Getting to Hanukkah

I was born in Pittsburgh, PA and moved to Cromwell, CT in 1959-60.
Cromwell was a little town near Middletown. That was, as far as I know,
its only claim to fame. I was the only Jewish kid in the elementary school I attended. This “Lone Jew” phenomenon was recapitulated when we
moved in 1962 to a brand-new housing development in Middletown,
where I was one of 3 Jewish kids.
Being the sole Yid was a perpetual experience of unease. At Christmas
time, this angst became flat-out dread. It was always scary. I had to
navigate perilous waters from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. So many questions, so many hazards. What if? What if someone says “Merry
Christmas”? Do I say “Thank you”? Do I say nothing and feign deafness?
Do I say “I’m Jewish – I celebrate Hanukkah.”?
Unfortunately, my fear and loathing at this time of year were exacerbated by my own trepidation around expressing my fears to my parents,
particularly my father. I was convinced that if I even hinted that I felt
alienated or threatened by the Gentile world, my father would destroy
the entire town. We never explicitly spoke of protecting me or looking out for me – ever. And even though I did not know a thing about his
Holocaust  experiences, I was surely aware of his unbridled rage that was always  bubbling like some heinous, toxic brew. To mention anything that might tip that cauldron over was absurdly dangerous. And I knew this as lived experience.
As Christmas music played and trees were decorated, and caroling could be heard in the land, I walked through the days as if I were in a minefield without a sapper. I know this sounds a little over-the-top. But it was as if I were a character in a Woody Allen movie, not quite knowing where I fit, or how.
In those days, there were Christmas concerts in public school. There was no Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It was O Come, All Ye Faithful. It was
Silent Night. It was In Excelsis Gloria – which was not by Van Morrison. It was Away in a Manger. The most secular tune was Deck the Halls, and I
had no idea what boughs of holly were.
What am I supposed to do when I get to the name of Jesus in a song that
praises him as the Messiah? Do I just say it, theology is damned? Do I
stand there, mute? Or do I sing with gusto until I get to the name of Jesus, at which time I would mumble meaningless syllables?
In 1964, my Middletown elementary school concert included a Hanukkah song for the first time. It was not a great day for me. The entire school
was singing about dreidels made of clay (“What the heck is a dreidel?”), and it felt like everyone was looking at me. Were they? I can’t imagine that many kids knew I was Jewish, but it sure felt that way. Hence, more angst.
I was always fairly miserable during this season, moody, moaning to
myself all the time. Everywhere I went. Every window. Every door. Every yard in Middletown was festooned with Christmas decorations. Every TV station – all seven of them – were almost exclusively Christmas
programming. Every radio station – endless loops of Bing Crosby and
Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, all singing Christmas songs. Even my
rock n’ roll stations – WDRC and WPOP – were taken over by the
Christmas season.
When Hanukkah arrived, it was a balm for my chapped spirit. Every
Hanukkah my home became a holy refuge. Surrounded by some simple
decorations, our simple menorah out on the dining room table, I no
longer experienced terrible angst. I felt complete. Healed. Whole.
I’ve come a long way since my angst about feeling so lonely and left out at Christmas. I am still not a fan of the carols and the jingling bells, but I’m
not Scrooge either. It helps that more people respectfully say “Have a
beautiful holiday,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It’s all about live and
let live; I can live with that.
The comfort of the Hanukkah candles has never diminished. I still look at them and see in the light the reflection of peoplehood and continuity. We call Hanukkah a minor holiday – it’s impact is anything but.
As I watch my adult children around the menorahs, along with the 2
grandkids, or the big TBA Hanukkah menorah lighting, or as I make a
huge batch of perfect latkes, I get a sense of the miracle of Hanukkah. It’s not about the cruse of oil. It’s not about a military victory. The miracle is us. We’re still here, still banishing the darkness with more light, still
thankful for our freedom.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

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