Every year on the 25th day of the month of December, I say a little prayer thanking God that I live in Israel and that the day will be incredibly normal. That’s what today was like. I got up…at the normal time. Spoke to this child and that one, coordinating last minute changes to the daily schedule. I solved the battle of the keys because this one can’t find his key and that one doesn’t want to give hers….and off to work I went.
The roads were packed showing that despite the greatest of efforts by members of our City Council, the results of the law of massive car migration in minimal periods of time will prevail. My husband was going to a meeting and so dropped me at the train.
The train was full…the stores all open. The security guard at the entrance to my building smiled and greeted me; the newspaper guy handed me one of the last copies of today’s free newspaper. The elevator was packed…and on it went. Normal. Israel.
No one wished me a merry anything; no lights twinkled from the buildings, though the lights in the hallway did shut off once during the day for about 3 minutes. I finished work a bit later than usual but was saved from rush hour on the train by my husband who came to pick me up.
And having arrived well into the evening, I have to say, it was as it should be. On Chanukah, I doubt many Christians took off from work; and so today, which is not my holiday, I worked, my children went to school, and all was so incredibly normal.
A few times during the day, I will confess, I thought back to a time when I wasn’t so sure of who I was, what I was, and where I would spend my life.
I have no doubt that America is very different today than it was in my youth, but I can’t change the memories I have. Of standing in a choir with my classmates as our proud parents sat in the auditorium and listened to us singing Christmas carols. Why was I singing Silent Night?
In high school, I remember walking in and stopping, shocked at the sight of a Christmas tree, there in the public high school. I had long since decided that I was Israel bound; way past the time that others could force me to say or sing something. I marched myself into the principal’s office and asked to speak to Mr. Delaney.
I was waiting outside the school office, the Christmas tree to my right, when Mr. Delaney came out and asked what I wanted. I asked him by what right he had brought a Christmas tree into a public school. He answered that it wasn’t a Christmas tree at all, it was, he claimed, “a sharing tree.”
Had he come up with some other explanation, I might have let it go, at least that’s what I’d like to believe. It’s one thing to be considered an outsider; it’s another to be considered stupid. At that moment, as I turned to the evergreen tree decorated with lights, I saw my favorite history teacher and called out to him.
When he turned, I pointed to the tree and asked, “What’s that?”
To his credit, he didn’t look at me as if I was a moron; rather he simply stated, “it’s a Christmas tree, Paula.”
To which I responded, “No, I’m sorry. Actually, it’s apparently a sharing tree.”
I turned back to the principal and said, “I guess he didn’t get the memo.” And I told him it was wrong. If it looks like a Christmas tree and it just happens to come into the school days before the Christmas break…it’s a Christmas tree.
He didn’t want to accept it. He said they would decorate it with menorahs and dreidels and I told him not to dare. It was one thing, to create a bulletin board with pictures from all the religions in honor of the season; it was another thing entirely to stick a few tiny menorahs (when it wasn’t even Chanukah) on a huge Christmas tree.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who complained – the Christmas tree was removed but the feeling inside me remained. I longed to live in a land where I didn’t feel on the outside looking in; where the main holiday of the season was mine.
I don’t begrudge Christians this day – I celebrate their right to not work, to have the most wonderful holiday today. And I loved going to work, today of all days, on the crowded trains and the elevators full of people. I passed the flags flying…my flag; I listened to the radio…in Hebrew.
I greeted the guard, as I do each day and joked with him about the cold winds blowing through Jerusalem. And when I went upstairs and then looked down on the street, I saw not one twinkling light.
After all these years, I think Mr. Delaney was right – the tree he was offering was a sharing tree. The problem was that what he was sharing was his world, his religion, and his country. He was asking me to assimilate my world, my religion…and by leaving America to come to Israel, I provided my answer. We can share this world; share greetings and blessings. He can look at the light of my menorah and I can look at the sparkle of his tree.
I can have my Chanukah while he works and I can work while he has his Christmas – equal ground, fair, and friendly.
From level ground, I wish my Christian friends the happiest of days and hope their prayers for a peaceful world come true. Standing in my land, in my country, I can look to theirs and not feel forced to words that are not my own. And so today, I was at peace, in my land of the free and my home of the brave.