I reached into my back pocket for my credit card and instead pulled out an invitation I’d received a few days earlier from my son’s daycare, asking if we would be attending the annual Nativity Program. Not knowing whether I wanted to go, I placed the invitation where I place all items I want to take under advisement: my back pocket.
Being Jewish, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, or whether I even wanted my son, Eddie, to participate. I don’t have a problem with his daycare putting on the program. His daycare is in a church. It’s to be expected. But while I can live with him saying grace before he eats a snack, participating in a play that re-enacts the story of Christ was a bigger pill to swallow.
So why send my child to daycare in a church? It had a great reputation, I liked the student/teacher ratio, and it was just four blocks from my house. Moreover, Eddie liked it. When we took him to orientation, he was so enthralled with all the toys they had, we couldn’t get him to leave. It’s more like a playhouse than a house of worship.
Still, before enrolling him, I asked some parents who’d sent their children there how big a role religion played. All of them said it was very small. I then consulted a neighbor who works in the daycare but whose husband is actually Jewish. She, too, said the religious aspect was minimal.
“Define minimal,” I said. “I mean, how often do they say, ‘Jesus?’”
“I don’t know. But it’s not like they’re drawing pictures of him nailed to the cross,” she said.
Indeed, Eddie spends his days there playing with Elmo, going to the playground, and making pumpkins by gluing orange pom poms onto paper plates. He doesn’t come home with puppets of the Virgin Mary or popsicle sticks with Judah’s head on top. But I did linger outside his classroom one day after dropping him off, to see how he socializes with the other kids, and I heard them sing a song about Jesus. I winced.
When I told my husband, Bruce, who is actually Protestant, he said, “Jesus was a good guy, you know.”
“I’m sure he was,” I said.
If I had my druthers, I’d raise Eddie Jewish. But Bruce is a bit skittish about it. He was fine with having a rabbi officiate at our wedding and with my request to have our ceremony under a chupah. In fact he doesn’t have a problem with Judaism at all. He has a problem with feeling excluded. Bruce fears if Eddie and I are Jewish, he’s going to be the odd man out. And so I walk a middle line, delicately insinuating Jewish customs into our lives, like sliding a plate of chopped liver out onto the middle of the table, to see if anyone will bite.
Ironically, the one who opens our door to Christian customs this time of year is me. I buy the Christmas tree and decorate it. I adorn our front porch and mantel with evergreen and white lights. I put a wreath on our door with a big gold bow. I even decorated one of the trees in our side yard with big Christmas bulbs that look like jelly beans.
I love the music, too. Last Sunday, I dragged us to a Christmas concert at a local church because I’d seen a flyer advertising it on the wall at Eddie’s daycare. The performers were a motley group, united by their black bow ties and metallic green vests that fit so poorly, they looked plastic. They sang the typical Christmas carols and did a rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas where they held up signs signifying each day, and members of the audience were told to stand by one of the signs and when it was their turn, to sing out the verse associated with that day. Whenever they reached Day 10, on which “10 Lords a Leaping,” one of the singers, a stout little man with curly hair and glasses, would leap down the side aisle of the church.
At another point in the show, the singers came out into the audience and had us walk around the room hand-in-hand, singing. I was touched when a member of the choir saw how small Eddie was and lifted him up and carried him as we walked. I sang along as we circled the pews, though every time they uttered the word, “Jesus,” it was like a chicken bone caught in my throat.
That night, I went home and lit my two menorahs for Chanukah. It was the second night, and I planned on giving Eddie the Hess truck I’d bought him at an antique store. It was my first Chanukah with my son (I don’t count when he was an infant), so it was fun to light the menorah with him. I then gave him some chocolate coins and a couple of dreidels to spin, though he’s not even two years old yet so the best he could do with the dreidels was to grab them and say, “Mine!”
It’ll be easy for Eddie to like Christmas, with all its pomp and circumstance. I just hope he will love Chanukah, too, the way I did when I was a kid – the candles, the latkahs, and of course the presents, which my parents would pile up in the corner of their bedroom. I’ll always remember one present in particular. It was a huge box at the bottom of the pile one year, and it had my name on it. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Just before I opened it, my father told me it was a new chair for my desk. I mustered up all the gratitude I could find to say, “Thank you,” even though I was profoundly disappointed. When I opened it, I saw it was a brand new record player. I was elated.
Before opening our presents, my three siblings and I would light our menorahs. We each had our own. The menorahs were so distinctive, I associated each one with the sibling who owned it, as if their shape and color reflected their personality. Wanting to continue that same tradition with my own small family, I went to the store today to buy another menorah, because I believe everyone should have their own. I found one that was beautiful in its simplicity. It had long slender arms that reached outward, like a tree wanting an embrace, and once again, the menorah seemed to reflect the personality of its owner: my husband.