26Dec

Candle Seven: Growing Up a Fish Out Of Water

When I was growing up in Atlanta, there were less than 100,000 Jewish residents in a city of several million.  My parents had moved there from Philadelphia, and they retained much of that Northern Jewishness that set us apart growing up.  Much of that was cultural – bagels and lox on Sunday mornings, for example, instead of grits and fried chicken.

We were members of the Temple, the biggest Reform shul in the city, and my sisters and I went to Sunday School and were had Bat Mitzvahs and confirmations.  We were involved members of the community, and it gave me a sense of pride.  But it was not one that I wore proudly amongst my peers at school.  How could I when I was one of five Jewish members in my classl?  Instead it made me feel different, along with my big curly hair and oddly shaped nose.

I went to a Jewish school until I was in kindergarten age and then I moved into the public school system, and one of my most vivid Hanukkah memories is from that year.  It’s not the kind of memory you want lingering in your mind forever.  There was a big Christmas tree in the back of the room.  The teacher had just left the room for a few minutes. Several of the kids in my class got up and started dancing around the tree, making fun of me and the other few Jews in the class for not joining in the celebration of the holiday (which we actually did, there was not much choice).  Then they started chanting songs about us.  I don’t remember the words but I know they had negative connotations.  When the teacher returned, they stopped and pretended like nothing had happened, but it was too late.  In the midst of their chanting and stomping around the tree, they had tipped it over.  The experience was alienating.

Life in Atlanta continued very much that way.  I was one of a few children to take off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Most of the kids were jealous that they didn’t get the days off, but no one was ever jealous or wanted to observe the holidays with me.  No one ever asked the story about how either holiday came to be.  My mother continued all the traditions and we continued to practice the Jewish faith at home and I attended Hebrew School.  When I was 15, I heard about a high school program in Israel, and I wanted to attend immediately.  My grandfather, a fervent Zionist, paid for the trip and I was off.  Off to a land where I could stand up proudly for being a Jew.  I had never experienced that kind of pride before, and that pride has stayed with me ever since.   I certainly needed it when I headed off to the University of Georgia after spending a year in Israel and encountered a room mate wearing a swastika (but perhaps that story is for another blog post).  Well, not really, but she may as well have .  She had boys make prank calls to me, asking how much money my parents earn and other making other stereotypical comments.

Fast forward to today. I moved to NY almost right out of college (after spending time abroad) and I’ve never felt that kind of shame about being Jewish since.  When I lived on the Upper West Side, I’d walk down West End Avenue saying “Shabbat Shalom” as often as possible because I could, and for no other reason.  We moved to the suburbs after the kids were born, and they both wear their Judaism on their sleeve. It makes it easier that the entire school gets off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I am no longer a fish out of water, rather I fit right in.  My big curly brown hair is quite accepted in NYC and when Hanukkah rolls around, we are not the only ones celebrating.  Rather we are joined by others to do so.  All of their friends want to not only know the story of Hanukkah, but they want to come over and light the candles with us, whether Jewish or non-Jewish.  We have gathered with friends and family to light the menorah, and last night, we took our annual pilgrimage into the city on Christmas Eve to see the great big menorah in front of the Plaza Hotel.  You wouldn’t get that where I came from.

As I celebrate Hanukkah Hooplah with my fellow bloggers, I am reminded of the uniqueness of the blogging community.  We have been brought together from all over the country to celebrate a holiday where some of us have more people to celebrate it with others.  Oh, if I had this feeling of support when I was growing up!

A group of sixteen bloggers, led by Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson, are blogging the eight nights of Hanukkah, Please check out the other Hoopla posts here.

I would like to thank Streit’s and Doni Zasloff Thomas a.k.a. Mama Doni, the lead singer-songwriter of The Mama Doni Band for providing each of the sixteen of us with cyber-swag. Their cross-promotional alliance is designed to celebrate Jewish culture with the young generation, a mission of both Mama Doni and Streit’s.

To win this awesome swag, leave me a comment letting me know that you’re interested. A winner will be randomly selected on December 29th.

And check out this great video by Mama Doni herself “Chanukah Fever”:

 Disclosure: I am not being compensated for participating in this campaign.

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Comments

  1. Your experience in Atlanta was very saddening. I’m from South Florida and Jewish holidays were quite popular down there. I can only imagine how painful those early experiences may have been for you. I’m happy that you no longer feel like a fish out of water.

  2. Holly–so interesting to hear your background. My experience is more opposite . . . I grew up in Highland Park (suburb of Chicago) and went to WashU. In both experiences almost all of my friends were Jewish. When I moved to Minneapolis with my husband it was the first time I wasn’t surrounded by Jews. I feel a stronger identity here, in a way, because I don’t take who I am for granted the way I probably did growing up. In HP it felt like everyone was a Jew, but nobody was Jew”ish.” I much more observant now . . . I call myself “Reformadox.” I sort of made that up, though I’m sure others have used the expression. I wrote a whole thing about “Reformadox” Judaism on my blog if you’re ever interested in my made-up denomination. 😉

    GREAT getting to know you though the #hanukkahhoopla fun.

    And no prize, of course.

  3. My husband and I have lived many places (we grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, went to different colleges in Pittsburgh, then Charlotte, NC, Newark, DE, between Akron and Canton, OH, Tampa, FL, and now the Kansas side suburbs of Kansas City)

    I do think our Jewish experience down South was both the strangest and most interesting. We had a welcoming synagogue and a phenomenal deli but were weirded out by the “Shalom Y’all” attitude after growing up in the North.

    Because of my own preconceptions, I never imagined there to be much diversity in Kansas. And yet (outside of Pittsburgh) we have never lived anywhere with such a large Jewish community and so many synagogues!

    • Wow, you have moved a lot! How have I been in NY for so long???? It’s interesting, I have heard that Kansas City is very Jewish. I never liked the “Shalom, Y’all” attitude in Atlanta either. Strange, indeed. Have a wonderful Hanukkah and thank you so much for your comment.

  4. This was an interesting and informative read. I grew up in a small town in Ontario and we had a population of 12,000 … which included one Chinese family, two Jewish families, two black children (who had both been adopted by white families) and a handful of Greek families. The rest of the town was Anglo, French-Canadian, German/German-Canadian (including us) or First Nations (or some combination of those).

    Moving to a large city (Toronto) was a culture shock for many who left our town to attend post-secondary institutions. I wasn’t one of them as we had made many trips abroad or to the big smoke. 🙂

    I’ll be back to read more. Hey, and if I happen to win swag, that’s fabulous!

  5. I grew up in West Texas before moving to Southern California for a few years. Then back to west Texas. There is a Reform congregation and a conservative congregation. And then there is the military. My grandparents belonged to the conservative shul, in name only. The military pull was so strong – ensuring that Jewish soldiers have a place was my grandparent’s mission. It became part of who I am.

    I went to school with one other Jew, my brother. In Texas, through elementary school I can’t tell you how many times I was called names, had things thrown at me walking to/from school, or how many times our home or car ended up with swastikas on them. Just too many to remember.

    Moving to California, I got more involved with Jewish organizations and we were involved in a congregation where my mom got a job. I had Jewish friends and there were a few in my school too.

    Today, my daughter has Jewish friends and doesn’t have the same worries. Sadly, it’s the Jewish on Jewish disdain and rudeness that is more prominent for her. And that actually makes me more sad. I can get beyond ignorance. This, though, is unacceptable behavior within the Jewish community.

    I’m so glad y’all are doing the Hanukkah Hoopla, it’s been fun to read all the stories.

  6. I live in NJ and although the towns surrounding us have a very large Jewish population, our town does not. My daughter is the only jewish child in second grade of 70 kids and my son is the only jewish child in Kindergarten. I make a point of going into their classrooms every year and teach the kids about Hanukkah and give each one dreidles and chocolate coins. I also donate a menorah to each of my children’s teachers.
    We are also lucky that our town actually gives us money to host a Town “Hanukkah Hoopla”, which I coordinate. Yes it is called “Hanukkah Hoopla”. For the second year in a row, my daughter invited one of her non-jewish friends to this party. On the second night of Hanukkah my daughter also had two other non-jewish friends help her light her Menorah and play dreidle games.
    My kids are proud of being jewish and thankfully all our friends and neighbors accept us with open arms.

    • I think it is fabulous that your town does that every year. The local Chabad has an open party but it is intimidating even to Jews, yet alone non-Jews. Thank you so much for your comment and for reading my blog, Gigi. Happy Hanukkah to you and your family!

  7. So interesting! I grew up Jewish in Brazil, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, in a city with fewer than 500 Jewish families. My mom was against us growing up in a tiny bubble so we did not attend the small Jewish school in town. I was always the only Jew in class – until high school. So for me moving to NY was also refreshing and enriching. My kids are of course aware of being a minority, but it’s on a totally different scale.

  8. I loved reading your story because I can’t relate– being in an area without a large Jewish presence is very strange to me. I grew up central New Jersey with a very well-balanced and mixed group of religions/cultures, etc. And, now I live in a NJ town that my children think is at least 50% Jewish. We remind them that 50% is a bit exaggerated. We just had this discussion last night in Chinatown, NYC which was packed with (we assumed from overheard conversations and people we bumped into…) Jewish and Chinese people. I love living where I do and know that it is not the norm. I’m glad you are comfortable now and yet I’m also glad that your parents brought Jewishness to Atlanta–and you survived the torment! I love that you even went on to Israel to embrace your identity instead of allowing anyone to harm your own self-esteem.
    Happy Hanukkah Holly!

  9. I can relate to many of these moments, though yours are far more pronounced having been in the South. My neighbor – a Jewish woman who grew up in the south – speaks often of the anti-Semetism she experienced, and how they still sting, those memories.

    I come to visit friends and family every year in NYC. You are sooooo on my list of people to meet. Because truly, the greatest gift of this whole #Hoopla was been meeting all of you.

    Thank you for using your super-powers to score us all swag for our blogs. To think, I wanted to award one winner from all the blogs! I hope you have much traffic today. Off to tweet you, friend.

    • I can’t wait to meet you, too Renee, and I am so glad that Galit brought me into this amazing group of women. I hope that we do another round of another kind of hooplah soon so we can continue to bond over common experiences and backgrounds. You have made my Hanukkah extremely special this year. My hat goes off to you.

  10. I love learning more of your story, Holly. We have some similarities- but switched. I gre up within a community, but am sorely lacking one now.

    Your words are lovely and your celebrating even more so!

    xo

    • Galit, I am so glad to have found you online. You had me hooked me on an Israel piece you write and sent me, knowing it would be meaningful to me, somehow you just knew. You were so right. Have a wonderful rest of the holiday.

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