Jewish day school kids shielded from Yule — during class hours

"In public schools, you do everything Christmas," said Tikvah, who attended one until second grade. "It was kind of fun. But I told some friends I was Jewish…I was proud to be Jewish."

Like Tikvah, Jewish children who attend public schools or non-Jewish private schools know they'll be deluged by the Yule's tide each December.

Christmas stories. Secret Santas. Christmas trees. Cheerful carols. Christmas cookies. Prancing reindeer. Christmas pageants. And lots of talk about presents.

So what's life like behind the doors of a typical classroom in a Bay Area Jewish day school?

Entirely different.

About 20 fifth-graders from three Bay Area day schools — Brandeis Hillel in San Francisco, Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito and South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale — were interviewed over the past week about their feelings and experiences during the month of December.

The subject of Christmas never comes up in day-school classrooms, those youths said, unless a teacher briefly answers a question from a curious student. And even in the lunchroom or on the playground, students rarely mention the Christian holiday.

"I talk about the presents I want…but that's it," said Sam Breslin of Brandeis Hillel, who celebrates Christmas at his father's house every year.

So in many ways, the children are shielded from the barrage of pa-rum-pa-pum-pums and fa-la-la-la-las — though not entirely.

"I don't really feel insulated because I don't live here; I go out into the world," said Dani Gilbert of Tehiyah.

Alon Sasson of South Peninsula agreed.

"As soon as we get out of school, we see it," he said — meaning the ubiquitous presence of holiday decorations, especially the twinkling lights strung across rooftops and woven into tree limbs.

At local shopping malls, Alon said, Santas will walk up and tell him he's been a good boy all year.

"It feels bad. They come to you not knowing if you're Jewish or not," Alon said.

Not surprisingly, Chanukah is the only holiday highlighted in the day schools during this month. But even the day schools try not to react to Christmas by overemphasizing Chanukah in relation to other Jewish holidays.

At Brandeis Hillel, for example, the sole Chanukah decoration at the entrance is a large bulletin board. It is covered with the children's drawings of latkes and gelt, their paper dreidels in blue, orange and purple adorned with smiley faces, and their riddles about Chanukah, such as "I can spin…I win nuts" or "I'm used as a fossil fuel."

However, in Room 5B, which holds one class of fifth-graders, there are no Chanukah decorations at all. Each grade emphasizes a different Jewish holiday, and the fifth grade is focusing on Shabbat this year.

Regardless of what happens in the classroom, however, about a third of the children interviewed celebrate Christmas in some form outside school.

A few, who either have a non-Jewish parent or one who converted to Judaism, spend the day with Christian family members. Others mark the holiday by exchanging gifts with Christian pals or heading to friends' homes for celebrations.

Gabe Scheffler of Tehiyah feels little need to be shielded from the bombardment of Christmas.

"It's not like it's a bad holiday. I don't believe in it. But if someone invites me to a Christmas party, it's nice for them because it's what they believe," he said.

However, Gabe added, his outlook might be different if he didn't go to a Jewish day school.

"I think it might after a while get annoying with everyone assuming you celebrate Christmas," Gabe said. "It would be nicer to go to a day school like this where everyone is the same religion."

Day-school students already know they cannot escape the commercialization of the season, which they see as highly unfair and imbalanced.

During a recent shopping trip in downtown San Francisco, Sarah Stroe of Brandeis Hillel noticed the huge Christmas tree in Union Square. But the giant chanukiah erected every year by S.F. Chabad wasn't there.

When someone tried to explain that it wasn't Chanukah yet, Sarah replied: "But it's not Christmas either."

When he was younger, Philip Rosenberg of Brandeis Hillel used to interpret the paltry number of Chanukah decorations in contrast to the overwhelming display of Christmas icons in stores as a sign that "one religion is more important than the other."

Now he believes it's because Jews are a minority. But that doesn't always make him feel better.

Others bristle at the season's standard greetings.

"I think it's sort of annoying when you walk down the street and go to a store and there are all these people saying, `Merry Christmas,'" Gabe said.

Even during a recent meal in a Thai restaurant, Dani said with irritation, "Deck the Halls" was playing in the background. But she also understands the commercialization a bit herself.

Her father is a florist who sells poinsettias at this time of year. He decorates his storefront with gift-wrapped boxes and Santas to help attract customers, she said.

Though aware of the avalanche of Christmas imagery during late fall and early winter, the 10- and 11-year-olds disagree about whether it's more difficult to be a Jew during December than other times of the year.

"Sometimes it's harder because people mistake me for Christian. Sometimes that bothers me," Alex Gitlin of South Peninsula said.

Laura Herzfeld of Brandeis Hillel agreed.

"I think it's kind of harder at Christmas. Everywhere it's all Christmas."

Noting the TV specials, the toy commercials, the Christmas trees and the oodles of decorations in red and green, Laura said, "It makes you feel — `What about Chanukah?'"

Gabe reacts differently to the Christian holiday.

"I recognize that they have their religion and we have ours," he said.

As a reassuring note, Alex Weissbrodt of South Peninsula reminds himself that Chanukah lasts eight days and Christmas lasts only one day.

"It's not so hard for me," he said.

Some deal with the situation by separating the holiday from its religious meaning.

"I don't think it's hard to be around Christian people," said Lauren Kivowitz of Brandeis Hillel. "Christmas is mostly a celebration of winter. The songs are about winter."

And Gwende Silver of Brandeis Hillel asserted that Jewish kids can join in the Christmas fun and "it doesn't mean you have to believe in the religion."

Several of the children, however, occasionally wish they could take part in more of the majority culture's fun.

When Elyssa White of Brandeis Hillel is around Christians during December, she sometimes feels uncomfortable because she doesn't know the words to a lot of the songs.

"I wish I could have learned the carols," said Elyssa, who still recalls the one time she sat on Santa's lap.

Sarah feels likewise. Hers is the only Jewish family on her block, and she sometimes feels a bit left out.

"On Christmas Eve when I'm home, I can hear them caroling," she said with a tinge of regret.

Despite their age, the students already realize that presents are such a large part of Chanukah because they are a major focus of Christmas. Yet the youths disagree on whether they could love Chanukah as much if Jews suddenly decided to stop exchanging gifts.

"I wouldn't really matter to me," said Dalia Caplan of South Peninsula.

Annie Rose Fink of Brandeis Hillel disagreed.

"I would still think Chanukah is special. But I would really be mad," she said.

And Gabe has it all figured out.

"It would be sort of disappointing. But I think the toy companies would be more disappointed than we would."