Monday, December 27, 2010

Being Jewish

When I was growing up in a blue collar area in Connecticut, right off "the thruway" (ie, I-95), I lived in a close knit neighborhood where people tended to stay for years. As matter of fact, I can still go back to that same neighborhood 30 years later and find one or two people I knew as a child, although they are in their sunset years now.

We lived on a dead end street, a great place for young families. As kids, we often played in the street, without any fear of traffic. The neighbors all knew each other, and each other's kids. Our house was smack dab in the middle of the street, at the "T" intersection of two dead-end streets. Kids took a shortcut through our yard to get to yet another dead-end street behind our house. Nobody minded kids taking a shortcut through your yard in those days. Well, except for the old couple across the street with the six foot tall evergreen hedge; we wouldn't dare try to get a ball back if it got accidentally thrown over that particular hedge.

I attended the public school, two blocks away, from kindergarten through third grade. Then, our parish school opened, so my dad sent all of his school age children to Catholic school, at great expense, since he had five children to educate. At the Catholic school, we wore uniforms, blue and green plaid jumpers over white shirts for girls and grey pants and navy blazers for boys. We got out of school an hour earlier than the public schools, and had different vacation schedules. We got out two of school weeks earlier in the summer, and had the day after Halloween off (yea! All Saints Day), which was great because we could sleep in after trick-or-treating the night before.

More than anything, I wanted to be like all of the other neighborhood kids. I wanted to wear my own dresses to school, not ugly uniforms. Most of the neighborhood kids, whose families tended toward the Protestant variety of Christianity, went to Sunday school. Our whole family went to Mass on Sunday mornings; religious education was just another subject to study during the school day.

But I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to go to Sunday school. I didn't want to be seen as special or different from the other kids in the neighborhood, which is the way the one Catholic family in the neighborhood (ours) was viewed by some of my friends.

And that is why have never understood why my (very few) Jewish schoolmates seemed so happy to be different, to be off from public school for special Jewish holidays, to go to Temple on Saturdays while the rest of us slept in and watched cartoons on TV. I figured there must be something really special about being Jewish that they would not want to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. When I was six, in my childish attempt to make sense of this, I came up with the conclusion that Catholics believed in God, Jews didn't believe in God, and Protestants didn't know what to believe.

Fifty years later, I still don't understand why my Jewish friends love "being Jewish". Maybe one of them can clue me in.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Peace to All

Christmas Eve is almost upon us. And, I have done nothing to get into the holiday spirit. No tree, no cards, no gifts.

Christmas has never been one of my favorite holidays, thanks to the commercialization that we enjoy here in the US. I am not religious, and not into ostentatious decorations or spending more money than I can afford buying gifts. I would prefer Christmas be celebrated simply as a holiday about "Peace" and "Goodwill Among Men", the message preached by the man whose birth is remembered by many on December 25th.

But, the "youngsters" in our family, now teenagers, still expect festively wrapped packages, replete with shiny bows and ribbons, under the tree on Christmas morning, even though their belief in Santa was abandoned long ago. Fortunately for me, living 3,000 miles away, money or gift cards are very acceptable alternatives for teenagers.

This year I am starting a new tradition. The teens' presents will be New Year's Day gifts instead, given in celebration of the start of a new year, and winged across the country by an angelic cherub instead of a fat old man in a red velvet suit. And I will be very happily celebrating Peace and Goodwill Among Men on Christmas Day, in the company of good friends of various religious beliefs.