The Chanukah People

This story begins with the painful collapse of a long-established Jewish community day school as the result of divisions between the orthodox and anti-orthodox factions in our old community. Having few other options at that time, we enrolled our daughter in public school for kindergarten and hoped for the best. Trying to work around Jewish holidays and kashrut proved challenging enough, but it paled in comparison to navigating the so-called December Dilemma. 

When we were informed that our daughter’s kindergarten class would participate in a winter holiday sing-along, we were given a list of songs and asked which ones she could and could not sing. Seven were about Christmas, two about Hanukkah, and one about Kwanzaa. While it would have been easier to just have our daughter stay home that day, we didn’t want her to feel entirely alienated and arranged for her to sing the Chanukah songs with her class. We did, however, object to “Silent Night” being included in the program. Unlike the other songs containing cultural holiday themes like Santa Claus and dreidels, “Silent Night” overtly promotes Christian theology. Although the school board’s solicitor didn’t necessarily agree with us, he recommended that the song be removed because of the age of the children involved and the superintendent acted accordingly. 

I thought the matter was closed, but a school employee thought differently and went to the media. By Friday afternoon, I learned that a local conservative radio talk show host was on the air urging his listeners to rally against me and the other “Chanukah people” for purportedly trying to keep America’s “Christian heritage” out of our public schools. As the story snowballed, it was the lead headline in 34 states trumping Scott Peterson’s death sentence for front-page headlines in some newspapers. Without so much as speaking to us, the Anti-Defamation League defended the school’s inclusion of Silent Night in school programs, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach wanted me in his Friday afternoon radio show (which I declined), I was even “Hannitzied” and we received hate mail in the days that followed. 

It quickly became clear to us that sending our daughter to public school was a huge mistake and enrolled her in a new Jewish day school the following Monday. We also withdrew our objection to the inclusion of “Silent Night” from the program as moot and the song was reinstated by the school board. The local radio host declared victory, telling his audience that the Jew “ran with his tail between his legs” in the face of a united Christian community. 

It was the Sunday during this horrific weekend that the local Chabad had its annual “Chanukah on Ice” event. As we entered the rink as a family, the Rebitzen greeted us and offered words of comfort and support, but said five words I have repeated often and will never forget: Jewish kids need Jewish schools. And so we skated, ate latkes and sufganiyot, and enjoyed spending time with the other people who came out that night. The next day, my wife took our daughter to her new school the next morning where she could be with the other Chanukah people.

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