Every year around this time, I stress about celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. (You can read last year’s post on this topic here.) I’m Jewish and it’s important to me that my boys – no matter how they choose to incorporate (or not incorporate) religion in their lives – have a strong and proud Jewish identity. It’s also important to me that they appreciate our family’s diverse heritage, are tolerant and respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, and celebrate what makes people unique. Hence, the stress.
On Friday night at bedtime, Dylan revealed to us that someone in his class at school called him a Jewish nerd. More specifically, this child told Dylan that she liked it when he messed up his hair like a “dude” because then he wasn’t a “Jewish nerd” anymore. Dylan laughed when he told us this story because he thought it was funny. He didn’t understand that what the girl said was offensive. He didn’t understand that it was insulting. That it was anti-Semitic. Mike and I were horrified, and when Dylan finally absorbed our reaction, he began to cry.
In this sudden and incredibly important moment of parenting, we chose to (delicately) end the conversation. Neither one of us was prepared to talk to him in an age-appropriate and sensitive way about religion, prejudice, or anti-Semitism without some serious thought and preparation. We were also angry that someone’s ignorance was thrust upon our child and disappointed because, at such a young age, we can only assume the words she said were learned at home.
Rewind a few hours. We were in the driveway doing sidewalk chalk and playing basketball when our neighbor across the street walked over and invited us to join her and her friends to celebrate the holiday of the Virgin Mary.
Editor’s note: I now know the formal holiday name is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. According to about.com, the holiday “…celebrates the saving work of God in preserving the Blessed Virgin Mary from the stain of original sin.” Catholic readers, please feel free to elaborate or clarify!
Religious details aside, she invited us to help light candles in her front yard and to drink wine and eat pizza and cookies. Invitation accepted! With no advanced notice, we couldn’t contribute anything to the gathering, but Riley quickly packed up a bag filled with menorah candles and dreidels to share with everyone. (Priceless.)
We had a wonderful time. Dylan and Riley played musical chairs with friends, Mike and I caught up with our neighbors and met new and interesting people, and we even bumped into a girl (not the abovementioned one) from Dylan’s class at school. Small world!
We lit dozens of candles and listened to our neighbor explain the holiday and what it meant to her having grown up in Columbia and losing her mother at a young age. She told us she loved the holidays until her mother’s death, but after becoming a mother herself, she realized she needed to give her daughter the same wonderful holiday memories she once had. Sitting under the starlit sky surrounded by the warm glow of candles and the sounds of our children playing, I think we all had the sense that we were doing just that. It was an absolutely beautiful experience and a reminder that celebrating our differences is what brings us together.
Back to Dylan.
As my kids get older and begin to have more independence and experiences outside of our cozy, safe cocoon, I’m quickly learning that I’m helpless to control the world around them. I can’t stop racism or anti-Semitism from happening any more than I can prevent natural disasters, mean kids, or pedophilia, but I can empower my kids to love themselves and accept people for who they are. I can teach my kids to be the change they want to see in the world.
At bedtime tonight (previous bedtime conversations indicate that this is a good window for giving and receiving information), we will tell Dylan that we love him. We will tell him that being Jewish is as awesome as being Christian or Catholic or Buddhist or Atheist or big or small or tall or short. We will tell him that he should always love and be proud of himself. We will tell him that being open and accepting of everyone is “cool,” and that sometimes that means you get to light candles and eat pizza and cookies outside.
On this second night of Hanukkah, we’re smoking a brisket, hanging Christmas lights, and exchanging Hanukkah gifts with our family. This year, I’m NOT stressing about religion. Instead, I’m thinking about how fortunate I am to be a loving, open-minded, and tolerant person and to have the opportunity to pass on these values to my kids.