I was eight years old, surrounded by friends on the dusty playground in what I now know was a lower class neighborhood of Los Angeles. My friends—one Japanese, another Negro, one a proud Comanche and a couple of blond, perky Protestants—gazed at me in astonishment that could, any moment, develop into hostility. “You mean, you don’t believe in Jesus? You don’t have Christmas?”
I knew about hostility, having escaped from Nazi Germany several years earlier Mama had brought us three girls safely to America saving our lives and launching us into a new world of opportunity and struggle. It was obvious that we were different, not only poor but “strange.”
I might, in that moment of veiled confrontation, have laughed, disavowed my denial of Christmas and all that it implied, and blended in. My friends might then have invited me to come over and help trim the tree, sing songs and share all the delights of their favorite day of the year But I took a deep breath and I told them the truth: “I am Jewish. We do not pray to Jesus. And while you are having Christmas, we celebrate Hanukkah.”
In truth, Hanukkah didn’t mean much at our house. We lit some candles, and Mama tried to create a festive mood by giving each of us a plate of prettily arranged nuts and sweets. But something told me that this was not about holidays. It was a moment of choice. I could choose to be a Jew not only at home, but here in the school yard also.
The girls stared openly. They asked a few questions, the kind that still plague theologians and philosophers, and which I, in my quaint naivete, answered as well as I could. Then Rosanne the Comanche proposed, “Let’s go play tether ball,” and we all ran to be first, knowing Rosanne could beat us all but still willing to play together.
Looking back, that small incident in my childhood stands out as a symbol for the rest of my life. In high school I was picked to join a club for Jewish girls only, and I immediately attempted to integrate it. My friends were aghast; they simply weren’t ready or willing to mingle with girls of other religions and races. I quit the club after a while, and in my senior year went to a camp called Anytown USA, where students of all races and background were gathered as an experiment in tolerance. I felt that I was born for this, to mingle, to understand, to learn about these others, and never to forget that I was once a stranger.
We become grown-up Jewish women by first being Jewish children, secure in our traditions, ready to meet the larger world with integrity and understanding.
Sonia Levitin is the author of 40 books for adults and children, most recently Room in the Heart, and a science fiction thriller, The Goodness Gene (Dutton, 2005).