Grammar school memory: it’s Oklahoma, a tiny Air Force town with the unlikely name of Enid, the late 70’s, December. The winters are unforgiving, especially during the holiday season. Rather, the Christmas Season – this was, after all, a school made up of white Christian kids, where each day began with The Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, in that order. The hallways and classrooms were festooned with manger scenes and Christmas trees, in that order. I wasn’t much into the whole Jesus thing, then as now – I, and I suspect most of my classmates, worshipped Santa. The reason for the season, presents. But there was a special anxiety, along with the usual Naughty Or Nice-related ones. My mom’s Jewish, and when you’re the only kid in your class who can count his name among the Chosen (well, per Jewish law, anyway – my agnostic views had already taken shape, and then as now I wasn’t going to cast my lot with any single religion; gotta keep your options open, in case one of ’em actually turns out to be correct) and many of your classmates share the same religious tolerance as their parents (the same tolerance shown to gay and black people – none at all), you keep your mouth shut and sing Hark, The Herald Angels Sing as loud as the rest of ’em. 

Friday: Lucas asks if we’re going to light “the Lenora”. “Yep”, I say. “It’ll be cool. Buddy and Bubbe (Beth’s dad/my mom) are Jewish, and instead of Christmas, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah.” Alarm. “You mean we’re not going to have Christmas?”, Lucas gasped. “But we got a tree!” “Not to worry, dude. We’re doing both. The benefits of having Jewish relatives – extra holidays!” I skip the Yahweh/God/Jesus stuff. Religion and God are as abstract to the kid as supernovas and the Big Bang Theory. Day ends, the sun drops, and Beth is explaining the holiday to him – in a historical context, of course. There were these guys, the Maccabees, and they were fighting (looks it up on the Wikipedia page we’ve printed out) this evil empire – “oh! Like the Rebels from Star Wars!”, he’d say to me later, during yet another attempt to explain the whole thing – and they were holed up in a temple and they had oil lamps (starting to lose him here) and there was only enough oil to last for one night, but it lasted for eight! “Oh”, he said. I tried a different tack. “Yeah, but then they fought more battles and beat the evil empire, and that’s what Hanukkah celebrates. Sorta.” I know. I coulda been a rabbi. Beth read the prayer, which went as follows (and I quote): “Baroque Hattah Illinois something something yay Hanukkah”, and we lit the candles. Then as we did when I was a kid, Lucas and Zoe each opened a present – Lucas got a Cobra Commander action figure. (“Cobra Commander – not a Jew/But guess who is?/Jedi Master Mace Windu!” I sang sotto voce.)

Saturday morning, and I’m inspired to flex my Yiddish cooking skills – after all, the night before, I’d made an excellent brisket, using a time-honored recipe brought over from the Old Country mitbach of Rabbi Rachel Ray. I tried my hand at latkes. “Latke”, for those who are curious, is a Yiddish word meaning “potato pancakes that Jason can’t cook for shit”. I made two different varieties of latke: Burned and Raw. Latkes are typically served with sour cream and applesauce. Neither of which I had. The kids weren’t thrilled with the latkes; thank God I’d fried up some bacon to accompany them. (It was turkey bacon. I’m not a complete goyim.)

Mondays are Share Days; Lucas gets to bring a cool, non-toy item to his kindergarten class and tell the class all about it. Over coffee and Honey-Nut Cheerios, we talked about the menorrah. “You should bring it”, I said. “It’ll be cool. I think you’re the only kid in your class that has one. And Miss K will be stoked!” Miss K, his teacher, is Jewish. Lucas was hesitant. “I don’t wanna”, he complained. “I’d rather bring my Reindeer Antlers.” These were a pair of head ornaments that we’d purchased at the Borders a few nights ago. He looked distraught. “Are you confused about Hanukkah?”, I asked. “Do you understand the whole thing?” “Not really”, he said. “I don’t understand Jewish.” I had a quick flashback: the frozen plains of Enid, and a secret I kept out of fear. “Well…all you need to do is tell people that it’s a holiday that we and a lot of other people celebrate; talk about the lighting of the candles, and how it’s a nice time to be with family. Really, a lot like Christmas.”

We walked into the schoolyard. “Miss K!”, Lucas yelled. “I brought my menorrah for Share Day!” She gave him a big grin. “That’s great!” The kids played for a bit, then filed in to their respective classrooms. I headed home, thinking on something I’d told him on the drive to school. “Most kids only get one holiday day in December. We get NINE.” He thought on this. “That’s pretty special”, he said. “Yes”, I replied. “Yes it is.”

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