“Is it Just Me?”: Being Himself

Being Himself

Each year, Chanukah happens in eight blinks of an eye, maybe because events that occur annually turn time into greased lightning.

I love helping my children build menorahs, all the while rehashing the story of Chanukah. Everybody loves a good yarn about the little guy winning the day and so it was with Judah Macabee and his homeys when they fought for their destroyed temple and experienced the miracle of the lamp oil burning for eight days even though there was only enough to last for twenty-four hours. The lessons suggested are to fight for what you believe in and keep the garage door open in case a miracle wants to drive in, a good reminder for people of all ages and persuasions.

This year, I was delighted when Harrison’s grade three teacher asked me to “do Chanukah” for the class. I packed up a couple of stories, some menorahs, candles and loot bags filled with chocolate gelt and dreidels for each child.

When I was a little girl growing up in Ottawa, we celebrated Chanukah at Hebrew school and at home, but public school was all about Christmas where we watched seasonal films and learned carols. I remember singing “Silent Night” with gusto except when the song landed on the line, “Christ the Saviour was bo-orn”. Then, I would sing, “mmmm the saviour was bo-orn” as per my mother’s instructions. “Mmmm” was non-denominational.

I implored my parents to allow me to visit Santa at our neighbourhood mall. I complained about our lack of a Christmas tree. Patiently and stoically, my mom and dad explained for the nine hundredth time that we didn’t celebrate Christmas, did not believe in Santa Claus, and would never have a decorated tree. We were Jewish.

At some point, around age five, I finally grasped the basic differences between Christmas and Chanukah. I looked forward to my magical holiday and stopped pining for the trappings that would never accompany it. That December, we visited my paternal grandparents’ house for the second night of the festival. We lit the candles, ate potato latkahs and I was gifted with coins to spend on candy or whatever my young heart desired.

Soon after, my bubbie and zaydie led my parents and me down into their basement to unveil the special surprise that leaned blinking on a stand just beyond my zaydie’s fish tank: a Chanukah bush; some poor decrepit shrub bedecked with enough blue lights to nearly bowl it over. My parent’s painstaking lesson about why we didn’t have a Christmas tree went flying out the window along with the white dove of peace. It took them a couple of seasons to undo the innocent damage done by my well-meaning grandparents, two people from another country, another culture, simply trying to “be modern” for their grandkids.

So, in 2010, I especially looked forward to the opportunity of sharing the magic of Chanukah with my son’s classmates, kids from both similar and diverse backgrounds. Our melting pot culture has expanded our children’s sensibilities, and they are excited to learn about all the different ways the world has of celebrating.

The morning of my visit, I asked Harrison how he felt about me teaching Chanukah to his class. He shrugged his bony shoulders and told me that he felt good but weird. “What am I supposed to call you, today?” Harrison asked, looking up at me with mischievous dark eyes. “Mrs. Mom?”

I kissed his mop top and told him he should simply call me, Mom, like always. “Just be yourself”, I said.

In retrospect, perhaps that wasn’t the finest advice.

When I arrived at Harrison’s school all the kids were still “in library”, his teacher explained, but would be back momentarily. I set up my display and soon the Grade Three-ers, as Harrison calls them, bounded into the classroom, flushed and loaded with the pent up energy of having sat quietly listening for forty-five minutes. Now, I was going to ask them to sit quietly listening for another forty-five minutes. Was I demanding a miracle?

I began with an overview of Chanukah and immediately a flurry of little hands flew up. The Jewish students wanted to tell about their own experiences, aching to spill the beans that this was the first year many of them, my own son included, were deemed responsible enough to light the candles themselves. After much enthusiastic repartee, I started reading about the destruction of the temple and Judah Macabee’s valiant fight to reclaim it for his people.

Noises began emanating from the back of the reading area, sounds I recognized, the racket a bored cat might make if it wanted to secure its owner’s attention. It was my son, Harrison. I rewarded him with a stern look as his teacher admonished him to stay quiet and be respectful of “our guest”. I read on. I heard giggling. Harrison’s. I stopped to give him my glare again, but he didn’t notice; he was too busy practicing backwards somersaults on the carpet. At this juncture, my son’s teacher walked over and gently raised Harrison up from the floor, beckoning him out into the hallway for a disciplinary discussion.

My visit continued with the kids breaking up into groups to play dreidels after my son explained the premise of the game and its rules. Harrison had returned to the class, chastised and somewhat subdued, yet I could see his impish personality bubbling below the surface of his skin while he spoke, itching to have another go at the day’s attraction that was his mom.

On the drive home, while Harrison chomped on a soft pretzel I’d bought him, I asked my naughty boy why he felt compelled to be distracting while I spoke to his class. “Don’t know,” he said at first, licking salt off his lips.

“Well, actually, Mom, I do know,” Harrison added after further reflection. “It’s because this morning you told me to just be myself. So, I was just being myself.”

“Maybe”, he added sheepishly, “I did too good of a job.”

Happy Holidaze everybody, and remember, no matter how your family celebrates, trust me: there will be stories.

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