When my son was little, we attended a co-op preschool down in Manhattan Beach where the sole curriculum was “conflict resolution”. As a result of this, none of their art centers contained any holiday references. The children never even came home with a Mother’s or Father’s Day card in case one of their students didn’t have both parents in their lives.
We returned to Santa Cruz in time for my son to start kindergarten. I soon discovered that Santa Cruz had an entirely different policy about holidays. To my amazement, one of the kindergarten teachers had a Christmas tree in her classroom! Then during the springtime, at my daughter’s co-op preschool, I was again confronted by the different policy. One of the art centers contained stickers of bunnies and Easter eggs. When I brought this to the attention of the teacher, her response was, “Those aren’t religious symbols.”
It’s interesting to note that people have differing beliefs about what may or may not be religious symbols. There won’t be a Menorah downtown this year because some thought it was inappropriate to have a religious symbol by the post office. Despite this, I’m sure that there will be plenty Christmas related symbols throughout the downtown this year. Lights, trees, bells, holly and more are displayed all over town in schools, stores, and other public places.
So rather than beat them, I say let’s join them. Most often Jews are a bit shy about public displays of religiosity due to all the anti-Semitism that we’ve encountered. So here’s a way to stand up with pride, along with some strategies for Jewish families with little children. These tips help kids delight in their Jewish identity despite being bombarded by all the fun, brightly colored, and beautiful holiday symbols that just don’t belong to them.
1. When school starts, let the teacher know ahead of time that your child is Jewish and may be absent on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (our holiday season). Ask for a little consideration and to please not plan any fun and exciting special projects on those days so your child won’t feel left out. Ask the school board and your principal to put the holidays in their school calendar so teachers are aware of them.
2. Around Hanukah, ask your child’s teacher if you can come in to the classroom to make latkes. The children love them! I’ve had kids ask me year after year if I was going to make latkes and I’ve had parents thank me for doing it. If you want, turn this into a cooking lesson. Make it easy on yourself by purchasing bags of frozen shredded potatoes and minced onion from the supermarket. Or simply make them at home and bring them in already warm. Read the Hanukah story from a picture book while they eat. You can even light a menorah to make it truly exciting. After the children are done eating, teach them how to play dreidle. Peanuts in the shell work really well for the kitty – if there are no peanut allergies.
3. Have a latke party at home and invite friends and relatives. Chocolate gelt can be used to play dreidle with. In our family, each person has their own menorah to light. My daughter made a gorgeous menorah one year on top of a square of granite. You’ll need lots of candles for all those menorahs but the light is worth it. After lighting, march around your table, like Maccabees singing Chanukah songs. Did you know that it’s a tradition for Jewish women to simply sit at the table and enjoy the light while the candles burn? Get all your cooking and serving done first and enjoy this relaxing 20 minute-meditation-mitzvah for women only!
4. Use books and CDs to help your children get into the holiday spirit. There are many children’s books that tell the story of Hanukah. One of my favorite picture books is called, “Festival of Lights, The Story of Hanukkah” by Maida Silverman. My daughter always loved the sticker book, “Melly’s Menorah” by Amye Rosenberg. For older children, there is a chapter book called, “Jason’s Miracle: A Hanukkah Story” by Beryl Lieff Benderly. For even older kids and adults, there’s a book called, “The Complete Story of Chanukah” by Nissan Mindel. The best CD I’ve found for Jewish holidays is, “To Life! Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations”. Cindy Paley also has a nice Chanukah CD and “A Singing Seder” for Passover – check out mostlymusic.com.
5. Being with other Jewish children helps your child know he/she is not alone in celebrating holidays that are different from most of the other children in school. Community can be found at Temple Beth El, Kol Tefillah, Chadeish Yameinu and Chabad by the Sea. In addition, there are many places for you to learn more about Judaism. My favorite place to go is ChabadbytheSea.com where there are tons of articles, mp3 downloads and videos – all for free. But even if you only know alef, start there, you can teach your children “alef”.
When they’re confronted by the gorgeous, glittery and glowing holiday symbols that permeate our society during the “holidays”, know that you can give your kids something they can enjoy that’s all their own. Children are content to know that some holidays belong to others when they have something special that belongs to them. You can succeed in imparting the very best that Judaism has to offer by enjoying the many Jewish holidays throughout the year. They may not have the glamour and glitter but they can provide your children with deep meaning and miracles, a sense of values, and a heritage they can take immense pride in.