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Ascher's third-grade class briefly met "Israel" in its survey of "Holidays Around the World." I am particularly fond of the star vaguely gesturing to Israel's location, because, you know, political borders aren't very important in the Middle East.

The winter holidays arrived, and with them, I became the subject of a great deal of curiosity.  We are, after all, the only identified Jews in the school, and I abruptly found myself representing the entire Tribe to the Chiang Mai International School. Miss Janet, knowing that we were of “another faith,” asked if I would be willing to talk to the preschoolers about Hanukkah and our traditions. I didn’t have a proper menorah here, I said, but  had stuck Buddhist-offering candles to a plate, and it worked surprisingly well.  “Martha,” Miss Janet says, “you know, she’s Jewish, she could probably lend you one.”  Martha is the wife of the school principal, an evangelical Christian.  I stand, dumbfounded and confused, until she clarifies, “she’s, you know, ethnically Jewish.  She used to be Jewish, before she met John, and then she converted, but still wants to teach her children some of her family’s traditions, so they light the menorah and play dreidel at Hanukkah.”  A sharp shot of anger goes through me, although I still smile politely.

When we were young, my mother, as part of her conversion to Judaism, decided once and for all that her household would not celebrate Christmas, and out went the tree, the ornaments, the lights.  We cried some, but then were consoled by an expanded role for Hanukkah.  The message I got was a good one, and it was clear. When you convert, you convert. You don’t get to keep the parts you like—pretty menorahs, potato pancakes, and referrals to good pediatricians and lawyers—and punt those that conflict with your new happy state of salvation. From my Jewish perspective, if you leave the tribe, you’re gone, and you can’t bring your Jewish stuff with you when you join up with the Christians.  As consolation, think of all the cathedrals and beautiful music and historical events that now belong to you.  Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The poetry of George Herbert.  The Spanish Inquisition.  They’re all yours now.  But you leave the dreidel at the door.

Miss Janet continues, “Would you like to present something about Hanukkah with Martha?”  I stop smiling politely.  I am appalled at the idea of Martha standing in front of these young children—many of whom have never met a Jew—and giving them the impression that Christians get to do all the fun Jewish stuff, too. “Miss Janet,” I say, slowly, “What Martha does is, from my perspective, is sort of like celebrating Christmas without Christ, or just eating chocolate eggs on Easter. I’m uncomfortable with…” Now I’m thinking, and I’m getting angrier by the minute.  “I think her presence would suggest to the children that being Jewish is an interesting collection of practices that you can pick up or drop as you like.  And I will not do that in front of my daughter.”  “Oh, gosh,” says Miss Janet, “I’d never thought about it that way.”  I would hear this sentence several times over the course of the next two weeks. The end result is that I deliver (solo) to Camilla’s class a standard telling of the Hanukkah story, lighting of the menorah, doughnuts to eat, and dreidels to spin.

Martha explained to me how she came to Christ: raised as a Conservative Jew, she “fell out of love with organized religion in college,” but John asked her to read the Bible, and  then she fell in love with Jesus and His message.  She still didn’t love organized religion, though.  She was taken aback when I remarked how odd it must be for her now, to be a missionary on behalf of perhaps the best organized religion in history. Eventually, the conversation gets around to her saying that she’s on her way over to the Chabad House to buy Israeli Hanukkah candles, and did I want her to pick some up for me?  No, I said, we had cobbled one together, and it was beautiful. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” she says, “I’ll pick you up one of those tin menorahs they pass out.”  And of course, she does, along with two of the oddest dreidels I’ve ever seen. They were round: a game would take hours as the dreidel rocks slowly into place, and would result in endless bickering about which letter was actually on the bottom.  She refuses any money, and leaves me as the recipient of Christian kindness about, of all things, Hanukkah.

Now, my friend Susan is a woman I trust utterly with my children, whose child-raising approaches I respect deeply, and who is a merry, honest, kindly, and welcoming soul.  She was born again after many years wasted in drugs and alcohol and partying.  Probably part of the reason I like her is because she acknowledges the life she had before Christ, and remembers that some of it was a lot of fun.  Her new life is, of course, better.

Susan has spoken to me several times of her “devout Jewish friend,” and has compared the practices of that friend—kashrut and shomer Shabbat—to mine (which simply don’t compare).  Finally, in one of those conversations, I grasp the fact that this devout Jew is actually a Messianic Jew.  “Oh,” I say, not very nicely.  “One of them.  They’re not Jews in my book.”  We have a conversation about why I feel that converts to Christianity do not get to play Jew when they like, and how nice it would be if Christians would stop trying to convert Jews with sly little measures like Messianic Judaism and Jews for Jesus.  She also learns that I am not particularly sympathetic with the deeply religious Jew she knows who converted to Christianity.  That poor woman lost family in the Holocaust, was raised in a synagogue, but—even though she now has the comfort of being saved by Jesus Christ—sorely misses her Jewish tradition.  “Just imagine, her grandparents died in the Holocaust. I just can’t imagine leaving all of that rich cultural heritage behind,” sighs Susan.  “I can’t possibly imagine converting to Christianity if my grandparents died in the Holocaust,” I say curtly, and Susan looks at me aghast.  Drum-roll, please, because here it comes again: “I never thought about it that way.”

What neither Miss Janet nor Susan have realized—despite their best intentions to “respect” the Jewish tradition—is that Jews are, and have always been, a threatened people.  Judaism does not grow: we don’t gain new members by proselytizing and we lose each other through intermarriages (and through a few close-minded rabbis who won’t perform them).  The institutions of our community, our synagogues, our community centers, our homes for the aged, are all weakened by demographic change and by the greater acceptance—and assimilation—of Jews into American society.  Regardless of one’s stance on Israel politics, it’s safe to say the Jewish state has enemies who would like to see it gone.  And, here, I realized to my shock that there are kind (if ill-informed) Christians all over the world who think Judaism is simply a refusal to get with the times, that Judaism is merely the model from two millennia ago.  In many ways, that gentle and polite negation constitutes an enormous threat in itself.

Once I realized that our children are the only Jews in the school—sorry, Liz, your half-Jewish boyfriend who cries over Holocaust movies doesn’t qualify your daughters—I resolved to do something in Ascher’s classroom for Hanukkah.  After all, I could not live with myself if the bar-mitzvah boy below and his bizarrely Dutch—or maybe Druze?—sister were the  impressions his classmates would take away of the Chosen People after having a living, breathing Jew among them.

Sam Posner, a young friend in Worcester, provided an immediate lesson plan by sending Ascher a link to a video of the Jewish rap artist Matisyahu’s irresistible Hanukkah song, “Miracle.” In the video, Matisyahu has a dream that King Antiochus tries to oppress him into celebrating Christmas, complete with fantastic visual puns on Christmas crackers used as a hammers to escape the Christmas jail (get it? hammer? Maccabees?). I told Ascher’s class the story of Hanukkah, and gave them a crib sheet with the lyrics. It contained a careful interpretive key (“King Antiochus = Christmas without Christ”) so that no child would go home saying, “Mom, this woman came in and told us that Christmas is bad.” Then I showed them the video.  Twice. They liked it so much that I needed to shout the take-away lesson over their enthusiasm: “Remember that Jews still struggle to be free today, and still fight against political enemies or commercial pressures.  We do not want to be Christians.  We want to be free.”

As much as I have loved a great deal of my children’s experiences at CMIS, I, too, want to be free.  I want to be back amongst my people, or at least among people for whom my people are not a strange and exotic tribe.  At the end of one of our conversations, Susan sweetly apologized because she feared that these conversations I’ve been having all over CMIS—in which I am the first Jew any of these people have ever met—are getting tiresome. But these conversations are not tiresome at all.  Frankly, they blow my mind. These people truly believe that the God changed his mind about that Covenant after all, or at least the terms of the agreement. But they also believe Scripture, the Word of God, is never wrong.  I wonder, what if he changed his mind about that after publication? In the end, these conversations turned out to be the greatest mechanism possible for cementing me in my faith, or at least in my tribal affiliation. While I may not be a very devout Jew, after my time among the missionaries, I could never, ever be anything else.

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