Growing up a secular Jew in a Christian society can be hazardous to a child’s health. Well, it was for me at least.
First some background: When I was about 5 or 6 years old I asked the all-important question of my parents: why do our neighbors put up Christmas lights and we don’t? The explanation of course, was that Jews celebrate Hanukkah and that we don’t believe in Santa Claus.
“But is Santa Claus real,” I asked?
“Oh. Then why do other kids believe in him?”
I think my parents gave me some answer, but I don’t think it satisfied me. I wasn’t traumatized by the whole thing; in fact, it was probably the first time I truly became aware that some people are different than others. I should add that I had never lived around many Jews, so I was pretty accustomed to being the odd one out all my life.
Later that year (I think) I figured out that dad was the tooth fairy. After all, if one myth was false, the other was likely to be, too.
When I caught my dad in the act, I was smart enough to feign sleep, because I figured if the imposter was revealed, I’d stop getting money. Apparently, my wizardry with money didn’t carry on to my adult years.
So how was all this hazardous to my health? Well, come second grade I was standing in line for gym class – I think we were getting weighed or something – and two boys starting arguing over whether Santa was real or not. I kept my mouth shut.
Then my friends turned to me and asked, as if the Jew kid would be the authoritative voice on the issue, “Is Santa Claus real or made up?”
You can guess what’s coming; as smart as I was to keep quiet about catching the tooth fairy in the act, I’ve always been notoriously blunt. But after I answered “no, Santa is made up” the kid who believed in Santa said with a lot of sarcasm and anger for a 7-year-old, “Oh, and I suppose you don’t believe in the tooth fairy, either?”
“Of course not,” I answered.
Boom! The kid who didn’t believe in Santa Claus burst into tears. I mean, all-out top of his lungs caterwauling. I can’t remember what the other kid was doing, but he was pretty darned upset too.
So the teacher comes up and asks what the hell is going on. I tell him, and I get my ass chewed out in a manner I never experienced up to that point in my life. The teacher didn’t yell, but said:
“Brett, you can’t be going around destroying other people’s beliefs. That was mean. You have no business interfering with their lives.” Or something like that.
“But they asked me,” I said in a very plaintive voice.
“Nevertheless, don’t do it again.”
I think the teacher reinforced this message for the next hour and the rest of the school year.
I learned a lot from that experience. I pretty much held my religious views to myself – except among shocked family members – until college. I quickly discovered students’ willingness to discuss religion, etc., were no greater at Indiana University than in second grade.
I bring this all up because a number of bloggers have been discussing Christmas issues on their sites. Phil has two great pieces here and here about the myth of Santa Claus and wrestling with what to tell his kids. And Grace asks about a neighbor’s huge front yard menorah. *Update: Elizabeth fills in some of the blanks with this post.
Seth, by the way, has a huge fascination for Christmas lights. Both this year and last we’ve taken him around to see some of the best-decorated streets. We even strung up a single strand of lights with blue and white Stars of David sort of intertwined in the living room.
But when Seth and Lael ask someday about Santa, they’ll learn “our version” of the truth. Oddly enough, we’ll probably perpetuate the Tooth Fairy myth for a while. But I’ll be sure to warn my boy and girl, “do not dash the dreams of other children.”