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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

Growing up, I was often the first Jewish person my classmates had ever met. I lived in Mississauga, Ont., and was the only Jewish student in my grade – sometimes the only one in the whole school. It set me apart. This difference, though, could easily slide under the radar and the degree of “differentness” I felt fluctuated with the school year, which coincides with the Jewish Lunar year – a little too conveniently.

Every September, I dreaded presenting the note my parents had expertly crafted to a teacher I was just getting to know. The note explained that I would be absent during the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I relished those first couple of weeks after Labour Day, before I began fretting that my teachers would label me the “Jewish kid,” and I was as normal as everyone else.

Then came Halloween – my favourite – because I got to celebrate it, too. I loved planning my costume, loved gutting a pumpkin at the kitchen table with my family, orange strands oozing between my fingers. I would trick or treat with friends and, just like everyone else, I could bring my loot to school the next day to compare my bounty.

The real trouble always came as the euphemistic “holiday” season approached. No, we hadn’t asked Santa for anything, my younger (and bolder) brother would explain to the shopkeeper/hairdresser/doctor/bus driver, because we didn’t believe in Santa. We were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, not Christmas. At school, on one of the last days before the winter break, every class would sit in neat rows in the gymnasium and sing Christmas carols, their lyrics printed onto overhead projector transparencies and displayed for all to follow along, while the music teacher accompanied on the piano. The teachers sometimes snuck in Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel between White Christmas and Jingle Bells, and I would feel hundreds of eyes darting toward my hot cheeks. I sang the holiday songs just as loudly as all my friends. Yet, I knew I would return home to a house with no Christmas lights and most definitely no tree (no matter how often I suggested we decorate the pine tree out front). As my friends counted down the days until Christmas, I counted the days until it was over and I could go back to feeling normal (at least until Passover). For our family, Christmas Day was spent intentionally out of the country or in a Chinese restaurant.

That’s not to say we didn’t celebrate our own holidays with gusto. I give my parents so much credit for standing resolutely in the face of the Christmas machine and making sure that we maintained our own traditions, and what’s more, understood them.

Every year during elementary school, my mother would co-ordinate with my teacher to come to my class and tell the story of Hanukkah. She would take the day off work and stay up late the night before, grating potatoes and onions and frying the mixture into golden, crispy latkes (not without complaint that it made the whole house stink). In the fried-onion-scented morning, she would don her homemade Hanukkah T-shirt (not as easy to come by as the ubiquitous Christmas sweater), and pack up a small menorah and enough dreidels for every kid in my class. She would adjust the material depending on my age, but every year I would proudly stand beside her as she recounted the story of Hanukkah to my classmates and explained the symbols. The children who had attended the presentation in a previous year competed to answer questions correctly and explain to the other students the rules of playing dreidel and how to eat a latke.

After my mom left, I would overhear my classmates showing off their fried treats, chocolate coins and multicoloured plastic dreidels to kids in other classes – and all that difference I felt fizzing under my skin would feel warm and comfortable instead of itchy and awkward. That feeling was pride. Pride in my family and in our traditions. Thanks to my mother’s efforts, every year I was reminded that it can be cool to be different, even if that meant that our house remained dark all year round and Santa would never come down our chimney.

My mom’s annual visits to both my brother’s school and mine sparked interest from other parents as well. Over the years, we had visits from parents who shared how Christmas is celebrated in Germany and Italy, the traditions and treats of Diwali and the Nativity story in puppet-show format.

My mom created space for herself where there wasn’t any and invited herself and our stories in without waiting for a request. When my classmates’ faces lit up as she entered the room with her bag of goodies, when they raced to name the menorah and show off what they knew about a holiday they didn’t celebrate, this is what encouraged me to be proud of my heritage and proud of what made me different.

My mom showed me, my classmates and their families that what sets us apart should be celebrated and shared, an intention which I continue to set for myself as I cycle through another holiday season.

Rachel Berman grew up in Toronto and is currently living in Mexico City.

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