Tygerpen | Chanukah attach finesses message

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For several years, the Jewish Federations of North America has nominated people who best exemplify modern Jewish heroism. This year I am extremely honored that my name has unexpectedly surfaced after I anonymously wrote Federation multiple times suggesting myself for acts of bravery during three Decembers, from 1993 to 1996. These were the years I presented to my sons’ public school third- and fourth-grade classes my program, “The Story of Chanukah.”

I was flattered to be asked by my kids’ teachers to talk to the classes about Chanukah. The grade school itself was a little United Nations of children, with so many different ethnic, racial and religious groups that the school encouraged sharing of different December holidays. But this multiculturalism created a competitive atmosphere, and I knew what was at stake: For many of these children, I’d be the first Jew they’d ever met in person. If I didn’t offer the best holiday food, exciting information and a memorably good time, they’d grow up believing the Jewish religion was about crappy store-bought food, a weird language and boring observances (not that that was ever the case).

On the day of my first Chanukah presentation, I carried into the classroom a number of bags and boxes with my “props.” I’d already taken considerable time with my personal grooming so the kids had imprinted on their brains that Jewish women were well dressed with stylish blond-streaked hair and fashionable black boots. Just to make certain I wasn’t creating a stereotype, I wore my fingernails broken and without polish — which is, in fact, my usual nail attire.

I began by telling the story of Judah Maccabee and the miracle of the Temple lamp oil that burned for eight days. When the class was sufficiently impressed and wide-eyed, I held up a golden container representing the Temple lamp that looked suspiciously like Aladdin’s lamp that I’d purchased at the Disney store.

“But the importance of this holiday is religious freedom,” I said, “which means everyone should be able to worship in his or her own way.” Perplexed looks. Then I worried: What if some kids go home and tell their parents that Chanukah was the reason America had freedom of religion? I’m mixing church and state!

 I decided to change course. “And here’s what we eat!” I enthused. With the teacher’s help, I spooned out applesauce and heated potato pancakes I’d found frozen at the grocery store. I’d made latkes once at home: The batter kept separating in the pan and I ended up with what resembled burnt jigsaw puzzle pieces. There was too much at stake to make the homemade ones. 

While they ate, I entertained them with the dreidel song. Then, to their delight, I passed out chocolate gold-covered coins — gelt. I explained “gelt” meant “money” and that this was a tradition. Then I worried: Money? Jews? Oh no. Why didn’t I think of that? Just what a bigot would say — the Jewish lady served chocolate money. Fortunately, the kids loved the coins that were reminiscent of pirates’ gold. That association was fine with me. I told them a pirate, Jean Lafitte, was a Jew and a good pirate.

The last treat for the kids was playing dreidel — the spinning tops with Hebrew letters — using chocolate chips for betting. I’d provided sheets of paper showing each Hebrew letter and the consequence of landing on each one. Then I worried: What am I doing? The kids will go home with melted chocolate all over their clothes from dirty hands. They’ll tell their parents they were playing a gambling game in school because the Jewish lady said so!

Fortunately, class time was almost over. All the paper plates and garbage had been collected, and soon I could bolt for the door. Nothing worse can happen, I told myself.

At that moment the teacher had to say, “Does anyone have any questions?”

A cherub-faced blond-haired boy raised his hand.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Why did the Jews kill Jesus? My priest said so.”

There followed a long, long, long silence.

Finally I smiled kindly, my lips mashed against each other. “Your priest may have been in a bad mood when he said that,” I explained. “He’ll feel better when you give him this from me.”

I handed the boy two net bags of gelt.

I’d never bribed a priest before.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Benicia and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.