In Sweet Company

“Whether you pray to Jesus or to the Great Mother or to Buddha, that’s just the path you choose as you evolve towards something within yourself that is of God.” — Olympia Dukakis, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE

During the winter of my tenth year, Mrs. White, my music teacher, announced to us my class had been invited to sing Christmas Carols at the Winterhalter Elementary Winterfest. Rumor had it that if a Jewish child said (or sang) the words “Jesus Christ” or any part or modification thereof, something very, very bad would happen to them. Though, at that time in my life, I followed the religion of my parents and considered myself Jewish, I knew from looking at him in the picture that hung over my friend Brenda’s bed that Jesus was a wonderful fellow who would never dream of hurting anyone, least of all a little child. Nevertheless, when Mrs. White gathered her sheet music and walked to the piano, a flurry of notes passed from desk to desk that described, in no uncertain terms, the perils of betrayal for Jewish children — you know who you are! — and urged us to hum the verboten lyrics of each song in time with the music.

Mrs. W. called us to attention. “Boys. And. Girls,” she said, fingers poised above the piano keys. “We will now sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ Page six in your song books. Please remember to use your best vocal instruments.”

Mrs. W. bobbed her head in time to the music as she played the opening bars of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Everyone knew what was coming. Children squirmed, throats went dry, hearts raced, several kids began to cough. Debbie Greenblatt screwed her eyes up into their sockets, crossed all ten of her fingers, her arms and her legs, then put her head down on her desk and started to whimper. The tension in the room was really, really thick.

Our vocal instruments compromised, we chirped the lyrics. When the moment of reckoning came my classmates pursed their lips and intoned the telltale hum. Even the Christian children sang “Hmm-umm the Hmm” — just to be on the safe side. I sang “Chri-ist the Lord” as loudly as I could using my best vocal instrument.

Nothing bad, of course, happened, except that several overwrought mothers called my house that evening to make sure my parents understood the risks I’d subjected their sons and daughters to. I was forbidden to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special that night on TV.

This was the first and, mercifully, not the last time I planted my feet on the road not taken. Looking at it from my current vantage point, I can tell you this has made all the difference in my life.  

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