Mrs. Seidman gripped my jaw with fat, stubby fingers and forced my mouth as wide as a blowfish.
"Mouths open, mouths open!" she shrieked. "Sing out, children!"
O holy night
The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night
Of our dear Savior's birth.
It was early December and our sixth-grade class was preparing for the annual parade of Christmas carols through the halls of our elementary school. Our teacher was relentless in her coaching as she drummed the sacred hymns into our heads. Mrs. Seidman sought a level of enthusiasm that bordered on religious reverie. The irony of this tiny Jewish woman force-feeding Christian songs to her mostly Jewish students seemed no less odd than our public school's obsession with the Christmas holiday in the first place. What ever happened to separation of church and state?
Mrs. Seidman, a practicing Jew whose husband had survived the Holocaust, was enamored with the deeply spiritual canons of the season. Her arms flailing, she conducted our rehearsals as if she were preparing a papal choir for the Second Coming of Christ. It wasn't enough to sing the songs, we had to feel them with our souls. Our practice sessions turned into marathons, eclipsing all other schoolwork. Terrorized into submission, we transformed ourselves from a motley group of awkward preteens into 12-year-old apostles, proudly asserting our hosannas to the Lord. Sweat formed on our brows and our little chests heaved with pressure as we belted the powerful crescendos again and again.
Fall on your KN-E-E-E-E-E-S
O hear the Angels, V-O-I-C-E-S
O night DIV-I-I-I-I-NE
O night when Christ was born.
We spent every school day in December genuflecting in song. I tried not to think of my Orthodox grandparents, who forbade me to even utter the words "Jesus Christ" in their home. One whiff of this ecclesiastical curricula and they would have me transferred to Arie Crown Hebrew Day School before the next chorus. But families were not invited to the yearly Christ-fest, and I was smart enough to keep my liturgical repertoire to myself.
Though Jews dominated the scene at Peterson School, our neighborhood also boasted a large number of Swedes, fellow immigrants from a few generations back. Their families congregated around nearby North Park College and Swedish Covenant Hospital, and their white-blond, blue-eyed children mixed in well with the Semitic majority. Some of the Swedish students resented the fact that the Jews at Peterson were co-opting their special holiday. Rhonda Hellstrom cornered me one day during choir practice.
"I just don't see why you guys get Christmas off when we have to come to school on Young Kippers and Rich-n-Shiny."
"That's Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah," I corrected, but I didn't know how to answer her legitimate query. "It's not our fault," was all I could think of to say. "We don't make the rules."
"You made the rules when you killed our Lord," Rhonda spewed, and flounced away in a huff.
Her tired accusation didn't faze me. Rhonda was still mad at me for telling her that Santa Claus didn't exist when we were in first grade. I had exposed old St. Nick as the clever ruse of toy manufacturers and I tried to make Rhonda see that there was little connection between Santa's slave labor camps in the North Pole and some peasant woman's pregnancy in the Middle East. I honestly thought I was doing Rhonda a favor but her shattered innocence gave birth to lasting bitterness.
Whenever a visitor entered our classroom, Mrs. Seidman was ready with an impromptu lesson. Dr. Stanek, our principal, would watch approvingly as our teacher explained the rigors of long division or pontificated on the big-bang theory. But as soon as the exit door clicked into place, Mrs. Seidman went flying back to the heavily lacquered, mahogany upright piano in the corner of the room. After she had taught us the holiest songs of worship, Mrs. Seidman switched to the secular tunes that would complete our holiday program. Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus made way for Frosty, Rudolph and that false icon himself, Mr. Claus. Instead of reaching for prayerful piety in our off-key warblings, Mrs. Seidman now tried to turn us into mini-Irving Berlins. She choreographed our numbers in a hyperkinetic Busby Berkeley style, full of knee kicks, quick turns and jaunty tips of imaginary hats. Since our performance would take place marching through the hallways of the school, we practiced gliding across our classroom as we sang. Unfortunately, the bolted-down original 1920s desks, complete with holes for inkwells, blocked our way and within the first few bars of "Let it Snow" we were all over the floor -- Jews and Swedes scattered about in some weird yuletide orgy.
Though all students participated equally in Mrs. Seidman's bacchanalia, the Swedish contingent retained an air of smugness throughout the Christmas season -- they knew that they were the rightful heirs to the gala festivities. I could see their point. For years American Jews had tried to turn the eight-day Chanukah celebration into some kind of Jewish Christmas. They sent out cards, bought gifts, put up lights -- some of my friends even decorated Chanukah bushes -- an indulgence my own family would never allow. These attempts at holiday assimilation seemed forced and contrived. I failed to see any parallels between the victory over the Syrian army in 165 B.C. that Chanukah commemorates and the story of Christ's birth. It was simply a seasonal accident that linked the two holidays. In the name of melting pot unity, customs were borrowed and adapted, but even in its secular excesses, Chanukah literally paled by comparison. Everything associated with the holiday -- cards, wrapping paper, decorations -- was forged in drab blues and whites, as if a simple splash of color was tantamount to Jewish acceptance of Christ the Redeemer.
As Christmas approached, Mrs. Seidman gave up any pretense of normal studies. As an afterthought, she added a Chanukah-themed song to our repertoire, albeit one devoid of spiritual or historical insight. With reluctance and not a trace of ethnic pride, we learned the words and accompanying gestures to Mrs. Seidman's latest folly.
I had a little dreidel
I made it out of clay,
And when it's dry and ready
Oh dreidel I shall play.
I had to explain to Rhonda Hellstrom that a dreidel was a spinning top marked with Hebrew letters that Jewish children played with during the eight days of Chanukah. Little did this budding anti-Semite know that she'd one day be playing dreidel with her own children. Rhonda would eventually marry one of the Jewish boys in our class and become Rhonda Shapiro, putting an end once and for all to her Christ-killing libel.
Finally, the big day was upon us -- the last school day before the Christmas holidays. Teachers dispatched their holiday troubadours on a staggered schedule, allowing the whole school to enjoy the varied program. The younger children wore construction-paper Santa hats and sang sweetly about sleigh bells and candy canes. The oldest students wore white robes and carried real candles as they sang complex oratorios. When it was our turn to tread the bulletin board-lined hallways, Mrs. Seidman walked us to the door and reverently pressed a sprig of plastic holly into each student's palm. We trudged off slowly and in lock-step unison, like members of a heavenly chain gang. As we lifted our voices in song, Mrs. Seidman clasped her hands together and looked upwards in exultation.
On December five and twenty,
Fum, fum, fum.
In a manger lonely, manger lonely
There was born a babe, a holy child.
It was enough to make a Jewish mother weep with pride.