Judaism is an integral part of my identity, instilling in my life, family togetherness and tzedakah. And while I’m always happy to share information about my religion and culture to others, I would never impose religious traditions on anyone.
Yet, other religious customs have been forced onto me like learning carols that reference Jesus, God and biblical passages in a public elementary school.
At my school in downtown Toronto, every year the students put on a Christmas concert to sing carols for a Christmas assembly and also had designated time in the classroom to learn the songs for fun. Only one or two Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs made up the set-list; but the star of the show was always Christmas.
It’s practices like these that make me wonder if church and state are separate.
There’s a reason why religion in public institutions is usually not found in our increasingly secular world. (Even though the Canadian government funds Catholic schools, which is part of our Constitution—that’s a topic for another time.)
Already Hanukkah has been commercialized so Jewish children do not feel left out during Christmas time—traditionally, the gift-giving holiday was Purim. Even though my school did add a Hanukkah song in the assembly, the only word sung was “Shalom” —I’m not kidding—naturally it didn’t make me feel any more included.
I was one of a handful of Jewish students at my school, so having most of the songs centred around Christmas made sense. Singing about snow, or Frosty, or my favourite reindeer Rudolph, didn’t unsettle me—but singing carols with specific references to the Bible did.
We sang a range of religious carols which had different effects on me. Singing “Gloria”, was never pleasurable because not only did I not like the overtly Christian lyrics, but the melody wasn’t enjoyable enough to make up for the fact that I was singing a religious ode to Christ.
With lyrics like:
When Christ was born of Mary free,
In Bethlehem in that fair city,
Angels sung e’er with mirth and glee
I felt like for the first time in life I was attending Church and was an active participant in the choir.
Whereas “Silent Night’s” lyrics “Christ the Savior is born!” and “Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth!” embedded in that deceptively beautiful melody, almost convinced me that I did not mind what I was singing.
It was during this song in my Grade 4 French class, when I saw the name Jesus written on the whiteboard and thought, “Oh I don’t believe in Jesus, so I won’t sing.” To me, my response seemed perfectly acceptable. Until my teacher asked me “Why aren’t you singing?”
“I don’t believe in Jesus,” I responded matter-of-factly.
“You still have to sing it.”
“But I don’t believe in Jesus,” I repeated.
“Everyone else is singing, you have to sing.”
Embarrassed, confused, and humiliated I joined my classmates, even though I was deeply uncomfortable.
At eight-years-old this moment made me feel alienated from my peers and the greater world around me, negatively shaping how I expressed my Jewish identity in my school years.
For too long I was embarrassed to express my Judaism to my peers, due to incidents like these, as it was an aspect of my person that was not understood by my teachers and classmates. The teachers who made me explain all the Jewish holidays during class, because I was the only Jewish student, were not fostering inclusivity, but only propagating tokenism.
It’s perfectly acceptable to take a world religion class if offered or teach about religions when required in history classes. It’s also important for children to understand different religions and cultures in school in order to learn about the varied experiences of their peers.
But carols are not a requirement and singing about Jesus or God is entirely inappropriate. How would people feel if their children were forced to sing songs about Hashem or Allah? I bet there would be a national outcry.
Now, at the age of 25, I hope public schools have evolved with the times and no longer perform religious songs. My good friend, who is a music teacher in the Toronto District School Board, assures me she, at least, doesn’t.
To teachers, staff, and administrations in public school education: do not have children sing religious carols for Christmas. It’s not inclusive, it’s exclusionary. Let’s leave the songs about Jesus in a church or a religious school, where people opt to sing such songs. The only concerns students should and must have, is that when they attend school they feel heard, welcomed, and included.
Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photo courtesy of Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.