When I think of the best school I ever attended, Victor Mravlag School 21 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, one of dozens of fabulous memories sticks out. It’s how we celebrated the holiday season.
I was nine years old when I transferred to School 21. My mother taught there and, rather than have my aging grandmother continue to look after me while I attended Harrison School near our home in Roselle, brought me to to hers instead.
At Harrison School there had been only one Jewish child in my class of about 35-plus children.
At Victor Mravlag School 21, half the class was Jewish.
So what did the school do?
Did they try to pretend we all celebrated the same thing?
Did they hide the differences in our holidays behind “politically correct” terms?
Hell, no! At that school, we celebrated everything! We sang Christmas songs. We sang Chanukah songs. We sang one another’s songs, basically. We learned about each other’s holidays, too, and there wasn’t any problem with it. Nobody tried to convert anyone. Nobody went berserk. Nobody had a conniption fit over this or got offended. Everyone made decorations and put ornaments on a tree. The children learned how to respect one another’s cultures, and there wasn’t any silly movement afoot to dilute them with generic terms or blandness. The Christmas tree wasn’t a “holiday tree,” and the Chanukah menorah wasn’t a “holiday menorah,” either – they were what they were, and we all had a wonderful time, a group of lucky children with two holidays to enjoy at school instead of just one.
It was my first introduction to the story of the Maccabees and the eight days of light that miraculously burned in the temple when there was only enough oil for one. I love that story yet. I also still know every last one of the lyrics to “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Lights of Chanukah.” In fact, I recall singing them in front of our brand-new artificial lit-up Christmas tree in Roselle that year. I can’t think of that particular Christmas, when I got a Chrissy doll with long hair that could be styled, without also thinking of my new classmates’ and their Chanukah.
When I used to work in Manhattan and would switch buses near the giant Menorah at the entrance to Central Park, I’d always stop to watch as a rabbi would light it, rising to the occasion, and the height of the lights, in a cherry picker. I’d go to see the Christmas Tree lights in Rockefeller Center, too.
With both of these beautiful holidays, it’s all about the lights.
Here’s hoping more people, in this time of division and polarity between so many groups of otherwise decent folks, may want to take a lesson from the kids I once went to school with and learn that it’s not offensive to have a bit of fun to learn about, and celebrate, other people’s cultures. It’s so much fun to embrace them. Candy canes taste great, and so do latkes.
Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Have a Great Solstice, and whatever you celebrate, SING OUT!