My younger sister and I were the only Jewish children attending Monroe Elementary school in Davenport, Iowa in the sixties. In most ways I was just like any other little girl in the Midwest. I went sledding in the winter and caught fireflies in the summer. Only a few symbols formed my Jewish identity. For instance, the mezuzah on our front door was my daily reminder that I was part of a Jewish family.
Like most red-blooded Americans enjoying the freedom of living in the melting pot, the extended family gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving with all the trimmings (our stuffing actually had farfel, which was purchased across the river in Rock Island, Illinois from the kosher deli). However, this attitude of "when in Rome" did not extend to the next holiday. As the orange, yellow and brown displays in the supermarkets were replaced by green and red, a voice from within said, "This is not mine."
Each year, I would have to break in a new teacher. This happened in the fall. I was just an ordinary student, maybe a bit more gabby than the rest, until Rosh Hashana approached and I would quietly inform the teacher that I'd be missing school.
"Oh, you're Jewish?" was the usual response.
Once through the Jewish holiday season, my Jewishness was forgotten until the X-mas recital. Suddenly, my Jewish roots were recalled and considered of great educational importance. For this glorious gathering the entire school body was squeezed into the auditorium to hear speeches, a few carols, and view the lighting of my Chanukah candles.
It was a silence that impressed upon me that I was doing something important...that being a Jew was important.
This practice, year after year, tended to be the show stopper. The night before, I would carefully choose the nine candles according to some color pattern that I felt would make the best impression. These candles were promoting the entire Jewish religion and culture, competing with large evergreen trees covered with tinsel, lights and ornaments. As I took center stage and set my menorah onto a tabletop, I was amazed by the total silence around me. It was a silence that impressed upon me -- more than the gratuitous applause that would follow -- that I was doing something important...that being a Jew was important.
Lighting the shamash with a match was not a particularly religious aspect of the menorah lighting, but being nine years old and allowed to use fire added an air of authority to the ceremony. In a loud, clear voice I would recite the blessings according to the tune my father taught me. Then, one by one I would light all eight candles. It was usually not the last day of Chanukah when I made this presentation, but I felt it was important for everyone there to know that Chanukah was celebrated for eight days.
After the menorah was lit, my teacher would ask if there were any questions about Chanukah. Inevitably, some doubting Thomas would ask, "Is it true that you get a present each night?" Believing this to be one of the foundations of my holiday, I would announce, "That is correct!" which always got a few oohs and ahhs.
Once in a while a question would be considered out of line, asking if I "believed in" Christmas. My teacher would intervene, explaining that all questions should be about Chanukah. I had no problem announcing that I did not "believe in" Christmas. It was foreign to me. It was them, not me. I knew I was the only Jewish child in the auditorium, and sometimes felt I was the only Jewish girl in the entire world. And yet, like Judah Maccabee, I had no sense of weakness or lack of importance. As I stared at the small dancing flames, I thought of the children's poem, "Twinkle, twinkle little star" and I felt like a small, but precious diamond connected to an eternal People throughout time and space.
Today I no longer live in Iowa. And I am definitely not the only Jew around. I live in Jerusalem, with children ranging from still in diapers to recently married. The small twinkling light of Chanukah that built the strong Jewish identity within me in my childhood is the core of my present Torah observance that permeates my consciousness and every action.
I would never recommend anyone to raise their Jewish children in an environment void of the basic Jewish vibrancy that guides a child from his "Modeh Ani" in the morning until his "Shema Yisrael" at bedtime. But any parent who has felt the power of the small flame of Judaism from within the darkness of Jewish ignorance has a grand opportunity approaching. As the Chanukah lights are burning, take the time to tell your story. From a place of safety and light, we can help our children appreciate "BaYamim Hahem, Bazman Hazeh" -- Just as it was in those days, at this time.