I feel Hashem has rewarded me for my
stalwart "sticktoiveness". For being taught and shown in my childhood how to stay strong in my beliefs even though others were different.

I had to live in a Jewish Children's home at one time when my Mother was ill. My Father passed away when I was 5. In the Jewish Children's home I was punished because I refused to drink milk and eat meat at the same meal. I gladly accepted the punishment and asked to speak to the Executive Director and expressed my dismay for being punished for practicing what the Torah has taught us, not to mix milk with meat. After that I was never punished again for not drinking milk with a meat meal. They no longer served milk with meat meals.

It seems that this standing up for what is right, was passed down to my oldest son many years ago when he attend a "modern" type of Yeshiva" because our Orthodox Rabbi suggested he go there for the education he would receive there that was superior. He indeed stuck to what he knew was right. He would not write his homework on Chol Hamoed Sukkos.
When he was called to the Principal's office he explained to the Principal that the law was that he was not supposed to write his homework on Chol Hamoed. When the Principal called our Rabbi to inquire if he was the type of person who was looking to get out of homework or was truly religious in his believes, our Rabbi responded that he was truly religious in his believes. That was the last time any of the students did written homework on Sukkos.

I feel I could have very easily gone the other direction when I had no parental guidance. But what our Mother A"H taught us kept us strong and unwavering. She taught us to practice our Yiddishkeit b'simcha. I witnessed her doing just that.
That helped shape me and my children
in what we are today. My husband was raised in an Orthodox home in an Orthodox area here in Boro Park all his life. He didn't have to experience and suffer what I had to suffer. I feel it made me all the stronger. I feel Hashem presented that way of life for a purpose.
I thank him for helping me and guiding me all my life in his ways.

Mrs. Bea Pollock
Brooklyn, New York

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