The way it should be, the way it shouldn’t be

keep this one

My younger daughter, Zoe, attends a secular preschool, as did her older sister Ella. We chose the school for many reasons and have never regretted the decision (except, perhaps, for the time they fed Ella a treif hot dog. But I digress.) Saturday night, we participated in an event sponsored by the school billed as “A Festival of Lights” – a celebration of the diverse family traditions of the school community. The event began with a variety of arts and crafts activities led by parents – I brought paper cut out in the shape of dreidels and Hebrew letter rubber stamps; another parent taught children to make cut-out snowflakes; another organized painting clay pots reminiscent of Diwali lamps; another bought christmas cookies to decorate. (Can you guess which table was the most popular?) We came together for a few songs and books about the three holidays, and enjoyed a potluck supper with foods from a variety of family cultures, including noodle kugel, sev thin, Turkish rice, mashed potatoes, latkes, arroz con pollo, and cannolis.
The event represented the overall approach that the preschool takes towards religious holidays. Any family is welcome to come in and teach or share something about its own traditions, but the school itself does not teach about or celebrate religious holidays. Consequently, my daughters have learned about St. Nicholas and the Easter eggs, as well as solstice, and Ramadan (and Rosh Hashanah and Passover) without my ever feeling threatened or uncomfortable as a Jewish parent.
I recognize that this approach is probably not tenable in the public schools for a myriad of reasons. I don’t really know what public schools should do. But I have some strong opinions about what they should not do. They should not display Christmas trees. Or hold Christmas parties. Or sponsor Christmas anything.
My good friend, Michelle Zundel recently became the principal of an elementary school in southern Oregon that had a tradition of a “Holiday giving tree” to organize donations for families in need. After receiving complaints from a Jewish family, Michelle reconsidered the display and replaced the tree with two snowmen. She also issued new guidelines for school decorations which disallow Christmas trees and Santa Claus. I think that anyone who knows Michelle will tell you that she is as caring, generous, intelligent and thoughtful as they come. Yet, many people in the community are, if you will pardon the expression, ripping her a new one. (She described the emails she has received as “talk radio-esque.”)
As a member of a minority, I’ve never expected to see my religious symbols in public schools, government buildings, or shopping malls, nor do I want to. Who needs the secular world to co-opt, or try to make money from, the things I hold sacred? So, I don’t really get why having Christmas everywhere seems to important to some Christians.
But what I find even more mystifying is how angry some people get about X-mas. It always seems so joyful on the tv specials. Go figure.

Comments read comments(10)
post a comment

posted December 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm

My kids didn’t last long at public school before we escaped to Jewish day school, but here’s what they had there: there was, yes, a Holiday giving tree in the lobby for adopt-a-family gift wishes. The teacher in my daughter’s Kindergarten class, barred from decorating the classroom, instead decorated the bathroom. She wore elaborate Xmas outfits every day and spent class time going over each item of her outfit with the kids and, the most nefarious, I believe, they tracked a Gingerbread Man as a geography lesson around the world.
I’m the last Jew on the planet who wants to take away Christmas from the Christians, as a matter of fact, I feel the more they focus on their true holiday, the easier it is for me to tell my kids why it’s not any part of our holiday, but public school is public school and it just doesn’t belong there. It turned out, we didn’t either.

report abuse


posted December 7, 2009 at 6:29 pm

When I dropped the toddler off at (a totally secular, university-affiliated) preschool last week, some of the children were sitting at a table coloring. He was having a clingy morning, so I walked him over there to see if I could get him engaged in something, so I could slip away to work somewhat on time. Coming up behind the student teacher (a nice young Oregon college thing), she turned to my son and said, “Hi, would you like to decorate a Christmas tree?” Turns out that’s what she was cutting out for them to color.
My son, ever the polite one, said, “No thank you” and dragged me off to look at the trains instead.
Now, *I* know that my son just isn’t that into drawing. But I turned around and said, “he doesn’t really know about Christmas trees. We’re Jewish.”
I got a good blush from her.
Score one for diversity education.
Is that wrong? 😉

report abuse


posted December 8, 2009 at 4:03 am

I read about your friend in the paper this morning–being here in Eugene. I couldn’t contain my delight at the removal of the giving tree from the school. I have worked in public education in a number of states thus far and it is rare to see a school make the right call and honor diversity. Sadly, it takes administrators like Zundel to take those stands as the Supreme Court sides with the Christians on this one. According to the current case law, a Christmas tree is “not a religious symbol, but a cultural one” thus allowed (the tree has nothing to do with Jesus…nor does I suppose giant plastic yard crap with waving hand and moving antlers!) while the overtly religious nativity scene is out. As a Jew in a non-jewish town, I appreciate my school district’s policy that no trees will be put up, but I have to hold the line pretty firm. Amy, tell your friend she has strong advocates up here in Eugene in the schools!

report abuse


posted December 8, 2009 at 6:39 am

I spoke to a Jewish friend in Ashland yesterday, and she was astonished that most of the *Jewish* people she knows do not agree with Michelle’s decision!

report abuse


posted December 8, 2009 at 2:15 pm

My son’s public school tries to be all-inclusive–they learn Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa traditions, songs, etc. The art projects cover the gamut. I’m going in this week to make latkes with his class.
But that fact is, my kids live in a country dominated by non-Jews. It’s something they need to understand. I have no issues with Christmas in the schools. I try to make the Jewish experience positive enough for them that they don’t feel lacking in any way. So while I respect what your friend has done, it isn’t something that would bother me one way or another in our school.

report abuse


posted December 8, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Jenny, I agree that my kids need to understand that. And for this reason, I have no issues with Christmas in the mall, the supermarket, the tv, etc. But I take the separation of constitution of church and state seriously, because I think that it’s a slippery slope form Christmas trees to Christmas carols, to prayer in school (for one example.)

report abuse


posted December 9, 2009 at 9:00 am

I guess because I grew up in an agnostic household, I always thought of the trees as being in the same category as wreaths, snowflakes, holly, lights on the house, cookies, etc. Those generic winter holiday symbols (solstice, but SO watered-down) always felt very different from creches, or pictures of the nativity and all that baby Jesus stuff. Feels like a stretch to call the tree Christian. But I admit my family experience was not typical. Is the tree really so strongly associated with Christianity, more so than paper snowflakes? Are they offensive just because they call them “Christmas” trees?
My family celebrated Christmas, but it was a secular celebration. I never saw any difference between our holiday and the Hanukkah that Jewish friends celebrated, which never seemed to have much to do with religion. It was just an excuse to see the extended family, eat rich food, give presents to the kids.

report abuse


posted December 9, 2009 at 9:23 am

Steven, my daughters’ preschool has a live evergreen outside that they decorate with wooden snowflakes, and this has never really bothered me. But once you cut down a tree and put gifts on or under it, I think it becomes representative of a specifically Christian tradition, and an exclusively Christmas symbol. (I don’t think the school should be displaying a menorah either.)

report abuse

Karen Vaughan (AHG)

posted December 10, 2009 at 11:49 pm

In New York the courts ruled that a menorah was a cultural rather than a religious symbol, so we are able to have menorahs in the park. Frankly I think it is far more religious than a Christmas tree, which was of course an adopted pagan tradition with no Christian religious symbolism.
But frankly I’d rather see all different religious traditions presented than the outright commercial symbols that pass as secular. Strikes me that money is the false god here, and the jingle bell snowman Santa acquisition jamboree is worse to expose children to.

report abuse

Pingback: Choosing Jewish day school – not the only ones anymore - Homeshuling

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

Teaching the Four Questions to young children
One of the greatest privileges of being a kindergarten teacher in a Jewish day school is having the opportunity to teach children to recite the four questions. Unlike almost anything else I teach them about Jewish ritual, this is "real work." ...

posted 7:36:03am Apr. 01, 2012 | read full post »

Guess what's Kosher for Passover (this will change your life.)
I'm not exaggerating. The bane of my Passover existence has been pareve baking. I cook a lot more meat during the holiday than I do the rest of the year, which means a lot more pareve desserts. Which has, up until now, usually meant margarine ...

posted 5:02:27pm Mar. 22, 2012 | read full post »

Why I love the New American Haggadah (and it's not just because I got to have a martini with Nathan Englander.)
I'm not a haggadah junkie. I know many Jews whose shelves are overflowing with numerous versions of the Haggadah - from the traditional Maxwell House to the not-so-traditional Santa Cruz - and whose seders are an amalgam of commentaries, poems, ...

posted 9:25:37pm Mar. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Best Hamentashen Ever, even better. And, a Purim opera.
This time of year, I'm always excited when I look at my google analytics and see that people have landed at my blog by searching for "hamentashen recipe". I love the idea of people all over the world making my great-grandmother's fabulous ...

posted 7:13:38pm Mar. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Edible Purim baskets. And, introducing...the cookie fairies!
My very favorite Jewish holiday tradition, bar non, is the mitzvah of mishloach manot - preparing and delivering gifts of homemade goodies to friends and neighbors on Purim day. This is a mitzvah which embodies so much of why Judaism is ...

posted 8:16:28am Feb. 26, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.