I knew early on I was never going to be a perfect fit. All around me, everyone seemed to have this innate understanding of life while I puttered around like a chubby pinball from outer space. Call it disordered thinking, but I could never wrap my head around the kind of CRAP kids my age always seemed to be talking about; Boy Scouts, girls bands, hacky sacks, church. Church?!
I grew up in a place called Simsbury, a small farm town in the middle of Connecticut that most people outside the area had never heard of before.
Home to just over 23,000 (95.3% of which identifying as white), Simsbury was the kind of town you could just kinda assimilate into — pending you fell into the New England town’s particular brand of Christocentric monotony. Then there was my family: a gaggle of five dark-haired Jews who couldn’t tell a crucifix from a Christmas ham. We didn’t go hard at the whole “religion thing” but rather treated Judaism the way many American Jews do — as an ethnic background rich with food, traditions, and anxiety. We did Hanukkah, we tried our best with Passover, and the rest was a crapshoot.
Regardless of our view on Judaism, it was Simsbury’s view of my religion (or lack thereof) that impacted the way I thought about my heritage for years to come. Unlike Christians, Jews get a fresh shot at celebrating Hanukkah every year in school depending on which day it falls. Sometimes it’d fall around Christmas, other times December would be devoid of cheer.
This particular year — 1999 — I got to celebrate Hanukkah in school. Or so I thought. Sitting in chorus class, I pondered how we commemorate Day 3 of the eight-day holiday all nice little Jewish kids anxiously await for every year: Dreidels? Gelt? A special viewing of The Rugrats Passover episode? Imagine my disappointment when I came to realize that day would end without so much of a mention of the Maccabees or the miracle that inspired this beloved (albeit minor) holiday. That day, we stuck to the usual lineup of Christianity-adjacent songs (we did “With Arms Wide Open” by Creed one year)
I didn’t feel so much disappointment as I did acceptance for the lifelong lack of acknowledgment around the one time of year I actually felt excited to have nothing in common with everyone else. I don’t blame that classroom or high school or town for steamrolling over “minor religions” with Christianity, nor am I surprised by the lack of representation that taunts Jews despite the fact we supposedly “control the media.”
Times have changed, and are still changing, for Jewish people — sometimes better, sometimes worse — but I wonder if we’ll ever get to the point where Jewish holidays aren’t treated as an honorable mention and a deeper history of Judaism is taught to everyone. Of course, this is barely scratching the surface at the growing problem of underrepresentation in America. No matter where you sit on the Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays debate, inclusiveness is a far more attainable idea than many think.
Earlier this year the National School Boards Association put out an article explaining why recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching staff is crucial to improving students’ performance. While this particular story focuses on Black and Latino teachers, I can’t help but wonder how my experience might have changed had a Jewish teacher been present on that particular day, Hanukkah morning, and how it might have influenced my life.
Representation matters — especially in towns with outliers. Not everyone is cut from the same cloth and some kids need that extra reminder to assure them they actually matter.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Pay attention to other holidays as you hear about them, if they are unfamiliar to you google them to find out more and look into what customs or greetings may surround the day. Here is a great interfaith calendar resource to get you started.
- You don’t have to be Jewish to wish someone a Happy Hanukkah, or Muslim to wish some one a Happy Ramadan (or Ramadan Mubarak). Once you know a major holiday is coming up, make a point to acknowledge the holiday.
- Create or advocate for paid time off policies that have floating holidays so if someone celebrates a holiday that is not nationally recognized, they can still celebrate and spend the day with their loved ones.