I Grew Up Feeling Like an Outcast for Not Celebrating Christmas
My life has changed dramatically since high school.
Well, I mean, that's a given, and I would hope that for anyone. I graduated college in a different state, moved to Los Angeles, have an entirely different group of friends and have an actual career where I make a salary (I'm no longer mopping floors at the local ice cream shop—yay!).
But, above all else, I now feel so much more accepted for who I am than I did growing up. I guess that's probably the case for most people, and I've obviously matured (physically, mentally and emotionally) since those good ol' days of shoving books into my locker. But aside from being more confident overall and truly finding my place in life, I feel comfortable being Jewish.
It's funny saying that now, because in Los Angeles, there's a huge Jewish population, but growing up in Orange County, California, I was mocked for my religion, from elementary school all the way through high school. I was made fun of by my classmates for my unique name, which is Hebrew. I was even told by my 5-year-old next-door neighbor (and her entire family) that I was going to hell for my religion—I don't even believe in hell! Yep, talk about some crazy stuff.
In class, I'd constantly have to explain, at length, every holiday or religious observance, or why I wasn't able to eat cheeseburgers (I grew up in a kosher household, though I chose not to remain kosher as an adult). At my schools, they even had this thing called Christian Release, in which a select group of religious students was able to miss a full period of class to go into a little trailer on campus and talk about the bible. Mind you, this was all while attending a public institution.
There were so many crazy forms of prejudice, ignorance and alienation I faced growing up—it's wild. While, thankfully, I never experienced any physical bullying or destruction of property or anything like that, it was certainly enough to make me embarrassed for being Jewish. I had a couple friends from synagogue, but no one super close to me was of my faith—and certainly not at the schools I attended.
I was one of, I think, three Jews in my grade, and the others kind of brushed it under the rug or would have Christmas trees in their homes and sing merrily to carols at school just to fit in. We had a religious play one year (a Christmas play) and they had students sing some of the most religious songs and act out scenes that you'd never expect to come from a public school in Southern California.
(Mean Girls via Paramount Pictures)
That particular holiday season stood out as the most alienating, but it was just one example of many, in which there would maybe be an obligatory menorah placed in a classroom filled with all things Christmas and very religious-heavy decor. I ran into a classmate at the grocery store during one holiday season, and she mentioned her upcoming Christmas party, and uttered, "I'd invite you, but you don't celebrate Christmas." I was so mad. I mean, to be honest, I don't know if she was just using it as an excuse because she didn't really want to invite me—but the fact that it was even a justifiable excuse in her mind is what's worse. It made me resent Christmas and the people who celebrated it, and I didn't want to feel that way.
Oddly enough, I still enjoyed the holiday season each year. I think, due to the incredibly rainy, cold weather and the two weeks off from school, I was kind of in seasonal bliss. Also, despite everything, my parents threw an annual Chanukah party, where a combo of a few families from synagogue, some pals from sports teams and a couple of hand-plucked kids from school gathered in my parents' house for homemade latkes, menorah lighting, dreidel-spinning and conversation. It was the one night of the year where I could totally embrace my religion and feel great about it. Those parties were truly so much fun.
When I went off to college in Oregon right after high school, I was exposed to a community of fellow Jews for the first time in my life. Like every other culture, religion or interest on a typical college campus, there was a group for Jews: Hillel. It was fulfilling having a place to go on all the random holidays and sharing a major commonality with some of my peers.
But I'd be lying if I said I actually connected with anyone outside of our religion. While I certainly identified with some of those people more than I did people from grade school, I was still convinced all Jews were dorks (clearly the unchosen people). We were the ones who didn't belong. I still had yet to see a truly handsome or gorgeous, non-weird person of my religion. Why is there something wrong with all Jews? I thought. I couldn't even fathom the idea of dating a Jewish person. Gross.
(Mean Girls via Paramount Pictures)
It wasn't until after college and moving to L.A. that I finally saw things from an entirely new perspective. I can now fill up an entire Chanukah party of just Jews if I want! My first real boss was Jewish, my best guy friend is Jewish and one of my best girlfriends is Jewish. I even enjoy the High Holy Days now because I have someone close to me who I can go to synagogue with. Some of my friends' companies even give all their employees the day off on those holidays! Most importantly, there isn't even a thought of a divide between who's Jewish and who isn't.
Being exposed to so much more diversity over the last several years has made my resentment for Christmas dissipate. Now I know how to embrace it as a fun-filled day that holds a deep meaning to some of the people I'm currently closest to. And, likewise, my non-Chanukah-observing friends are more than happy to embrace the celebration with me and get to know the meaning behind the eight-day Festival of Lights.
I'm now proud to be Jewish, proud to be close to Jews, and grateful to have non-Jews in my life who I absolutely love. Shedding my then-lifelong insecurity has helped my confidence overall, leading me to now, smiling in the thick of holiday season—excited to embrace it all!
If you celebrate Chanukah like me, you'll relate to THESE truths about the holiday!