Shana tova! It’s Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year —but my family’s not at temple, because, in our small town in Washington State, there is no temple.
I’m remembering my own childhood, missing school each year to go with my family to our shul, a half-hour away, to listen to the shofar, to sit down and stand up and sit down and stand up again. It got boring sometimes: I couldn’t sing along, because the Hebrew prayers were different than the weekly Shabbat ones I knew by heart.
But I never questioned that I was right where I was supposed to be.
Today I’m reflecting on how far America has come. Because I remember times when I told my teachers I’d be missing school for Rosh Hashanah, and rather than a kind holiday greeting, they angrily replied, “You better make up the work!”
From these teachers, there was no acknowledgment that religious holidays were legally excused absences. There was no acknowledgment that I was an impressionable little kid who wanted to feel acceptance from her teachers.
Instead, there was a constant message, both spoken and implied: Your holiday — your holy day — is not normal, so it’s not real. They treated me like I was trying to get away with something illicit.
Christian kids didn’t have to ask permission to skip school for Christmas. Their traditions were centered, normalized, built so deeply into the system that — unless you felt Othered like me —you wouldn’t even notice how church and state were in a codependent marriage.
But my holy days were never the default, so the burden of justification was always on my family.
Each year, my mom told the school why my absences were excused, for Rosh Hashanah, then for Yom Kippur. I shouldn’t have had to deal with it at all. I shouldn’t have had to feel my teachers’ negative judgment for something that, at the time, wasn’t even my choice.
“When I was little, I believed that the world could be separated into two parts: There were normal people who did normal things, and then there were weird people who did weird things. I was squarely outside the norm.”
As an adult, it’s hard to untangle how much of my childhood feelings of Otherness were a direct result of things people said, and how much came from the overall climate of Christian normalcy. From “Silent Night” in elementary school, to the pledge of allegiance, to the neighborhood kids tackling me so they could claw through my curls to find my devil horns, Christianity was centered, and there was no question anything outside of it was abnormal.
Why am I feeling better about the future? Even in Trump’s America?
My family recently discovered an incredible picture book, “A Normal Pig” by K-Fai Steele.
In this video, author/illustrator Steele explains, “‘A Normal Pig’ is about the concept of normal, and who gets to say what normal means. When I was little, I believed that the world could be separated into two parts: There were normal people who did normal things, and then there were weird people who did weird things. The idea of normal was something that I never really questioned as a kid, but I definitely knew from my lived experience that I was squarely outside the norm.”
The main character in “A Normal Pig” feels like a normal kid until, through microaggressions, other kids tell her otherwise. Her parents understand what’s going on and take her to the city, where she sees the beautiful diversity of humanity — well, pig-kind — and she learns normal is subjective.
Where was this book when I was a kid?
There was a constant message, both spoken and implied: Your holiday — your holy day — is not normal, so it’s not real.
So many Others are raising our voices, declaring our personhood, the legitimacy of our cultures, our bodies. We are working to decenter whiteness, decenter Christianity, decenter straightness, to declare there is no normal.
And so, I’m hopeful we’ve come a long way since my childhood. But the truth is, I don’t know.
Like, I said, there’s no temple here, so I didn’t take my daughter out of school. I don’t know how the school would react to her Jewishness. The vast majority of kids at her school are white. Is whiteness centered there? Is Christianity centered there?
I fixate on little things, like how the previous principal of my daughter’s school gave me a tour last year, and said of the Christmas tree: “We might not always be the most PC about it, if you know what I mean.”
It’s a red flag for me any time someone in a position of power goes out of their way to talk about how not PC they are.
But it’s a new year!
With Rosh Hashanah, we are at the start of a contemplative 10 days, the High Holy Days. Right now is the time our culture reminds us to reflect on the previous year, on the mistakes we made, on the changes we want to make in our lives.
We observe tashlich, where we go to running water and toss in bits of bread, each piece a regret we’re ready to cast off. We learn from our mistakes, we vow to do better.
With the release of each crumb, we cry with the recognition of our human weakness. Then we laugh as ducks come to eat our misdeeds. Is this normal?
Maybe not. Maybe there is no normal.