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When Christmas and Hanukkah Crashed

December 4, 2012 | by Debbie Gutfreund

For the first time in my life, I was the only Jew in the group.

My winter break when I was 15 was a turning point in my life, although I had no idea it was coming. My dad took me and my brother to a ski resort in Canada where we enrolled in a week long ski school to improve our jumps and form. The teenagers in our group were from all over the world, and most of them were far better skiers than we were. But we kept up with the grueling exercises, skiing down mogul lined slopes with one ski and preparing for the final race scheduled for the last day of ski school.

Most of the kids were friendly, but for the first time in my life, I was the only Jewish girl in the whole group. My life had been pretty sheltered. I went to a Jewish day school in New York, lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood and went to Jewish summer camps. I wasn't used to being the odd one out.

It was also one of those years when Christmas and Hanukkah coincided, so while everyone was discussing their Christmas plans, my brother and I pretended not to hear as we adjusted our boot settings. And we avoided eye contact with the instructor who asked us whether we were coming to the party that night. I thought about the little silver menorah in the living room of our chalet, and about the blessings that we would say that night.

I was surprised by the beauty of the Christmas tree.

That afternoon in the ski lodge I warmed my hands next to the fire and stared at the enormous pine tree decorated with hundreds of lights and shiny gold ornaments. I had never really looked closely at a Christmas tree before, and I was surprised by how beautiful it was. The lights were simply mesmerizing, and when one of the girls who I had been skiing with that day sat down next to me and asked if I was coming to the party that night, I began to reconsider. I didn't have to drink or eat anything. I could light the menorah with my family and then hang out with my ski class for a while. It seemed like it would be anti-social not to go, and there wasn't anything technically wrong with going to the party, was there?

Lighting the menorah that night with my father and brother, I looked out the window into the snowy night and saw the tiny, flickering candles reflected back at me. Suddenly they seemed so small, like sparks of light that kept eluding my grasp. I listened to the familiar, ancient words of the blessings and saw them fall like soft snowflakes through my hands. When I asked my father if he minded if I went to the Christmas party, he seemed surprised but then just nodded and told me to be back by eleven. We ate the potato latkes silently, and then my brother surprised me by announcing that he was coming too.

The hall was full of wreaths and blinking lights and songs that I knew by heart from the radio. I sat with a group of girls from my ski class, and we joked about the upcoming race the next day. I wasn't the worst skier in the group but I was close. We all knew Ethan would win anyway. Blond and blue eyed, he was here from Switzerland, and it looked like he had been skiing since he could walk.

Suddenly he was standing in front of our group with his brother. They were wearing matching green sweaters and cracking up over something. Then Ethan asked us if we wanted to hear the joke. "What did the Jew say to the..."

Is this guy really telling an anti-Semitic joke to my face?

The room began to spin. Is this guy really telling an anti-Semitic joke to my face? How could he? Until then, I had felt fine at the party. Not exactly like I belonged, but almost. But now I felt my whole face go red, and I interrupted him loudly, "I'm Jewish."

Everything went quiet. I could hear the wind whipping through the snow outside the lodge window as everyone stared at me.

"You're Jewish? But you don't look Jewish," Ethan mumbled.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

I had always thought that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past, irrelevant to my cushioned, New York bubble where being Jewish was a badge of pride. I stormed out of the party and walked back in a blur of snowflakes that fell so hard I could hardly see. But then I saw them. The lights of the menorah in the window. They were tiny and flickering in the winter darkness, but they warmed my confused heart as I pulled the door shut behind me.

I sat in the soft shadows on the living room and looked at my face in the mirror. What did Ethan know anyway? Staring back at me was a Jew. So what if I had blond hair and green eyes? What did it mean to look like a Jew anyway? I didn't know, but suddenly I knew what it felt like to be a Jew. I wanted to stand up for who I was and where I came from. I wanted everyone to see the little, silver menorah in our window. I wanted to be part of the strength and endurance climbing through these flames before me.

The Showdown

The next morning we all stood in a very uncomfortable silence at the top of the mountain. The race course was marked by red and black flags that dotted the slope below us. I was still so angry. I skied faster than I ever had before and to my utter surprise, I had beaten every member of the class except for Ethan. But he was a far better skier than I was, and I knew there was no way that I could win.

We stood braced at the top of the course, avoiding each other’s eyes, preparing for the showdown. The starting signal rang out. Ethan raced right past me, but then something miraculous happened. For the first time that week, Ethan fell. He was fine, but by the time he had regained his balance, I was by the finish line.

He skied up to me and finally looked me in the eyes. "You know it was just a joke. Congrats on the race."

Ethan offered his hand, but I shook my head. I took off my skis and walked towards the lodge. Through the window the enormous tree still twinkled, but I was immune to its light. I was different. I had my own light. I didn’t realize it before, but it was a miraculous torch that I was holding. And I was meant to carry it and run a different race.

I turned around and headed home.

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