Growing up in a non-Jewish area was always awkward around holidays. These were not days of reflection and celebration that they were meant to be, but instead, holidays were a time when I was elected by my non-Jewish peers as the resident rabbi. As one of the few Jewish kids in my high school of 2,200 students, my non-Jewish peers were a pretty large demographic, and like me, knew next to nothing about Jewish culture, religion, and history.
Since I was a “graduate” of Judaism, having been Bar-Mitzvahed, I did know more than most, but ‘most’ was a high school filled with kids whose reaction to my Jewishness was, “Oh, so you don’t celebrate Christmas?” In this question lay the core of what a Jewish kid was to most other kids in a non-Jewish area—that poor soul, who, running down to the menorah on Christmas morning, finds nothing but coal.
The rhetorical answer to this question was, of course, “Actually, I celebrate Hanukah,” because mentioning Yom Kippur, or Rosh Hashanah, or even attempting to say, “Actually Simchas Torah is on Friday, so I’m skipping the dance,” only resulted in a confused look, the kind that someone gives a mental patient, who having just placed their legs through the arms of their sports jacket admits that, “Yes, sometimes I do feel like a pineapple.”
I was a normal kid, indistinguishable from the rest, except when any holiday came around. In first-grade, I boycotted elf-drawing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another time, while drawing Christmas scenes, I had a snowman with a yarmulke and a curious looking six-pointed star on the tree. Everyone would wish “Merry Christmas!” to each other before winter and then seeing me would stop and smile wide. “Happy Holidays!”
Back in middle school, the High Holy Days were never an issue. Students were not given a day off, so I just called out with a parents’ note. I was expected to do my homework ahead of time and the day off was just that: a day off.
But High School was different. Somewhere along the line, everyone had become so culturally sensitive that conversations about race, religion, and culture were reduced to awkward exchanges. In British Literature, my teacher would frequently apologize.
“Joe, I’m so sorry. Chaucer didn’t mean it,” she’d say.
“Uh, it’s ok . . . I forgive him.”
Whenever holidays emerged, it became somewhat more pronounced:
“Joe, could you explain to us the meaning of Yaam Ki-ppeer?”
“Joe, I ate mat-zas the other day!”
“Joe, what does Rash Ho-sha-nie mean?”
“Joe, how do you spell Hanukah?”
High School was the first time that we received a day off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even though I was one of a handful of Jewish kids. Other students would approach me the afternoon before Yom Kippur, thanking me for the day off. “You’re really lucky to have so many holidays,” they’d say, but I was only half listening, as I was usually calculating the amount of food I could stuff into my face in order to pull off a painless one-day hibernation.
One day in my freshman year art class was especially humiliating. Somehow, my art teacher knew enough about Judaism to procure a shofar. She began to explain Rosh Hashanah: “Rash Ha-sha-nie is the Jewish New Year. They blow a sho-fer, to announce the new year.” At this point, she turned to me.
“Joe, could you show us how to blow a sho-fer?”
Imagine the scene:
I am wearing a collared green shirt that is three sizes too big. My hair is messy and greasy. I have trouble piecing together more than three words in any social situation. Scientists later confirmed that I was, indeed, a ball of acne. I have a crush on a girl to my right, and to my left sits my arch-nemesis, a kid named Craig, who, though later became a friend, at that point was the bane of my existence.
“But—” I begin, my voice cracking, “I have never—”
“Here, Joe, show us.”
I approach the front of the room, pick up the shofar, and blow as hard as I can. Though I am obviously expending a lot of effort to call in the New Year, the tone that comes out sounds as though I am deflating, which, in many ways, is the case.
Imagine that someone comes up to you on the street. You do not know this person but they walk right towards you and, with all the force they can muster, blow into your face. You would be surprised and somewhat disgusted but you would be silent and you’d look to others for an explanation, because, obviously, there has to be one. Such was the look that my classmates gave my art teacher.
Craig raised his hand. “Can I try?”
Turning the color of Manischewitz, I handed Craig the shofar. Craig, who played the trumpet, pushed the ram’s horn to his lips and let out a long loud bellow. He smiled and I wanted to punch him.
“There you have it class: the Jewish sho-fer. Thank you, Craig.”
Years later, I wonder what high school would have been like if I had been able to teach others about my culture. No doubt I would have been a know it all, wanting to make up for the failures of my first go-around. The holidays always called out some odd American anxiety and I was called upon to represent every single Jewish person, living or dead, to appease it. I think that people can only take what they don’t know in small doses. In another situation, I would have been the idiot asking, “Wait, why can’t you eat for a month?”
The scene is England. I have just explained to my class that Americans tend to hyphenate themselves. No American is really American; we are always Something-American. My professor treats this like a revelation. She looks around the class and her thoughts roll into my head, Whitemarsh, Butterfield, Farim—
“Jamila, what would that make you?” said my professor, delighted.
The girl with the black head covering blushes a deep red and looks down, uttering an indistinct, “eerrrrrrr…”
For a brief second I feel connected to Jamila, the Muslim girl who I was nervous around and had never held a real conversation with. Never before had any attention been drawn to her, she had remained silent at the back, taking secret notes on Virgil. I felt bad for starting the conversation that singled her out, but while the rest of the class calculated, “I’m British-British?” in their heads, I had found a momentary partner in self-consciousness.