By Marsha Smagley
Twas the night before Xmas, (or maybe a week before),
When all through the house, (that is. my best friend’s house),
Not a child was stirring, not even a mouse… (Except for the little Jewish girl, that would be me)
In hopes that.. (Santa) soon would be there! (That is until the little Jewish girl chased him away!).
When I was four years old, I told Kathy, my best friend who was Catholic, and her three siblings, that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. The little Jewish girl (that would be me) thought she was supposed to tell the truth. Although I do not remember many things from when I was four years old, unfortunately, I vividly remember that one.
It took place in a modest apartment in Chicago in the early 1960’s. The little Jewish girl of fair complexion, with very short thick strawberry blonde hair, stood in front of her best friend and her three siblings, all contently nestled on the couch in their apartment, and innocently, did the unthinkable…
“You know there is no such thing as Santa Claus”! I proclaimed in my little but determined voice. Suddenly all four children, with voices as one, loudly sobbed! There was a waling of tears, an orchestra of disappointment, and I sadly, was the conductor of gloom. Oh how I wish I had not been the messenger. Kathy’s mom, who was my mom’s best friend, came out to see what the commotion was all about and I am sure, was disappointed. She wanted to tell them, but later.
Kathy and I continued to be friends as did our moms. It seemed that all was forgotten, but I did not forget. Kathy in first grade enrolled in Catholic parochial school, and I went to public school. My family was not observant, but my parents instilled good values and were committed Jews, though its practice was more of a cultural one.
Kathy and I had so much in common, yet there were some subtle differences. Kathy still remembers my mom’s knishes, she loved them. Kathy’s mom never made knishes. My family ate rye bread with seeds; Kathy’s family ate mostly white bread. Kathy went to church every Sunday. My family did not. During the spring time, I used to help her color eggs. My family did not do this, but did buy chocolate covered shaped eggs made of marshmallows.
One Sunday I went with Kathy’s family to their church. I was very little but still remember that there was a point during the service when wafers were passed out. Something inside of me (I later discovered to be my soul), told me not to eat them, I also noticed that there benches attached to the bottom of each row of pews. I wondered what they were used for, and then I knew.
Suddenly everyone began to kneel down. I wondered how they all knew to do that. I too began to bend my knees because I thought it would be bad not to since all the grown-ups were, but froze in my tracks and stood up straight. I did not know why. Later I would discover that it was my soul telling me that I am a little Jewish girl and we do not do this.
How I wish I had known then, that G-d was in my life and I had a Jewish mission to fulfill. Yet behind the scenes, He was always orchestrating each detail of my life, even on that day at church. G-d was telling me that I am a little Jewish girl who is the daughter of the King, and we do not believe in Santa Claus,
When I was eight, my family joined a synagogue and enrolled my sister and me in Hebrew school. My parents wanted to do this so I would learn about being Jewish. My mom was raised in a reformed German Jewish home, and remembers the light of the Xmas tree, but not the light of the Shabbos candles .My father was raised in a traditional Jewish home but did not know khow to pass this onto his children. I never saw Shabbos candles lit in my childhood home.
Our neighborhood began to change and Jewish families were leaving. When I was ten years old, a girl threatened to beat me up after school. I had recently gone to her birthday party and thought she was my friend. I had no experience with fighting, but somehow sensed that it would be best to not act scared. Just like that day in church, something deep with in me, told me how to act and what to say. “You are the daughter of The King,” the voice must have whispered.
Jackie, the bully, was much shorter then I, but she was also much tougher physically. She tauntingly told me during our last class at school that this was the day she was going to beat me up. “That’s fine; I we can fight today”. I lied. I then casually added, “My mother is picking me up after school to wait with me for the bus to go to Hebrew school”.
I listened to my words but had no idea who was saying them or where they were coming from. I had not planned this, and I could not believe that I was not scared! Looking back, I can see that my loving Father in Heaven, once again came to my rescue, and gave me the words as well as the inner calm, that helped to transcend this physical threat. Jackie the bully never bothered me again.
Kathy’s family decided to move to a nearby suburb closer to her father’s office. It seemed so far away to me because my parents did not drive and to a child (and an adult too), you don’t want your best friend to leave. We wrote to each other, and saw each other whenever we could.
My father wanted us to move to a more Jewish neighborhood, so when I was in sixth grade, we moved to West Rogers Park, in Chicago. I made another close friend, Lisa*. Lisa was Jewish and lived in a traditional Jewish home. For the first time in my life, I had a Shabbos meal and it was nice. I did not like the liver, but I did like the chicken matzo ball soup and sensed that this was special.
Throwing Away the Bread
Lisa became my escort into forging a stronger Jewish identity, though I still did not know how to live a Jewish life. On Passover, Lisa taught me about kosher for Passover chocolate candy bars which I enjoyed. I could not believe that her family’s sedars lasted until 1:30am in the morning! Our family occasionally attended the sedar at our synagogue, but we did not have them at home.
I learned in Hebrew school that we do not eat bread during Passover. One Passover, when I was eleven years old, I went into our bread cupboard and threw away all our loaves of bread. When my mother questioned me I told her what I learned in Hebrew school. To my mother’s credit, she did not get mad at me. She knew that she wanted me to learn these things.
One day during Passover we went out to eat. The meal included a choice of desert. I chose the bread pudding. “I thought you were not eating bread!” someone in my family teased! I was embarrassed. I was trying so hard, I had only understood the prohibition on bread to be the sandwich kind. I did not know about all the other things you could not eat.
Finding My Jewish Song
I went to a public high school. At least half the kids were Jewish, but non- observant. I joined the symphonic choir. The conductor, who was Jewish, taught us the beautiful “Hallelukah” songs (I wish I knew to use the “K”) to perform for our holiday assembly. We also went Xmas caroling. Although Chanukah also fell around the same time, I do not remember our choir singing any songs about dreidels or menorahs.
Without a strong sense of my Jewish heritage to stand on, I entered adulthood feeling a sense of “Christian envy” during the winter “Holiday” season. Xmas permeates the air and the sound waves. It looked so alluring and magical, with all its shiny lights, warm family gatherings, and charming old movies and song. Yet I knew that deep down, I was still the little Jewish girl looking in from the outside. It bothered me when strangers would happily greet me with “Merry Xmas!” I so wanted to answer, “You mean, Happy Chanukah, I am Jewish!”
The tunes played all the time and some stayed in my head. There was one song, which I wished to get rid of, “When Grandma Got Run over By A Reindeer”. Maybe it reminded me of when I was four years old and innocently, chased Santa Claus away from my childhood friend’s home.
Now more than four decades later, the little Jewish girl became observant, (that would be me). Only ten years ago, in the middle of my marriage and my life, when my son was eight and my daughter was two years old, I went to a Torah class with my friend, with no real plan, but my Father in Heaven had one. I kept learning, and finally heard the true music that was always playing within the depths of my soul, and I came home. With much help from Above, as well as many wonderful people, have led my husband and children to becoming observant. I am so grateful that they did not put me on a sled and chase me away!
I recently spoke to Kathy, my childhood best friend about that fateful day over four decades ago. Then an unbelievable thing happened. It turns out that Kathy and her siblings continued to believe in Santa Claus for at least four more years, after my announcement! They did not stop believing in Santa Claus because of the little Jewish girl, they stopped on their own. Kathy said that she wished I had asked her so many years ago. I realized that the story had now come full circle as had my life. I felt blessed.
When what to my wandering eyes
But a miniature sleigh
And eight tiny reindeer!
The eight tiny reindeer that I had been so familiar with from childhood, especially that shiny nosed one, were replaced with the eight shining candles of Chanukah.
I have learned that by observing the Torah mitzvahs, I can become a candle of G-d, a shining emissary of His Divine light. I can also pass the candle; and pass His glorious light on to my children, and to the world.
The little Jewish girl (that would be me), found her way home.
*For privacy, the name has been changed.
The author retains all rights to this article. It can be printed for personal use only; it can not be used for publication or professional use, without prior consent from the author.
Originally Posted December 15th, 2008