A Christmas Story, Though Christmas Only Makes a Cameo Appearance
When I was a stranger in a strange land (third grade)
By Ed Goldman
As a kid, I had enough Jewish classmates at Public School 106 in the Bronx to make celebrating Hannukah every December seem like nothing out of the ordinary. At that age, the glue that bound Christian and Jewish kids wasn’t world understanding: it was comparing holiday gift hauls.
Since Hannukah lasted eight days, we Jewish kids generally received a small gift each day, leading to an impressive cumulative total. But when we returned from vacation, we learned that the Christian kids pretty much tied us because even on just one day of Christmas, they’d managed to amass enough toys to open their own branches of F.A.O. Schwartz.
Seasonal Balancing Act
We each envied the other their take but, to the best of my knowledge, no spate of religious conversions broke out among us. After all, we were still little kids who, over the past couple of years, had just mastered going to the school bathroom unescorted.
But when I started third grade in Southern California, I was the sole Jewish kid in my class at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in the city of Lakewood.
This made me a standout at an age I really didn’t wish to be. Things weren’t helped when my teacher, Mrs. Ford, a Mormon who’d been raised in Utah, asked as the holidays approached if I could explain to the class all about “the Jewish Christmas, Chan-OO-kah.”
While older Jews still tend to call Hanukkah “Chanukkah”—with the “ch” at the beginning taking on the sound of a “k” followed by your clearing your throat (what’s often described as “guttural”)—most non-Jews I knew then, and most everyone now, start the word with the “h” and omit the death rasp.
Mrs. Ford probably thought she was striving for authenticity. But rather than clear her throat, she gave the first syllable of the word the surname of the popular Chinese-Hawaiian detective created by author Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan.
“Regardless, there apparently hadn’t been any pronunciation guides in Utah. Nor a class called There Really Are Religions Other Than Ours. Nor even a mimeographed pamphlet for teachers entitled, “What To Do If One Of Your Students Isn’t Mormon.”
Anyway, to answer her, I stood beside my desk—doing so was a custom at P.S. 106—and said, as quickly as I could so I could sit back down again, “It’s Hanukkah, not Chan-OO-kah, and it’s nothing like Christmas except for the presents.”
Mrs. Ford thought I was sassing her. I still had a pretty thick Bronx accent, which I came to realize can make even the recitation of a love poem sound like the issuance of a physical threat. She sent me to the office of the vice principal, Miss DeLeon, which I didn’t mind because she was almost as pretty as the school’s librarian, Miss Madden, on whom I had a crush ever since she introduced me to an addictive series of books starring the heroic Freddy the Pig and his animal pals in upstate New York. Those books are what started my voracious reading habit and led to my becoming a writer. So, yes, you can read this column and blame its existence on a fictional pig.
The next day, Mrs. Ford sweetly asked if I could tell the class about “Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.” I did my best. I cleared my throat but in the interest of world understanding, decided to not deploy the “ch” when I pronounced the holiday’s name. My only disappointment was that nobody had invited Miss DeLeon or Miss Madden to the class.
In the spirit of the holidays and our collective wish for better times, I offer the following song, with apologies to Irving Berlin and his immortal “White Christmas.”
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
As long as Black Lives Matter, too
And all religions
Stop all collisions—
And learn that love’s long overdue.
I’m dreaming of a bright isthmus—
A strip of land we all can share.
May your days be sparkled with health
And may all embrace our common wealth.
A Weekly Blog by Virginia Varela
President and CEO, Golden Pacific Bank
photo by Phoebe Verkouw
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