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Lisa Tobin: Being one of the only Jews in a small town during the culturally sensitive 1990s had its advantages. Namely, a one month hall pass to be my precocious self. But what would my excuse be in January? (Photo courtesy of the author, pictured here circa 1992)

Growing up in a small fishing town outside of Seattle, it’s possible that my brother and I were not the only Jews in our school, but if there was a third, he was deeply closeted. It was the type of place where my soccer coach scolded my mom when I had to miss a tournament for my bat mitzvah. We had to cross a bridge to the next town over to make a minyan. And, every year, my school and every public institution in town were totally decked out for Christmas, and only Christmas. The elaborate light shows and nativity scenes were not meant to exclude — it was more like ignoring Canada Day, because we don’t live in Canada.

This was the backdrop against which this story takes place. I was in the first grade. It was December. And two things happened, back to back, which, had they not taken place in that time and place, would have been entirely unremarkable.

The elaborate light shows and nativity scenes were not meant to exclude — it was more like ignoring Canada Day, because we didn’t live in Canada.

Thing 1. One afternoon, my teacher gathered us in a circle for reading time. He brought out “Stellaluna,” a picture book about a fruit bat, and started to read aloud. But just a few days earlier, we had a substitute teacher who had read us the exact same book. As I looked around at my classmates, no one else even seemed to notice. So, I took it upon myself to stand up and notify our teacher. “Excuse me,” I said, “we already read this book.” From my perspective, I assumed the teacher would be grateful for this information and stop wasting his — and our — time. At age 7, I had not yet read the stacks of literature about how teachers inadvertently but systematically make little girls feel that it’s not okay to speak out, while little boys are encouraged in that same behavior. But it’s also perfectly likely that I sounded like a little brat. In any case, my teacher’s response was to tell me that I was being very rude.

Thing 2. A few days later, I was working on a math assignment and struggling with some calculation. I really, really hated to ask for help. I still do. But I finally dragged myself across the room to talk to my teacher. Now, I was very particular about my school work. I always used a pencil, so that the finished product would be perfect, with nothing scribbled out. But the first thing my teacher did when presented with the paper was to pull out a red Sharpie and start writing out the equation in big fat strokes. Two sins in one. He was completely desecrating my pristine homework assignment and, in doing so, announcing to the world — in permanent ink — that I had needed help. Instinctively, I blurted, “Don’t do that!” Again, I was told that I was being very rude.

I let them run with their theory. Why not? Better to be a victim than a culprit, I thought.

Like I said, pretty unremarkable. But these two events taken together were enough to convince my teacher that I was having a tough time. And, being December, it must have been, he concluded, because I was Jewish and it was Christmastime. That’s what he told my parents when he called them and asked them to bring me in for a parent-teacher conference. I remember my parents floating his theory with me, before we went in. I don’t know if they thought he was right and felt bad that they had missed the warning signs, or if they thought it was ridiculous but felt obligated to ask. The latter was definitely true. If my teacher had re-read “Stellaluna” and written on my paper with permanent marker during the month of March, I guarantee I would not have taken it lying down then either.

But, on the other hand, I was also being given an out, an excuse for my behavior. My mom says this was around the time small towns like ours were starting to worry about lawsuits from the Jewish or Muslim or atheist families, demanding a giant menorah be placed next to the Christmas tree in the town square or boycotting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. In any case, I let them run with their theory. Why not? Better to be a victim than a culprit, I thought. So we all met, in the middle of a school day, to discuss how my school might make me feel more included during this very difficult month for young Jewish children. After the meeting was over, I returned to my classroom to discover that the teacher had distracted the class by putting on the classic holiday movie “The Best Christmas Pageant  Ever.” Even at the time, I remember thinking that was pretty rich: Quick, let’s put the Christmas movie on while the Jewish kid is out of the room … It might be our last chance.

The ladies dancing, the lords-a-leaping, the pipers piping, and the drummers drumming had missed the cutoff and would remain Christian.

Here’s how things changed after that meeting: The next day we were given an assignment to draw The Twelve Days of Christmas. But, Lisa — my teacher noted in front of the whole class — would only be drawing the first eight days, because she celebrates Hanukkah. He seemed to think this was a brilliant solution. There were eight days of Hanukkah, so they’d just truncate the project for me, and, voila, it was a tailor-made Jewish assignment. The partridge in the pear tree, the turtle doves, the French hens, the calling birds, the gold rings, the geese-a-laying, the swans-a-swimming, the maids-a-milking — all magically converted to Judaism, just like that. The ladies dancing, the lords-a-leaping, the pipers piping, and the drummers drumming had missed the cutoff and would remain Christian.

I don’t remember any other changes that December, apart from my confused-faith rendering of the Eight Days of Christmas. That was it. A pen-and-paper illustration of my school’s early attempts at tackling multiculturalism — misguided but well-intentioned. And once January rolled around, I was no longer a rude little girl with the excuse that I was Jewish and it was Christmastime. I was just rude.

Tags: Religion

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  • http://www.facebook.com/leahhagercohen Leah Hager Cohen

    Funny and wise and beautifully written.

  • sharon

    great stuff! an important story, well told. your experiences are similar to mine, only mine are sepia-tinged. back in the 1960s and 70s my childhood self found the situation hilarious and intriguing and exasperating…which come to think of it pretty much continues to define my overall world view.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kathy-Wnuk/100000450245663 Kathy Wnuk

    Excellent! I recall ages ago – I sent Xmas cards to a lot of people including my voice teacher. (I was in college.) Next time she saw me, she thanked me for the card and told me that she was Jewish. She was lovely about it – but it did make me go “Oh, crap, what did I do? Making assumptions that everyone’s like me!” Since then it’s always holiday cards – something funny or pretty, but leaving the religious and Xmas out of it. It also saves money, because I KNOW that some of the people who are getting the cards are either not Xtian or are agnostic. Sometimes I’ll just get New Years cards.

  • Verna Herron

    You have a beautiful and witty way with words!

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