I grew up going to public school, but where I lived, there was a large enough Jewish population that we didn't feel totally excluded. People knew what Jews were and what we believed (roughly), and we got the first day of Rosh Hashanah and the day of Yom Kippur as official school holidays, and Hannukah and Passover were included in the school curriculum alongside Christmas and Easter. Roughly. I grew up assuming that that was my lot in life, to be the "other" religion that has holidays around the same time, and isn't it great that everyone gets a day off while I sit in synagogue?
If I thought the Jewish population in my hometown was small, I was in for a shock. My husband and I moved with our infant son to the northern part of San Diego County, which until about 15 years ago was basically the "boonies." It's now a vital and growing region with lots of new construction, and it's a very pleasant place to live. But, as I said, if I thought my hometown had a small Jewish population, the number of Jews in northern San Diego County is miniscule by comparison. Finding quality kosher meats requires a trek of at least 45 minutes, more if you want the really good stuff, and usually it's best just to make the two-hour drive up to Los Angeles, where there's a much more robust Jewish population.
As for school, my son was the only Jewish child in all four kindergarten classes last year (that's over 120 kids). There was a smattering of other Jewish kids in the school, one in fifth grade we knew personally, and possibly a couple of others. They learned about the non-religious aspects of Christmas, like trees and Santa Claus. They did an Easter egg hunt. And we were left with trying to figure out how to teach our son that he is different, and that he should be proud of his difference, while at the same time not wanting him to feel excluded or beneath for not participating in some of the school rituals that, while not exactly religious, run rather counter to our religion.
As we come up on Rosh Hashanah again this year, it's obvious that our son will stay home from school. There has never been any compromise on that point; there never was when I was a kid, and I'm not going to start now. He'll join us for kid-oriented Rosh Hashanah activities with our synagogue. He'll have fun, he'll eat apples and honey, he'll learn about his holiday and why it's so important, and he'll spend quality time with other Jewish kids. Sure, he may miss some math and some reading, but that can be made up. Fostering and creating a Jewish identity requires constant reinforcement, especially in the face of so much not Jewish around us.
That's not to say we've encountered anti-Semitism or prejudice. Far from it. Indeed, most people we meet here in North County are thrilled to find out we're Jewish. There's a lot of respect for Israel around here, G-d-fearing Christians, and tolerance. As I said, it's really a pleasant place to live. But that means that the not Jewish-ness is subtle rather than "in-your-face." And that makes the not Jewish easier to embrace.
So we are faced with the task of fitting in without blending in. We must keep our identity distinct, because assimilation is the number one enemy of Judaism, especially in a relatively tolerant country like the United States. I want my sons to grow up with a deep love of Judaism, respect for their heritage and culture, and a commitment to passing on their love of G-d and Torah to their children. I want them to date and marry Jewish women and have Jewish babies.
But I also want them to prosper in the public school system. I want them to have friends and participate in activities. I don't want them to feel "different" in an exclusionary way. I want them to be proud of their differences without being aloof. I want them to understand their differences so they can educate. I want them to stand up for themselves if, G-d forbid, they are bullied or put down for their beliefs. It's a delicate balance. We are not perfect Jews. We are far from Orthodox. But we are committed to having a Jewish home and raising Jewish children, and for that, we need to fight for every bit of Jewish-ness we can.
So, at Hannukah time last year, I made latkes for my son's class. At Passover, he brought in a Passover book to read. I allowed him to participate in the egg hunt but not to bring any eggs home. He has started attending Hebrew school once a week to increase his knowledge and understanding of Judaism and so that he spends another couple of hours a week with Jewish children in a Jewish environment. We go every Saturday to synagogue and spend hours there. We are fortunate to have a small but very tight-knit community here so that our children can grow up with Jewish friends.
If they can learn to find that balance in school, I hope they will carry that skill into the "real world" and continue to maintain that balance throughout their lives. Feeling buoyed by, rather than resentful of, their Jewish-ness will make Judaism a joy rather than a burden. Having Jewish holidays and customs and friends to fill the space left by not celebrating the same holidays as their school friends will mean that they won't feel a void. They won't have "nothing" instead; they'll have something different.
Our kids are still young enough not to feel the full brunt of their difference. But it will hit them at some point, and they'll come to us and complain that they want to do the egg hunt, or they'll want to have a Christmas tree, or they'll want to eat the pepperoni pizza at the class pizza party. And we'll have to hope we've built within them a strong enough Jewish identity that these "wants" are mere annoyances. We'll have to hope that they are strong enough within themselves to say, "No, I don't eat that," or, "No, we don't celebrate Christmas," and continue on without being embarrassed or shamed by having to say so. We'll have to hope that they look forward to our holidays and traditions as much as their friends look forward to theirs.
In the meantime, we’ll keep buying kosher food, celebrating Jewish holidays, and simply being Jewish. If Jewish is their normal, maybe it won’t be as difficult for them as I fear it will.
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