It’s difficult to be different in the Midwest. I’ve found the prevailing attitude to be “you are in the majority or you are wrong”. When I was new to my neighborhood I was at a pool party with a group of neighbors, mostly “lifers”, and we were talking about living here. I said that I wished there was more diversity. Life is so much more interesting when we’re exposed to different people: be it color, political party, religion, sexual preference, ethnic backgrounds. Here everyone is the same. “That’s what we like about it” they all agreed except Lisa (also not from here). Thank goodness for Lisa.
True story: When my son was little, he and I were talking about diversity and I said that I thought it was sad that he was the only Jew in his whole school and that there are no Black people at all. He said that, in fact, he had a friend in his class who is Black. I knew this wasn’t true, I was the Head Room-Mom and I knew every kid by name. The next day I watched intently as the class got out to see if maybe there was someone new. Then I realized that he was talking about an Indian boy in his class, he didn’t know the difference. That was a sad day for me.
We’ve been involved in groups through the Temple and through Chabad, but we don’t belong to a Temple here and my kids haven’t been through religious school. I'm surprised at and don't approve of what's required here; being forced to divulge our income and tithe a chunk in order to join a religious community. So my children have been raised with the traditions almost exclusively. I’ve enjoyed practicing them and have learned quite a bit about them myself.
This Sunday night is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and I love this holiday. It’s the Jewish New Year, "rosh" meaning “head” and "hashanah" is “the year”. There are 2 traditions that are so rich in symbolism and meaning as to make this a special time. First, we make and give out honey cakes. Honey is used to symbolize our wish for a sweet year ahead. But the tradition is not just one of giving, although that alone would be meaningful. The tradition is to give and to receive. We all acknowledge that we should be people capable of giving. On this day we also acknowledge our vulnerability, we are people who sometimes have to swallow our pride and be capable of receiving.
When my kids were in elementary school we always chose their teachers as recipients of our honey cakes. I’d print up a short note explaining what we were giving them and why. I had an ulterior motive, however. This was my “heads up, you’ve got a kid in your class who is different from the rest”.
The other tradition I love is tashlich. Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, is right around the corner. That's the day we fast and atone for our sins of the previous year and ask G-d to put us in the “Book of Life” for the coming year. In preparation for that solemn day, on Rosh Hashanah we perform tashlich. We take bread, go to a flowing water source, and throw in pieces of the bread. We are symbolically casting away our sins of the past year, starting to think about how we can be better people next year.
In terms of our religion, the time that has been the most difficult for us here has been the month of December. My kids' teachers have always been amazingly open minded, but their school district is sadly not. When the boys were in elementary school, I was invited by almost every teacher to do a Chanukah presentation. I made sure that my presentation was about traditions not religion. I’d buy a fun Chanukah traditions book, read it to the class, then donate it to the teacher. I’d show them how we light the menorah and I’d bring donuts as a snack (fried foods are a tradition on Chanukah). I’d divide the class into groups and teach them to play the dreidel game using candies that I brought and then left for the class. The kids all loved it and I think got a sense that although my boys were different, they had fun traditions this time of year too.
The school district was a whole other story. The sign in front of the school in December said “Merry Christmas”. Once my kids could read I asked if it could say “Happy Holidays”. They chose to take the sentiment down and leave the sign blank instead of changing the letters.
Once when we were celebrating a holiday where we couldn’t eat bread, the school had a Dairy Queen fundraiser night planned. My kids were proud of the fact that they had attended every one of these “eat out” fundraisers and were in line for recognition for having done so. When I spoke to the Principal (way in advance), I was told “so what if it’s a holiday, you still have to eat, don’t you?” My response: “Do you go to Dairy Queen on Christmas?” He later told me that the evening couldn’t be changed because DQ couldn’t accommodate any other night. I went into DQ and they were shocked, they could have and would have happily changed the day had they known.
At the substantial risk of angering most of my readership I may as well take the opportunity to say this too. I DO NOTwant to take the Christ out of Christmas. I couldn’t, but I wouldn’t even if I could. I appreciate your desire to celebrate all of the traditions you grew up with, but hear this: Anyone who says “happy holidays” to you is not conspiring to alter or change your religion. They are just trying to include everyone who celebrates anything this time of year into their good wishes, you as well. It’s not meant as an affront either to your religion or to you personally.
If I know that you are Christian and I’m talking to you, I’ll always say “Merry Christmas”, it’s my way of acknowledging you as an individual. If I’m talking to someone in a store, or a group of people, I won’t say “can you each tell me what religion you practice so I can tailor my wishes to you each individually”. I’ll just say “Happy Holidays”. There’s no hidden agenda, it’s meant to be respectful, nothing more nothing less. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wished a merry Christmas. How many times have you been wished a happy Chanukah? Kwanzaa? Bodhi Day? Yalda? Ashura? And I’m so sick of hearing that wishing everyone a happy whatever-they-may-celebrate is somehow a vast conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas. It is just plain not.
So now that I’ve alienated the vast majority of my followers (I’ll have to check, I may be down to one or two now) let me just say to those of you who are left: I hope your beliefs, be they celebrated in a building and in a structured way or just traditions in your home, provide you with direction and clarity and hope and comfort and compassion. In December, and every other month of the year for that matter, when you come across peo0ple who are different from you, I hope that you too will find that it does not diminish your beliefs at all to wish them well in theirs.