How I Make The Most Of Christmas Break — As An Ultra-Orthodox Public School Student
The “Twelve days of Christmas” can be an excruciatingly long period of time to endure — especially if you are a teenager with all of that time off from school, but do not actually celebrate Christmas.
This is my pending predicament for the upcoming holiday season and one I have experienced for the past three years. As an ultra-Orthodox, “yeshivish” Jew who is also a senior in a public high school, my campus is closed for almost two weeks for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. This is perfectly understandable, given that over 90% of my school is Christian, with a small percentage of Jews and an even smaller smattering of Muslims in attendance (I do not believe we have any Hindus, Confucians, Taoists, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Zoroastrians at school, though I have never officially confirmed). All of us would obviously be foregoing any yuletide participation; however, I do have one Christian friend who celebrates Kwanzaa and boycotts Christmas just to annoy his evangelical Christian parents. With him aside, pretty much everyone else I know at my school celebrates Christmas and eagerly looks forward to this long winter break.
Don’t get me wrong. It is nice to have all that time off from school — no getting up early, the ability to pray at a later morning synagogue prayer quorum, no putting on a uniform and no sitting through less than interesting classes. It just gets, quite simply, lonely. Hanukkah, the holiday I do celebrate, generally falls one to two weeks before Christmas on any given year. Therefore, I seldom have time off from school to celebrate Hanukkah, while all my friends in yeshiva do.
These yeshivish friends usually head up north from Baltimore to visit relatives in Lakewood, Brooklyn, Passaic or Monsey to celebrate the Shabbat of Hanukkah with a host of bubbes, zeides, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. They reconnect with family and enjoy traditional Hanukkah holiday foods heavily drenched in oil like latkes and jelly donuts. For the friends that do stay local, there is always something festive going on in our home town of Baltimore. Chabad sponsors an annual Hanukkah festival at the Inner Harbor Downtown with a large menorah lighting by the water, music and food. In the past, our city has hosted klezmer bands and even The Maccabeats, an Orthodox Jewish all-male acappella group based out of Yeshiva University. Our very own Ner Israel Rabbinical College has a Hanukkah party either the first night of Hanukkah or the last night of Hanukkah known as “Zos Hanukkah.” Close to a hundred boys, rebbes and roshei yeshiva dance and sing to live music; some of the braver students even sing solos. On my street, the windows of neighboring homes are decorated in blue and white menorahs made out of construction paper.
Unfortunately, I will miss out on all my yeshivish friends and these festivities this year, because the weeks leading up to winter break are quite hectic at my school. Teachers want most assignments and projects completed by mid-December so that students do not have to do homework over the holiday break. This means I usually stay late studying or working at the library during Hanukkah. Sometimes, I barely have time to light my own menorah at home and sing a quick rendition of “Maoz Tzur.” I usually wolf down my mother’s latkes over textbooks.
At the same time, the atmosphere at my school is very festive leading up to winter break. Everyone is in a good mood, students are singing in the halls and gifts are generously exchanged. I always hope that our teachers are equally generous when it comes to giving out grades! Our school puts on a holiday concert and my school counselor always want me to sing Hanukkah songs for this event. I have always declined in the past, since I do not like to sing in public. Most Jewish students ditch the holiday concert since it really is all about Christmas; our Jewish Student Union puts on a Hanukkah party in the library instead, even though Hanukkah already ended some weeks prior. The school empties out on December 23 and my non-Jewish friends head south to warmer climates in Raleigh, Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach. Like my yeshivish friends do during Hanukkah, my Christian peers reconnect with their families over Christmas and eat holiday foods that are not doused in oil. My school app and class group chats on my iPhone are erringly silent during this time.
In contrast, the yeshivas are operating at full capacity on Christmas and New Year’s Day. While certain Chassidim might play chess on Christmas eve, yeshivish boys learn — night and day. One snowy year, on December 25, my 8th grade rebbe drove around in the slush to pick up boys and bring them to yeshiva just to prove that we “don’t take off for Christmas.” I usually make a point of heading out to a local shul to learn while I am off for winter break in support of my yeshivish friends. And, I try to tick off items from the list of housework my mother leaves me — though admittedly, I never try too hard to do that.
But this December, I’ve decided that it’s time to make the most of my ill-timed vacation. After three years of moping around during my winter break, I actually have a better plan for this year. I googled “surviving holiday loneliness” and stumbled upon the concept of combatting it by giving back to others. So I decided that this year, I will go visit my grandparents in Boca Raton, Florida during my holiday vacation. The last time I visited them was two summers ago, and they very much appreciated all the errands I ran for them while I was there. I escorted them to doctors’ visits and brought home meals. My grandmother is a fabulous painter and my grandfather tells the best war stories. They both have an old school charm and spoil me by letting me watch way too much television (Full disclosure: I am a political junkie so I love watching the news). Instead of focusing on my diminished teenage social life over the holidays, I will value the relationships I do have access to during my time off. Overall, I anticipate this trip will be most wonderful winter break in four years.