Growing up Jewish among friends who celebrated ChristmasDecember 10, 2017
Hanukkah and Christmas in Kankakee by the Sea
In my opinion, the two most wonderful and festive holidays of the year take place in December and though they are different, they are also very similar. Families gather together to celebrate the occasions, the avenues in our cities are lit up and lights shine in our homes. Christmas tree lights in many of yours and a lit menorah in mine.
Happy Hanukkah to all my Jewish darlings
The celebration of Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday.
Bring out your menorahs, set your tables for family and friends, go to your markets and your flower shops in preparation of the first night of the celebration of Hanukkah.
For my non-Jewish darlings here is a lesson on Hanukkah
Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over the Syrian Greek army that led to restoring and rededicating the Holy Temple back to the Jewish peoples in 165 B.C. Hanukkah, which is Hebrew for “dedication” is the Festival of Lights.
Why is Hanukkah called the Festival of Lights? There was just one vial of oil to illuminate the Temple lamp for one day and the lamp burned for eight. It was a miracle.
The holiday is a very happy family time in Jewish homes as is Christmas in Christian homes, which leads me to my story today.
My story recollects my experiences growing up as a little Jewish girl in Kankakee by the Sea and how the experience of these two holidays enriched me.
Christmas and Hanukkah
I often say to you, dear readers, that everything we experience during our lives becomes a story. The story can last but a few minutes or continue for a few weeks. Some are over the top fantastic, some are hopeful, some boring, some painful, but nevertheless when strung together they become a novel of our memories—the story of our personal life. As we review our life’s chapters, our memories, we often return to the most defining ones, those that played an important role in shaping our lives.
I mention Kankakee by the Sea often in my musings because other than my parents, the town and its citizens were very important in molding my character. When I left, at 18, for college and sorority life, I left behind the physical community of Kankakee by the Sea but carried with me a certain innocence of the small town mentality. I still carry that mentality in me to this day along with layers of special and heartbreaking emotional experiences that are carved in my soul.
My musings today, with the holidays around the corner, take me back to Kankakee by the Sea and Hanukkah and Christmas time. My girlfriends were Christian. I was a Jew.
Christmas in Kankakee by the Sea brought out a longing for inclusion. Try growing up a little Jewish girl in a overwhelmingly 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 ham 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.
Recounting my memories, I see those holiday events as a positive. I learned about Christianity because I spent time with my non-Jewish girlfriends. 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 in Kankakee by the Sea I went to midnight Mass with my friends at Saint Patrick Church. I recall when they knelt, I sat in my seat as a good little Jewish girl. All-in-all I learned the important lesson early on of respecting other people’s faiths while still maintaining my identity as a Jew.
I give all of this credit to my father and one of my grandfathers. Their actions and words made me so proud and pleased that at a very young age my Jewish heritage was instilled within me for life, though I did not realize it at the time.
They taught me to honor my beliefs. 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 mantle.
I grew up learning the importance of planting trees in Israel to help turn the desert into a garden of Eden. I learned the importance of taking pride in my religious beliefs and I learned the history of the Jewish peoples. I learned charity and I learned from my father and grandfather to respect the beliefs of my friends. Hanukkah was a time of lighting the candles, singing songs, sharing love with my family and learning early on that not everyone celebrated Hanukkah.
I WAS SET APART.
I did not have a wreath on my door at Christmas. I had a mezuzah with the scrolls of the Ten Commandments on my door post.
On Hanukkah, I lit our menorah for eight nights. My friends had candles on their dining room tables.
I did not have a delicious Christmas dinner of ham and turkey and mashed potatoes. During Hanukkah, I devoured latkes with applesauce.
I did not have any twinkling lights in my front yard like my friends who had Nativity scenes. I recall asking my mother, “Can we have Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in our front yard and pretend he and the reindeer are Jewish?” The answer, with some laughter, was “No.”
Was I envious that I did not celebrate Christmas?
Was I envious of my friends at Christmas? Did I feel excluded? The answer is yes and no. 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 delight in sharing Christmas with them and they would delight in sharing Hanukkah with me.
They would invite me to their homes for Christmas dinner and their mothers would serve roasted chestnuts, ham, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie and ice cream for desert. 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. December is my favorite month of the year because of Hanukkah, Christmas and my memoirs. I chose to marry my husband in December because I am the happiest in December.
To my Jewish darlings, wherever you are, light your menorahs and twirl your dreidels into 2018. Happy Hanukkah.