When I was a small child in Houston, my mother would come to school every year to teach about Chanukah.
Armed with her guitar, wax-encrusted menorah, dreidels and box of latkes mix, my mother (laying her New York accent on a little thicker than usual) gave my Christian classmates a brief recap of the Maccabee story before launching into some songs. A blonde girl once requested "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer." The teacher looked embarrassed, but my mother laughed and said, "Why not?"
Those years were the most Jewish of my childhood. In Houston, where we knew few other Jews, being Jewish made us different and special. It explained why my mother and father (unlike the tall, slow-talking, Southern-accented other adults) were short, dark-haired, East Coast-educated Ph.D.’s who argued loudly about ideas and who longed for their homeland, New York.
In many ways, our Jewish identity was defined less by what we did and believed than by what we didn’t do and didn’t believe. We didn’t go to church, and we didn’t believe in Santa Claus or Jesus. We didn’t believe in God either, something for a long time I thought was actually part of being Jewish.
My parents divorced when I was 6, and a year later my newly remarried mother moved my sister and me to Pittsburgh. Ironically, at the same time we moved to a community where at least a quarter of my classmates were also Jewish and bagels were available around the corner, I began to feel less Jewish.
It started with Rosh HaShanah when I showed up at school and my teacher said, "I thought you were Jewish." Then came Chanukah. My mother volunteered to make latkes at the class "holiday party." When she arrived, the teacher showed Mom to the kitchen and asked, "Where are all your potatoes?"
"This is everything I need," Mom said, taking the Manischewitz mix and a bottle of oil out of her bag.
"Oh," my teacher said. "Usually the Jewish mothers make the potato pancakes from scratch in the traditional way."
My mother thought the exchange was amusing. It had never occurred to her to go to the trouble of peeling and grating a zillion potatoes. But I was mortified. We were Jewish imposters.
Unlike us, Pittsburgh Jews seemed Really Jewish. They were not secular New York transplants but synagogue-goers who all knew each other from having lived together in a tight-knit community for generations. Unlike me, the Real Jewish kids did not have gentile stepfathers or Christmas trees or mothers who shared Marx’s view that religion was the opiate of the masses.
This year I will be teaching about Chanukah at my 2-year-old daughter Ellie’s nursery school, where believe it or not she is the only Jewish student. Our Queens neighborhood is not very Jewish and the school is housed in, but not affiliated with, a church.
It feels funny to be following in my mother’s footsteps, since our Jewish identities are very different. Not that my mother isn’t strongly Jewish; it is a big part of who she is, having grown up with Yiddish-speaking parents and immigrant grandparents in an America in which anti-Semitism was visible. But unlike her, I’m not an atheist, although I’m too noncommittal to be more than agnostic and I am married to a lapsed Catholic. Nonetheless, I’ve studied Hebrew, lived in Israel, belong to a synagogue, light candles on Friday nights and want my daughter to have at least a nominal Jewish education.
As Christmas approaches, I find myself feeling squeamish about my choice of nursery schools. I had planned to send Ellie to a Jewish preschool in Forest Hills, but when it came time to register her, the idea of schlepping her stroller on the subway each way wasn’t very appealing. And frankly, I’d be equally squeamish about an all-Jewish environment. I like that Ellie’s school is called the "International Preschool," that our neighborhood is ethnically and economically diverse, and that the streets have Diwali lights as well as Christmas ones.
When Ellie eyes the Christmas tree in our co-op lobby or prepares to sing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" at the school "holiday party" or talks about visiting her dad’s family "for Christmas," I flinch a little. On the other hand, it seems phony somehow to shield her from the fact that Christmas is the dominant holiday in our country, especially when half of her relatives are Christian, even if she is herself Jewish.
So next week I’ll be the School Chanukah Mom, the bearer of latkes, dreidels and a menorah. But in deference to my younger self, I’ll make the latkes from scratch.
Julie Wiener is a copy editor at The Jewish Week and a free-lance writer.