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It’s been half a century since Jewish organizations started trying to ban Christmas carols in classrooms and nativity displays of model shepherds and oriental kings on the courthouse lawn. And I still get the same urge I got then to tell them to throw away their wet blanket and let Christmas be.
Being Jewish is nowhere near enough to win your agreement. You’ve got to be the only Jewish child in the entire school in a small Southern town where the first day of December set the schoolyard ablaze with colored lights and mangers and stars and cardboard sheep, and teachers leading the singing of “Joy to the World” as they unpacked alabaster Jesus statues still gleaming from the year before. You’ve got to remember the ecstasy of the teacher when Otis’ father, the big feed-and-grain man, offered to donate real hay for the manger scene, and how David Alston’s mother craftily made sure the poor kids would get as many gifts at the class party as everybody else, along with a few canned goods to take home.
I could pretty much sing along with the class when Christmas carols broke out, but I remember how impressed I was with the level of Christian intelligence when it turned out the Christian kids knew more than the first verse. Now, get this for North Carolina logic: The teachers knew I went to Hebrew school. Therefore, since I had studied a biblical language, they figured I could handle Latin better than the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian kids. So, since there were zero Catholic kids in the school, I was routinely chosen to solo the “Ave Maria” in Latin on stage at the Christmas play. It would make a better story if the teachers had thought Hebrew in some way resembled Latin, but why press it? It was charming enough for the Protestant super-majority to select a Jewish boy to do the job of a Catholic boy because there were none. By the way, none of us kids of any denomination had any idea what a “virgin” was – as in “Round yon virgin mother and child” – but we all assumed it had something to do with our neighboring state of Virginia.
And, you know something? It didn’t hurt a bit. Not one of us forfeited a smidgen of our own faith. We Jewish kids in all the other schools in town met and caucused weekly at Hebrew school, and none of us felt alienated or diminished by the exercise of joining our Christian friends and neighbors at the happiest moment of their religious year. Sure, Hanukkah looked a little pale to us by comparison. Eight quiet candles at home couldn’t possibly compete with a whole town glowing under swinging rope bridges of sparkling reds and greens. Besides, Judah Maccabee, the hero of Hanukkah, was too busy defending the Temple to emit anything like a “Ho, Ho, Ho!” – and although he had courage, he lacked charisma. Santa Claus would have swamped him in any preferential primary.
Hanukkah got in its licks, however, by lasting for eight solid days; with a gift, mind you, on every single one of those eight days! Whatever Hanukkah lacked in song and color it made up for in staying power. There’s no record of any Jewish child in our community switching creeds due to Hanukkah-shame. The ones trying to protect Jewish children from Christmas use words like “isolation” and “humiliation” to describe the condition of the Jewish child “subjected” to celebrating Christians. As my immigrant grandparents would have phrased it as they were learning English, “On me, they shouldn’t depend.”
Christmas to a Jewish boy in public school in North Carolina back then was fragrant, dreamy, enticing, beautiful and enviable in the pleasant sense. There was no feeling of anything being forced down our throats, but rather of something exceedingly pleasant being offered to our lips, nostrils and hearts. We didn’t feel like tolerated onlookers. We felt like honored guests at a spiritual Super Bowl of our friends and neighbors.
And we didn’t have to settle for seats on the 50-yard line, either. We were welcome right there on the team bench, and even on the playing field.
And, in my case, even calling the plays – in Latin!