In early December of the year Dad relocated our family to a small town far north of the Twin Cities, Mr. Hahn, the school principal, rang our doorbell. I answered the door and nearly peed my pants when I saw him standing on the step. “Are your parents at home, young man?” he asked.
They were. He said to them that since I was “the only Jewish child” (or “the first Jewish child,” I can’t recall) at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, I would be “explaining your holiday” at the upcoming school Christmas pageant. He said he believed students needed to “learn about religions like yours.”
Principal Hahn was not a man you — kids nor parents — trifled with. Mine immediately agreed. I was not consulted.
Here’s what happened:
Anyone could tell the annual Christmas pageant was a big deal at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. Working fathers left work in the middle of the day and showed up wearing suits and ties and sat with dressed-up mothers and grandparents in folding chairs roped off with a sign on each one, “reserved for an adult guest.”
Kids didn’t need reminding to sit up straight and cross-legged on the floor with hands folded in their laps. No outstretched legs or sitting up on your knees or leaning back on your elbows were permitted. And, via the intercom the day before, Mr. Hahn had warned us he wouldn’t tolerate “tomfoolery.” I’d never heard that word where I’d come from and had to ask what it meant.
The lights in the gym dimmed. The Lewis and Clark Elementary School choir (including me) entered from behind a makeshift curtain wearing choir robes our mothers had been instructed to fashion from (only white) bedsheets and ridiculously oversized bows made from red butcher paper. We stood stoically on risers, unlike during the rehearsals when we had had a great time discreetly jabbing each other and causing the other to teeter and hopefully fall off.
Not now. This was serious business.
We sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful” as older students walked in unison into the gym. A spotlight guided them down the center aisle. Some carried nativity scene props — plastic palm trees, the manger, some hay, stuffed farm animals and someone’s pet donkey — ahead of the bearded wise men, some kindergarten angels and finally Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus. When all were in place on the stage, the Nativity was re-enacted. When that was over, our choir sang “Silent Night,” the lyrics of which (along with several other songs of Christmas) I was required to memorize.
Now came my turn. The school custodian carried out a small table in one hand and my family’s plastic electric menorah in the other and plugged it in. Mr. Hahn explained that “fourth-grader Richard Schwartz” would now present a holiday his family celebrates called “Cha-nu-ka.” That was the first time I’d heard Hanukkah pronounced “CHA-nu-ka.” Where I came from, the “Ha” in “Hanukkah” had that guttural Old World Yiddish sound.
I began with a reading of the Hanukkah story. I remember little about the reading except for my monotone delivery, the occasional braying of the donkey still on stage and the sprinkling of suppressed giggles. Next, I twisted each bulb to “light” the menorah (no flames in the gymnasium were allowed). I remember feeling a nauseating wave of adolescent dread that despite Mr. Hahn’s stern warning, kids would laugh anyway at my chanting of the Hanukkah blessing in Hebrew, which up to then was as familiar to me as English but now seemed terribly alien:
“Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu L’hadlik Ner Shel Hanukka.”
But they didn’t. The gym was silent like they had never heard anything like this.
After the pageant kids asked me some inevitable questions: “What’s is like to be a Jewish?” “How’d you learn to talk like that?” “But you still have Christmas, don’t ya?”
The following Sunday the local newspaper ran a photograph of me standing behind the lighted menorah. (Oddly, it appeared in the paper’s “Women Section.”) The caption reads, “Hanukkah, a Jewish festival of lights, which is celebrated this time of year, was explained by Richard Schwartz.”
That photograph is in front of me as I write this. In the background kids in the choir are staring my way. The donkey is off to the right but you can’t see it. The gym is dark except for the spotlight on me. I just wish I knew what that young boy in the photograph who had just sung “Silent Night” by heart and moments after had chanted a Hanukkah blessing was thinking.
I do know that after the Lewis and Clark Elementary School Christmas Pageant, Principal Hahn shook my hand and said, “Thank you, young man.”
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.