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The Chosen People This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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December 2004. The loneliest month of the year.
We arrive at an imposing two-story house in the small town of Los Altos – the only house on the block not adorned with Christmas lights. As we walk through the front door, the only decoration is a mezuzah on its edge. We continue into the foyer, passing a shofar sitting on a shelf in the living room. On the kitchen counter sits a channukiah with the stubs of burnt chanukah candles sticking in its holders. And as we pass through the kitchen and into the den, we see me: an 11-year-old boy with reddish-brown hair on the couch, watching television and eating a tuna sandwich. In those days, it was my ­favorite food.

My family never had cable, and our antenna, twisted and worn, could only pick up three channels. As the early-morning cooking show ended, I waited eagerly for the next show. Before long I heard the announcement: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was playing all day.

With a grimace, I clicked to the next channel: a Mexican soap opera. The characters spoke in rapid-fire Spanish, a language I could not understand. I clicked again to discover what was playing on the only other channel. And with that, I clenched my teeth. Hard. On the screen, I saw the irritating, animated Rudolph, that reindeer with a red nose, forcing his unwanted image on my eyes.

That day, Rudolph was batting two for three.

I turned off the TV and put down my favorite sandwich. I wasn't hungry anymore.

Later that week, my mother drove me through our neighborhood. Every house was covered in twinkling lights, glowing reindeer, and smiling Santas. I could feel the warmth of the ornamentation seeping into the car, pushing at me from all directions. The strings of lights were fierce boa constrictors tightening around the frames of every house and slithering their menacing tongues at me as I gazed out the car window. I felt the impulse to leap out, tear every light from every house, strip the houses bare – as bare as mine. I was a Grinch, just not quite as green and furry.

At school, when kids entered the classroom with their Santa hats, I'd demand that they take them off, reminding them that even my beloved 49ers cap was not allowed. It took all I could muster not to grab the velvety ornaments and hurl them into the trashcan.

But, for some reason, I was never jealous that I couldn't celebrate Christmas. In fact, the whole idea of a fat old man breaking into your house to leave presents and escaping on a getaway sled pulled by reindeer seemed at the very least foolish, if not criminal. Instead, I hated that my white, suburban society was so fixated on Christmas that other traditions seemed forgotten. I hated how excluded I felt at this time of year. Amid the bright lights, the flame of my traditions seemed to have been extinguished.

“All right, class,” my teacher, Ms. Kirk, said after finishing a tedious lesson on the proper use of capitalization. “It's time to practice for the winter concert.” She said it with such a smug look, pretending that she was looking forward to watching a bunch of unenthusiastic 11-year-olds sing some clichéd songs about how wonderful Christmas was. She was wearing her typical outfit: a green sweater with a picture of Snoopy saying “Merry Christmas!”

Happy Chanukah, I thought.

As we converged with the other two classes in the multipurpose room, our teachers lined us up on the bleachers in height order. I was about five foot three: not tall, but just tall enough to be in the top row. There I stood alone at the top right corner, the shortest of the tall kids.

Another teacher, Ms. Kern, started directing the students. She would point and say: “Jacob, honey, can you turn to your right a bit?” or “Christina, sweetheart, stand up straight.” She stood there ­waving her arms, wearing a giant red and white Christmas sweater. On her head was her Santa hat.

After everyone was positioned to perfection, we began to sing in tortured tones. “Dashing through the snow …,” we caroled as Ms. Kern flamboyantly flapped her arms, “… in a one-horse open sleigh,” we continued in unison like an army of 90 preadolescent elves, helping Santa Claus give out gifts with our music. From my faraway perch, I stood muttering the words that were all too familiar.

As the song came to an end and I slowly began to unclench my fists, Ms. Kern had yet another suggestion. She gestured to a girl standing in the front row. On her head was a bright red Santa hat with bells hanging from its tail.

“Wouldn't it be so cute if all the kids wore Santa hats while they sang?” she asked the other teachers as my fists clenched again. The eyes of the other teachers brightened in agreement.

Soon Ms. Kern was asking, “Raise your hand if you have a Santa hat you can bring in for the performance.”

Most hands went up. Only a few – the ones who did not celebrate Christmas like me – had their arms at their sides. Ms. Kern looked at us, the straggling exceptions, with narrow, confused eyes.

“Would you wear a Santa hat if you could borrow one?”

I stared from my corner as the embarrassed few nodded. Pretty soon, every sixth-grader had complied except me.

Should I just grin and wear it? Should I refuse? My palms began to sweat. And if I did refuse, would I get in trouble? Would someone yell at me? Or worse: detention?

My hands began to tremble. If I were going to represent any culture or tradition, I desperately wanted it to be my own, with a menorah in my hand and a yarmulke on my head. But was it worth the possible punishment, the embarrassment, the snide remarks of classmates? Would my friends look down on me? If I didn't wear the Christmas red and white, would I be a Grinch?

My face shone with sweat. And then, suddenly, my fists ceased to shake.

“No!” I yelled.

Every head in the room quickly turned toward me, the short-tall Jew.

A look of shock was on each student's face. Soon they had sprouted curly white beards, although I was sure that puberty wasn't for another year. Before long, every head had a bright red Santa hat, each with a glowing white ball. The room had become an army of Santa's elves, and they wanted me to join. My palms continued to sweat, and my face turned pink, but I stood by my decision.

“I won't wear a Santa hat, Ms. Kern.”

Instead of lingering on the playground like most days, I went directly home as soon as the bell rang, my mind filled with fear. That moment of defiance repeated in a loop filling my head. I couldn't help but examine each aspect and evaluate whether I had done the right thing.

I twirled myself around and around in my bedroom chair, rubbing my irritated eyes. Why hadn't the other Jewish kids refused? Had I made a big deal out of nothing? Should I have just taken one for the team and worn the hat I so despised?

My older brother peeked in.

“Heard Mommy got a call from Mr. Baier,” he said with a smile as wide as a rainbow. He couldn't control his enthusiasm at my apparent misfortune.

My principal Mr. Baier had called my mother so often because of my misbehavior that he had her work number on speed dial. He was a large brown bear: stout and short, with rough brown hair. At this point in the year, he had already exhausted every form of punishment for my schoolyard misdeeds.

I began to spin in my swivel chair again, this time faster.

As soon as my mother got home, she told me to get in the car. We were going for a drive. I was confused. Usually when I got into trouble, I would have to stay in my room or do extra homework. But this time, my mother drove her white Toyota through the neighborhood as I sat in the back seat. I was still too short for the front.

She sat limply in the driver's seat, her glassy eyes on the road. Her graying hair was tied back, and she was still wearing her white doctor's coat that proudly said “Eleanor Levin, Physician” in blue stitching. Her gaze, seemingly a mixture of fatigue and anger, was directed at nothing in particular.

I peered out the window at the glaring Christmas lights. They enveloped me again, and I began to feel claustrophobic. The car windows started to steam up, and eventually I couldn't see the lights. With no place to look but ahead, I felt boxed in, awaiting my punishment.

After a long silence, my mother began. “My father, your grandfather … he was a good man.”

Of course he was, I thought.

“He studied medicine at the University of Michigan, but he didn't go there by choice. It was one of the only places that accepted Jews.”

My mother's face was wrinkled with age and exasperation. My tense legs began to shake.

“But he never complained about that. Your grandfather always said that the Jews were the Chosen People. Chosen for what, he never said.”

Chosen, I thought. I had been chosen today: chosen for punishment, for embarrassment, and for social isolation.

“Mr. Baier called,” she said, looking back at me with a melancholy turn of the head.

“I know. Scotty told me.” I looked at my feet.

“He said you wouldn't cooperate by wearing a Santa hat for the winter performance.”

The car suddenly jerked to a stop, but nothing was wrong. We had stopped in front of a giant traffic sign. The letters “STOP” gleamed in white, contrasting with the red sign. It stood as a barrier, forbidding us from moving on, gleaming like the star atop a Christmas tree.

I gulped and said, “It's true. I didn't want to do it.”

My mother looked at me with tired eyes. “I told him to stuff it,” she said. Our car was still unable to move past the giant red stop sign.

What? I thought. Stuff it?

“Mark, I'm proud of you for standing up for your people,” she said. “When I asked Mr. Baier how many mothers he had to call – how many students had refused to wear a hat – he told me you were the only one to speak up.”

I nodded. It was true.

“I don't know what we were chosen
for, Marky, but I hope it was to do things like that.”

We still sat in the car, parked in front of the red stop sign as though we were waiting for it magically to move.

“Now Marky, we can make a U-turn toward home or we can go straight to the Jewish bakery and pick up some sufganiyot to celebrate your accomplishment.”

Ah. Sufganiyot, the Chanukah donut and a favorite Hebrew school delicacy. I always took two.

“Sure,” I said, not even knowing which option I had chosen.

But my mother did not ask for clarification. She just gave me a knowing look, then our Toyota gave a roar and zoomed past the stop sign. I looked back at it with a smile.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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This article has 3 comments. Post your own!

TheaterGirl said...
Jul. 26, 2012 at 7:21 pm:
i am also jewish and me and my best friend had to go through similar things. my principal never called home but my music teacher did to tell my mom how proud that i stood up for what i believed in
 
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Imaginedangerous This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Dec. 5, 2011 at 4:26 pm:
Wow. That was terrifically written. Way to stand up for what you believe in. :)
 
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Myrtle25 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Nov. 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm:
I really like this piece, and how you built it up slowly and the way you used the "too short" motif. Great work! p.s. sufganiyot are awesome :)
 
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