I often write to you, dear readers, that every occurrence we experience during our lives becomes a story. The story can last a few minutes or continue for a few weeks. Some are over the top fantastic, some are hopeful, some boring, some painful but never-the-less, when lumped together, they become a novel of our memories, the story of our lives. As we review our personal chapters, our memories, we often return to the most defining ones, those that played important roles in shaping our lives.
I mention Kankakee by the Sea often, because the town and its citizens were very important in molding my character. When I left, at eighteen, for college and sorority life, I left behind the physical community of Kankakee but carried with me a certain innocence of small town living and layers of special and heartbreaking emotional experiences. The heartbreaking experiences came because I was set apart, unable to blend because of my circumstances.
My musings today, with the holidays around the corner, take me back to Kankakee by the Sea and Christmas. My girlfriends were Christian. I am a Jew.
Wanting to be included
The holiday season, Christmas, in Kankakee brought out a longing in me for inclusion.
Try growing up a little Jewish girl in an all Christian town. I was not envious; I was wistful. I wanted to decorate a Christmas tree, have the most beautiful wreath on our front door and give and receive lots of presents. I wanted to run down the stairs Christmas morning and see what Santa left me and share the information with my Christian friends. I wanted to have my mom make a turkey and invite our family over for Christmas dinner. Why shouldn’t I? After all, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year and I wanted to revel in it.
That was not to be my story.
Looking back on my memories — and because I walk on the sunny side of the street — I can now see those holiday years as a positive. I learned about Christianity. I could sing every word of every Christmas carol; I helped my friends decorate their trees, ate ham for dinner at their homes and, as I grew older, went to midnight mass with my friends at St. Patrick Church.
I recall when they knelt; I sat in my seat as a good little Jewish girl. All-in-all, I learned the importance of respecting their faith, developed my strong character in staying true to my beliefs and honed my ability to feel compassion for others because I knew how it felt to be left out.
My Jewish identity
To the credit of my parents and my grandfather, I was taught to honor my identity. I did not grow up with a Christmas tree with twinkling lights and divinely wrapped presents with beautiful bows under the tree or stockings hung on the fireplace ledge. I grew up learning the importance of planting trees in Israel to help turn the desert into a Garden of Eden.
We did not have a wreath on our door at Christmas. We had a mezuzah with the scrolls of the Ten Commandments on our door post.
On Hanukkah, we lit our Menorah for eight nights commemorating the rededication of the Temple in 165 BC by the Maccabees after its desecration by the Syrians. My friends had candles on their dining room tables.
We did not have Christmas dinner. We devoured, on Hanukkah, latkes with applesauce.
We did not have any twinkling lights in our front yard like my friends who had Nativity scenes. I recall asking my mother, “Can we have Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and pretend he and his reindeer are Jewish?” The answer was, with some laughter, “No.”
We celebrated the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, during the month of December. The first nights of Hanukkah my grandfather and grandmother rented the grand ballroom of the Hotel Kankakee in Kankakee by the Sea! We were a huge family and needed the space because my grandparents included second and third cousins. We were a ‘real tribe of Israel.’
Was I envious of my friends at Christmas? Did I feel excluded? The answer is complicated. Though, Christmas is magical and there is love and sharing in the air, I realized at a young age that Christmas was not my holiday. Christmas belonged to my Christian friends. Hanukkah belonged to me. I would share Christmas with them and they would share Hanukkah with me.
They would invite me to their homes for Christmas dinner and their mother would serve roasted chestnuts, ham, sweet potatoes and pecan pie with ice cream for dessert. I would invite them to my home and my mom would teach them how to make delicious latkes that were served with all kinds of toppings along with a delicious Hanukkah dinner.
Years have gone by and I still have an intense and deep affection for the month of December. It is the time of year to celebrate two festive holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah going on all over the world. A full circle of togetherness.
To my Christian Friends, I wish you happy Yuletide merrymaking. To my Jewish friends, light your Menorahs and twirl your dreidels into 2017.