What It's Like to Be a Maccabee in Maine

December 22, 2016Courtney Naliboff

For the first time, I have placed a wreath on the front door of my home on the island of North Haven, Maine. I bid for it at the PTO auction. My high school students helped me decorate it, and my contribution was blue and white pipe cleaners twisted into the shape of a Star of David.

Oh, I know that the circle of evergreens stems from a pagan tradition, but for a decade I’ve clung to my unadorned entryway as a symbol of my Jewish identity. Other than my toddler daughter, I am the only year-round practicing Jew in North Haven, but with my Christian in-laws coming this year and my daughter's growing awareness of holiday events, an interfaith wreath seemed like the right thing to do.

My sisters and I grew up in Central Maine, where my family was one of a small handful of Jewish families scattered in this remote, wooded corner of the diaspora. As such, every December we played the role of Jewish ambassadors, bringing menorahs into our classrooms and sharing the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil, along with distributing Hanukkah gelt, chocolates wrapped in gold foil. At home, we opened presents and lit candles that coated the kitchen table with dripped wax. We ate latkes with applesauce, sour cream, and cinnamon.

But that wasn’t all. We also hung stockings from the mantle, had a decorated tree in our living room, and opened presents on December 25th, all because our parents feared we would feel left out if we didn’t. Still, I remember feeling like a “lonely Jew on Christmas,” as South Park once poignantly put it. For that reason, I’m putting a lot of thought into shaping my island-dwelling daughter’s holiday season.

We’re an intercultural family. My husband’s early holiday experience was shaped by his Guatemalan mother, his Italian grandmother, and dozens of his southern California relatives. When we visit his family for Christmas, we stay up until midnight to open presents around their huge tree. We go to the beach on Christmas Day. We eat tamales and Filipino lumpia prepared by my sister-in-law, and we torment my father-in-law with repeated viewings of A Christmas Story.

This year, though, my in-laws are coming to the island. We won’t have a tree for them to enjoy –  just the wreath – but on December 24th, which is both Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah, we’ll have a true interfaith evening: at sunset, I’ll light the menorah and sing the blessings, and my daughter will open a present or two from her Jewish relatives. Then, we’ll head to the “Lessons and Carols” service at the small island church and play music and sing in solidarity with our neighbors. On December 25th, she’ll open presents from the Gentile side of the family, and at sunset, we’ll light the candles again. We’ll have our island friends over to eat latkes with applesauce, sour cream, and cinnamon sometime that week because a shared meal is my favorite way to remind island friends and neighbors about other cultures.

In my childhood, before most people were connected via the Internet, I felt isolated from other Jewish kids, and my peers often treated me as an outsider. Our tree and stockings made us feel more connected with the culture around us, as did sharing our traditions with classmates at school, but as I grew older and more aware of my place within the community, I felt the need to be more proactive. Now, my colleagues, neighbors, and even students read the pieces I write for Jewish publications and see the images I share on social media of my family’s holiday celebrations.

In the wake of increased hate crimes following the presidential election, it's more important than ever to put a human face on what might be considered "other." I suspect that some Jewish people in rural areas are scared to display menorahs in their windows this holiday season. I’m lucky to live in a small town that, with a few bumps along the way, accepts and supports my traditions, just as I accept and support theirs.

As the first snowflakes start to fall on North Haven, I’m excited for this season of light.

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