Be Proud of Your Jewish Identity (Even in a Christmas Pageant)
We need to stay true to and proud of our Jewish identity, even while negotiating a multitude of roles.
by Judy Bolton-Fasman
This is not a story about God’s fifth commandment to honor one’s parents, although there is a lesson to be learned from that here. This is a story about forging a 614th commandment – Be Proud of Your Jewish Identity – and it goes back to the time I graduated ninth grade at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford. I was a three-times-a-day praying, kosher-eating, Shabbat-observant, modestly clothed young woman who aimed to fulfill all of God’s 613 commandments. I wanted nothing more than to go to Bais Yaakov High School in Borough Park. This time, my father put his foot down. Under no circumstances would his daughter be associated with Hasidim.
But I was desperate. I wanted to be the best Jew in the world. That meant I would not go to school with boys. This was 1975, and I wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice. To my great surprise, he answered me through his emissary Rabbi X. The Rebbe told me that, above all else, I must honor my mother and my father. He also sent along a dollar bill, which I saved for years because it had touched the Rebbe’s hands.
Despite the Rebbe’s sage recommendation and his tacit blessing, my choices remained limited for single-sex education if I were to stay home with my parents. My father had pushed for Miss Porter’s School. He pointed out that Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a graduate. Miss Porter’s would turn me into a refined young woman – the kind of Episcopal-Jew that Dad dreamed I would become. But I could not imagine showing up at such a bastion of preppiness with sleeves below my elbow, skirts below my knee, and collars up to my neck. Miss Porter’s was about sleeveless Lily Pulitzer dresses and immodest field hockey skirts.
The other option was to go to the Sisters of Mercy at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. “They’ll take care of you,” my mother promised. I wouldn’t be the first woman in my family to be taught by the nuns. My abuela learned to crochet in a convent school in Greece. The nuns tutored my rambunctious mother in Havana. And now it was my turn. “She needs to be cured. She’s enferma en el alma.” My mother was convinced my soul was sick. The idea of going to a Catholic school was so absurd it almost made sense to me. After all, the nuns – particularly the older ones – dressed as modestly as any woman in Crown Heights. The school was all-girls. No one thought I would last more than two weeks.
My classmates came to the Mount for a variety of reasons. Some were there for the special camaraderie of a single-sex school. Others were second and third generation Mounties. There was a core group that were sent there as punishment. I didn’t fit into any of these categories. I was a stranger in a strange land who had no intention of staying.
But I was not the first Jew to attend “The Mount.” In the 50s and 60s, the Mount had a cadre of Jewish girls. But by my senior year – yes, I had survived three years and ended up loving the place – it was just Carol and me.
Despite our warm history with parochial school education, celebrating Christmas was completely out of the question for my family. Christmas was the most obvious thing that separated me from the other Mounties. When I proudly said that it was not my holiday, people had two reactions to my proclamation – some felt genuinely sorry for me as if I were terribly deprived. Others thought I had sadly lost touch with reality. My best friend Andrea understood what was going on with me. Her parents had Jewish friends, and she knew about the separation of milk and meat, the difference between Christmas and Hanukkah.
My Christmas-less life made me the Mount’s exception to everything. I did not have to wear the school emblem – a cross inside of a crown – on my uniform blazer. I did not have to go to religion class, although I would have liked to. My friends said it was a hoot when the priest talked about sexual morality. During mass I went to study hall with the Protestants. Like the 12 spies who went into Canaan, a couple of us always snuck into the chapel to report to others. Unlike the Bible story, in which 10 of the 12 spies lie about a land of fierce giants, the reports we gave never came close to the fantastic. What passed for excitement were the older Sisters falling asleep in the last pews and loudly snoring. By the time I was a student at the Mount, most of the younger Sisters of Mercy dressed in civilian clothing. The boys who came to our socials occasionally mistook them for students and asked them to dance.
By my senior year, I was fully immersed in my life as a Mountie. The traditional senior class skit was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and, since I was the smallest girl in the class, I was selected to be the partridge. Always cognizant of what I would and would not do as a Jew, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t accept the starring role. I wore brown polyester clothes from head to toe that I borrowed from Sister Pam, the dean of students. Sister Constance, the math teacher, made my wings from grocery bags.
There were only 35 of us for the 79 parts detailed in the song. A sweet, tall girl named Denise was my pear tree. Andrea scrambled to play one of the three French hens and six geese-a-laying. The last time I appeared behind Denise’s trunk, I received a standing ovation.
At no time did I flap my wings and forget that I was the Jewish partridge in Mount Saint Joseph Academy’s pear tree. At no time since then have I forgotten that I’m a woman negotiating a multitude of roles while staying true to and proud of my Jewish identity. At no time should any Jewish woman, negotiating a multitude of roles as women tend to do, forget to stay true to and proud of her own Jewish identity.
About the Author
Judy Bolton-Fasman is an award-winning writer who pens a weekly column on family life for the Jewish Advocate in Boston. Judy’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, O Magazine, and the Jerusalem Report. Judy is working on a family memoir called 1735 Asylum Avenue and blogs at www.thejudychronicles.com.
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