I’m seven years old. My elementary school decides to be respectful of other faiths by including a Jewish part in the annual Christmas play. By virtue of my last name – Rubenstien – I am selected to help celebrate Hanukkah.
“And when it’s dry and ready, with ladle I will play!”
My understanding of religion at this point in my life is pretty simple. I go to church on Sunday mornings, followed by a class. In a church. It doesn’t occur to me that anyone anywhere is doing anything different.
Those of you paying attention may find yourselves thinking, “Hmmm. A church. On Sundays. Probably not Jewish.” You’re right. And you’re light years ahead of my teachers, who become annoyed by my apparent unwillingness to sing a simple song about Dreidels. They keep me inside for recess, allegedly to calm my natural exuberance but really to serve the second grade version of detention. “You want to sing about ladles? You just sit right there and think about it.” So I do, with no discernible effect. I have no idea what a Dreidel is, but I see the ladle every Thanksgiving in the gravy. I conclude, not for the last time, that adults are weird.
Practices continue. Now I’m in trouble for lighting a candle out of order on the Menorah. You see, once upon a time they let small children wander around public schools with lit candles. We also traveled in cars without seatbelts – at times laying IN the back window – and rode bikes without helmets. How we all made it to third grade is a mystery.
Faced with potential disaster, my teachers have no choice but to call my parents.
“We’re calling about your daughter. We’ve been having a lot of trouble with her in this year’s Christmas play.”
“Oh? What’s been happening?”
“Well, we put her in the Jewish part of the play and she keeps messing everything up. We think it’s deliberate.”
“Hello? Mr. Rubenstien?”
The beginnings of laughter, at first muffled but gaining steam. Mom grabs the phone.
“Hello? This is Mrs. Rubenstien. What’s going on?”
“We put your daughter in the Jewish part of the Christmas play and she is being extremely uncooperative.”
“Why did you put her in the Jewish part of the play?”
“To show the other children how Hanukkah is celebrated. Because she’s Jewish.”
“Actually, she’s Catholic.”
“Look, it’s fine for her to be in the Jewish part of the play, but you’re going to have to teach her what to do.”
“She’s probably not messing things up on purpose. We’ve never had the opportunity to celebrate Hanukkah.”
“So we’re all set?”
“Um. Yes. Thank you.”
The next day, I’m re-cast as one of Santa’s back-up reindeer. We mill uncertainly around the edge of the stage, wistfully watching the Main Reindeer prance around, pretending to fly. The teachers pull me aside and grill me.
“Why didn’t you tell us you aren’t Jewish?”
“Why didn’t you tell us you don’t celebrate Hanukkah?”
“You didn’t ask?”
“Is your mom Jewish?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Is your dad Jewish?”
“Is your grandmother Jewish?”
“What about your grandfather?”
I now understand that there are two religions in the world: Catholicism and Judaism. Grandfather didn’t attend church with us.
“I think he’s Jewish.”
He was Lutheran.
This episode taught me many things that I’ve carried with me throughout my life. The first: never make assumptions about religion based on someone’s name. Second, it’s a bad idea to make assumptions about religion based on someone’s religion. Third, learning about other religions is a good thing, and can lead to mutual respect and understanding. Fourth, religion is immensely complicated. And fifth, no matter your intentions, you will most likely end up offending someone at some point. All you can do is hope that they’ll be cool about it and help you learn.
And finally, back-up reindeer barely get any stage time at all, so if faced with a similar situation, my advice? Hold out for a speaking part.
And whatever you do, never mention ladles.
Wishing all friends, old and new, a jolly holiday season and a new year filled with joy and laughter. Thanks for reading!