Not Just Christmas
I walked outside and felt the frosty air turn my cheeks as red as fallen apples. Only six days until Christmas, then all this stuff that doesn’t relate to me is over. I am so sick of this, I thought. Am I the only one who gets it that there are five other holidays going on? Where’s our celebration? I don’t hear the dreidel song on the radio 24/7.
“I’m so excited for Christmas! Aren’t you?” Tammy asked. She was one of the “popular” kids in my sixth-grade class. I wasn’t a part of their clique, but I didn’t care. I had two really awesome best friends, Lilly and Eric. The populars, or as we wrongfully called them, the “wannabes,” were all the same.
“Not really, I don’t celebrate Christmas,” I said, even more fed-up with the whole situation.
“You don’t?!” she asked wideeyed, her mouth half open, like not celebrating Christmas was unthinkable. “That’s so sad; you don’t get any presents.”
“It’s actually anything but sad. I celebrate Hanukkah. I get eight nights of presents.”
I was so annoyed; no one but me got it! “Oh that’s so sad.” I mocked her in my head as I walked away. I made a grimace to myself. I thought about everything everyone had been saying to me. When they asked about my religion and I told them I was half-Jewish, half-Muslim, I was always asked, “Muslim? What’s that?” Heat rose to my face.
“Come on, homie. It’s not that bad. Can’t you just tell your mom you wanna celebrate Christmas instead of Honawhatchamacallit? It ain’t your mom’s call,” Tammy said. That did it for me, I couldn’t bear this anymore.
“You’re right; it isn’t my mom’s call; it’s mine and I want to celebrate Hanukkah. It’s the best holiday there is,” I said in an almost sarcastic tone.
“OK, but I really don’t see the point. It sounds stupid,” Tammy said, completely unaware of how much she was offending me.
“Stupid? It’s remembering the time they, excuse me, we were in Israel after our temple was sacked. We only had enough oil to light the menorah for like two seconds, but it stayed for eight nights instead. It’s our miracle.” I liked educating people about things like this, because it meant they would understand me a little better and maybe stop talking to me like I’m a freak of nature.
“What? That never happened to us. You made that up!” Not everyone knew as little as Tammy did. A lot of them had heard the word Hanukkah, but that was all they had heard. I’m sure they would understand who I meant by “we.”
“I mean ‘ we’ figuratively. My Jewish ancestors were the ones who had their temple sacked. I’m a Jew just like them.”
I just walked away from her. My boot fell through the pile of crusty brown snow. My foot got wet and it was freezing, but I only hoped she would go away. I didn’t care about the lack of feeling in my foot. I wasn’t about to cry about this. I just wanted this all to stop. Just six more days, then I’d have a break until Easter, which wasn’t necessarily true.Then, during Ramadan, I would always be asked why I wasn’t eating, and during Passover, I would be asked why I made my sandwich on such strange bread, but reminding myself I would have a break made me feel a lot better.
I got into the car with my mom. She could see that I was upset and asked me what was wrong.
“No one gets it. They think there’s only Christmas. What about Hanukkah? What about us?” I was starting to cry even though I said I wouldn’t.
“It’s OK. I feel that same way all the time. We just have to stick together. Just ignore them. They will never get how we feel, and that’s unfortunate for them; it makes us stronger, and I know you would rather be different than be like them.” My mom is always good at making me feel better.
“But wasn’t everybody Jewish in New York when you were a kid?” I asked.
“Most of kids in my class were, so as soon as I moved here, I felt even worse than you did, because I was used to that.”
“I just wish they got it. Tammy didn’t even know what the word Hanukkah was. Being different is nice, but not if it means having to deal with this,” I said. I was starting to pull myself together. I had a great idea and it was foolproof.
“You’re teaching your class about Hanukkah, right? And making your latkes too?” I asked my mom. She’s a first-grade teacher at my school.
“Yeah …” my mom replied. She could kind of see what I was getting at. “Maybe I could do something like that for my class.” “Like what?” my mom asked, although she knew— I didn’t, yet. The next day, at recess, Lilly, Eric, and I walked to my mom’s classroom, where the overwhelming aroma of crispy, salty, savory, smoky, potato pancakes filled the air.
“Wow,” exclaimed Eric. “What is that amazing smell?”
“Potato latkes. Would you like some? I made a lot,” my mom said. She was hinting at something. I wasn’t sure what.
We agreed right away, the long crunchy strips of deep-fried potatoes danced upon our taste buds, urging us to eat more and more.
“You should save some for other friends,” my mom said, and then I got it! She wanted me to teach my class about Hanukkah.
I told her and she pretended to be amazed that I came up with that “all by myself.” My mom brought a lot of latkes, enough for everyone, a menorah and candles; she made sure I got the story straight, and I recited the prayer for her.
I passed out the latkes with applesauce on the side. Many people were grossed out and very few willingly tried them, but nobody touched the applesauce.
“As a lot of you know, I don’t celebrate Christmas like all of you.” As I said that I watched everyone poke at their latkes and react to the “horribleness” that was the fact I don’t celebrate Christmas. “I celebrate Hanukkah, which means the festival of lights, honoring what we did where our temple was sacked.”
“She doesn’t really mean ‘ we,’ she means her ancestors,” I heard Tammy whisper.
“There was only enough oil for one night, but it stayed lit for eight nights. It was a true miracle. Now, every night for eight nights we light the menorah and say a prayer.” I paused, a little nervous to sing before my class.
“ Baruch ata adonai elohenu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir shel Hanukkah.”
Everyone clapped. I couldn’t help but smile. It’s not often I have this much encouragement from my class. I went on for a while longer, explaining everything with detail.
Of course this didn’t make everyone completely accept me, but it stopped the “Honawhaticas” and the “how sad, no Christmas” for all of my years at that school. But I felt so much better now, that didn’t matter.