There’s No Santa, but Keep It Quiet


It was in 1998 that my son, Sammy, broke out of his cocoon and started kindergarten at our neighborhood school. Up until then, he had spent his entire tiny life surrounded by Jews.

Having left his Jewish preschool behind only a few months prior, he had little knowledge of his own minority status in the world, not to mention in our South Bay community. But that didn’t matter to him, at least as far as I knew.

The phone rang on that cold December morning, the week before school let out for Christmas — I mean winter break.

“Hello,” Sammy’s teacher said. “It’s Susie Clark.”

As any good Jewish mother would, I immediately thought that Sammy had fallen and cracked his head open.

“Do you have a minute?” she asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, no. Well sort of,” she said.

This could not be good.

“It’s just that, well, Sammy’s been,” she stammered, “having a little trouble since we started our holiday unit.”

“Why?” I asked. “Doesn’t he get it?”

“Oh, he gets it. He gets it quite well. The problem is that….”

I sat down and waited for the bomb to drop.

“He’s been telling his classmates that there’s no such thing as Santa.”

“Oh, that’s awful!” I exclaimed. What was I supposed to say?

“I’m not sure what to do,” the teacher said. “I’ve been teaching almost 20 years, and this is a first. I’ve gotten calls from two mothers already.”

I had visions of furious mothers beating me with wooden nutcrackers.

“Gee, I’m sorry,” I replied as I began to sweat.

“I actually don’t spend that much time on holiday stuff, only the last week before break,” the teacher said. “And we do Chanukah, too. Obviously, we’re making little Christmas trees, Santas, candy canes, wreaths, but I have templates for dreidels and stars. My other Jewish students use some of the Christmas designs, but not Sammy. He’ll do only Chanukah. Yesterday, we ran out of blue construction paper. He wasn’t happy.”

I pictured his indignant pout as he made a red-and-green dreidel.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said. “Don’t worry, there won’t be any more rumors about Santa being a fake.”

“Thanks.” Her tone implied that she wasn’t quite finished. “And just one more thing.”

I sat down again.

“Sammy’s had a little trouble with Robbie lately.”

“What? He adores Robbie!” Robbie was Sammy’s best buddy since the toddler class at preschool.

“You know Robbie’s mom is Jewish and his dad’s not,” the teacher said. “So Robbie’s taken the position that he’s both Jewish and Christian, but Sammy keeps insisting that he’s all Jewish. They really got into it yesterday.”

“I’ll take care of it,” I said.

I hung the phone up quietly and wondered if living in a predominately non-Jewish area was bothering Sammy. For me, having grown up in the Valley, being Jewish was never an issue. I took it for granted that at least half of the kids at school were Jewish. But not where my children lived. The Jews in Palos Verdes were a small group, close-knit and involved but statistically a tiny sliver on the pie chart.

Sammy bounced into the car that afternoon as always. I tried to sound nonchalant.

“Why are you telling kids there’s no Santa?” I blurted. So much for nonchalant.

“Because there isn’t one,” he said.

“And why are you arguing with Robbie about whether he’s Jewish or not?”

“Because he’s Jewish. He was last year.”

It occurred to me then that perhaps there was no problem. My son was clear and content with what he knew to be true.

When we got home, Sammy pulled out his Chanukah cutouts.

“Look what I made.” He showed them proudly, even the green dreidel. I gathered him onto my lap and admired his work.

“Sammy, you can’t tell the kids about Santa anymore. Some of them really believe in Santa. It’s not right for you to spoil it for them.”

“But why would they want to believe in something that’s not true?”

“Because it’s fun,” I said. “Because their parents like to pretend and create a story or tradition for their family. We do that, like with the tooth fairy.”

His expression changed, and a little frown formed between his eyebrows. Naturally, a jolly, fat man in a red suit who drags presents down chimneys was absurd, but a little fairy who trades money for teeth was perfectly logical. There went my mother of the year award.

“How do you know there’s no Santa anyway?” I asked.

“Mickey told me.”

Of course. The older brother always tells.

“Well, do you think you could just not talk about Santa for the next few days?”

He nodded his head and began taping his artwork to the front windows for all the world to see that in our house, we celebrated Chanukah.

During those last few days before Christmas — I mean winter break — I reminded Sammy to keep his knowledge and opinions to himself. Friday afternoon came with great relief — no more irate parents calling the teacher and no mothers chasing after me.

Six Chanukahs have come and gone since that December, and Sammy wrapped up his elementary school career six months ago. On the last day of school in June, we ran into his kindergarten teacher. She hugged Sammy. The little boy who had spoiled Santa was up to her nose.

“Sammy, I’ll never forget that Christmas with you in my class,” she said. “And I think of you every year when I pull out my Chanukah cutouts.”

As for Sammy, his Jewish identity, established way back in preschool, is as solid as the blacktop where he used to play ball.

Robbie eventually became all Jewish, just as Sammy had insisted.

And the tooth fairy, well, she continued to visit us until the very last tooth had been hidden underneath the pillow.


Sacred Space

The Charles and Nora Hester board room at Chapman University is a typical corporate meeting area; large and devoid of anything sacred, it is located on the second floor of the school’s main building. Outside the room is a display that highlights the life of Christian philanthropist Albert Schweitzer.

Nothing indicates that this environment is conducive to a strong campus Jewish life, let alone its existence. Yet on a Friday night, while most of their peers were at frat parties or dates, members of Chapman’s Jewish community were celebrating a Shabbat dinner, singing and praying in Hebrew (with a liberal sprinkling of English) in this very room.

That a Shabbat dinner is held at a Christian college with full administrative support, and that more than half of the 50-plus people in attendance are non-Jews, is testament to both Chapman’s unusual religious outlook and its Jewish students’ resolve to make themselves a visible presence at the university. Though Jewish students remain a tiny majority (about 2 percent of a student population of more than 4,000), Jewish life is thriving at Chapman.

The university is best-known in the Jewish community for Dr. Marilyn Harran, chair of the religion department and director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The concept of a Christian university harboring a program dedicated toward a subject essential to the Jewish experience seems perplexing; the reality is explained by the school’s emphatically non-dogmatic theological view and its relationship with Jewish affairs. Chapman is associated with the Disciples of Christ, a Christian denomination that sees religious diversity as a core tenet and which is at the forefront in joint Christian-Jewish dialogue efforts. From this rich pluralistic background, the school has constructed an educational experience that supports various traditions and allows them to flourish.

"I think that Chapman’s education leaves students incapable of being intolerant," says Katie Vliestrla, student director of spiritual programming and head of the school’s Interfaith Council. "College in general is a great environment, and people want to learn about other people. Chapman encourages that."

Such idealism doesn’t always translate into an awareness of Jewish issues or the needs of Jewish students. The school’s Hillel chapter was not recognized by the student government — and therefore, not eligible for funds — and for many years, teachers would question students for missing classes during Jewish holidays; even the administration made embarrassing mistakes. "I remember the first year I started, the school had scheduled homecoming the same day as Yom Kippur," recalled Ron Farmer, dean of the school’s All-Faiths Chapel. "That weekend, I received phone calls from Jewish alumni upset that the school was so ignorant. You can reschedule homecoming; you can’t reschedule Yom Kippur."

Aware that some people might not know the difference between "Shema" and shalom, this year’s Hillel will focus on education and inclusiveness to combat ignorance.

The group tries to host an environment that allows Jewish students to maintain a sense of community and be inclusive in order to teach non-Jews about Jewish life. "We want Hillel to be the Jewish resource on campus for everyone," says Debbie Shapiro, program director for Hillel of Orange County and Chapman Hillel’s adviser. "If we advertise an event saying, ‘Are you Jewish? Then come to Hillel,’ non-Jews will feel excluded and maybe even resentful. But by holding ‘everyone’s invited’ events like Shabbat dinners, people become educated and interact on a personal basis."

In addition to being the conduit for those wanting to know more about Judaism, Chapman Hillel is also a source of support for Jewish students on a campus where they are a distinct minority, not only in numbers but also in lifestyle. Such support is crucial toward maintaining and even creating a Jewish identity, says sophomore Sarah Goldshlack, the religious and cultural chair of Hillel. "There’s not many Jews in the area of Michigan where I come from. Hillel is a great way of solidifying identity where maybe it wasn’t completely there before."

The group has many events planned throughout the year. On Nov. 15, a speaker from the Israeli Consulate will address the school on Israel’s contribution in the new War on Terrorism. Hillel will also host social events that encourage interaction with Jews and non-Jews, such as bonfires, more dinners and a "mystery tour" club, a new program that Hillel president Debra Yaghouby giddily introduced to curious eaters at the Shabbat dinner. "I feel like there’s so many Jews here at Chapman, but we can’t find each other because of a lack of space or events," says Yaghouby, a junior. "Things like Shabbat dinners bring us together."

With the support of an understanding university, an enthusiastic membership and Shapiro — who says, "It’s empowering to see the leadership skills and tendencies of Jewish students surface" — Chapman’s Jewish community is taking its rightful place as an integral part of the college’s campus life.

"It’s important to be known," Yaghouby says. "Now that we’re getting bigger and more united, we drop everything for our events and for each other. We see Hillel — and what it means — as our child."