I attended a private British school from the ages of 4 to 18. There were no local Jewish high schools, and education at this school was superior to other options. It was one of those old-world establishments with centuries-long traditions, a school song in Latin (belting it out after one-too-many tequilas has become my party trick), and its very own ghost — the daughter of a wealthy Victorian family who once lived there, rumored to have died after falling out the art room (her bedroom) window.
The school was associated with the Church of England, and while its student body was multi-faith, I was one of the only Orthodox Jews, which marked me as different. I left lessons early on Friday afternoon to make it home before Shabbat. I brought my own lunch in place of the school dinners dolloped out by hair-netted dinner ladies, eating it alongside fellow religious “extremists” at a sectioned-off table in the back of the dining room. I merrily subbed “Jesus” for “Moses” in the hymn we sang each morning at assembly.
“Take seeds of His spirit, let the fruit grow,
Tell the people of Moses, let his love show.”
My differences were easily smoothed over with light bribery; my classmates were crazy about Bissli and Bamba, Israeli snacks they assumed they were unable to buy because they weren’t Jewish. I saw no need to correct them and happily took on the role of snack dealer.
But Christmas always threatened this delicate balance of belonging. The school went all in on Yuletide festivities, which started in October when the choir (of which I was a proud member) began to solely sing carols in anticipation of the Christmas concert. Daily hymns were one thing, but months spent harmonizing to “Silent Night” was too much for my parents and, anyway, the concert was on Shabbat. So my membership was limited to half the year.
“Hark! The herald angels sing/Glory to the newborn King,” I sang defiantly, in a private concert for my goldfish, as my ancestors spun in their graves.
With the tinsel-bedecked halls came the annual Christmas lunch when, once again, I was relegated to the “Bagged Lunch Table.” The FOMO was crippling — my friends, in seasonal merriment, were bonding without me while tucking into steaming plates of unkosher goodies. A greedy child, I fantasized for weeks about the glazed sausages, Yorkshire puddings filled with gravy, and even the boiled Brussels sprouts.
Worst of all was the nativity play. My parent’s campaign for a more inclusive production each year fell on deaf ears. It was an impenetrable tradition: The entire school took part and, in the week of the performance, decamped to the theater for nonstop rehearsal.
I would have gladly taken any role — an angel wrapped in a white bed sheet or a shepherd with a tea towel headdress — but instead I watched from the sidelines, along with a motley crew of Jews with equally cruel parents. That is, until said parents caught wind and demanded our teachers provide some stimulation. So we were given extra math (let’s not even go into the economic anti-Semitic connotations of that choice). Then we complained and were plonked in front of a portable television set to watch Fiddler on the Roof. Yes, really.
While my school was rigid in their Christmas traditions (surely, a year-on/year-off nativity policy wouldn’t have hurt), as a private Christian school, they were well within their rights to observe as they saw fit. And they did invite my dad into the classroom to share our Hanukkah traditions each year.
Perhaps I should judge them more critically, particularly given the growing concerns over anti-Semitism in the U.K., but the truth is, although I felt excluded at times, I loved Christmas at school — everyone was in a good mood, my friends and I exchanged gifts (they crossed out the “Merry Christmas” greetings on my card and replaced it with “Happy Hanukkah”), and teachers gave up on lessons and let us play games or watch a tentatively relevant film. I still get a rush of childhood wonder when the Christmas lights go up or I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” for the first time each year.
And while I resented my parents for withholding non-kosher treats and clipping my theatrical wings, they did an amazing job of ensuring Hanukkah — with its latkes, synagogue Hanukkah show, and eight days worth of gifts — held its own.
Image by Jesse Collins via Pixabay