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My Turn: I had my own Hanukkah miracle

In the 1930s there was a small Jewish community in the Village of Valley Stream. Their place of worship and their Sunday school was a room on the top floor of the Corona Avenue firehouse. Solemn prayers and lessons were frequently interrupted by sudden blaring fire alarms, but they were happy to be allowed to use the building. The congregants struggled for years to earn money and collect donations, until finally, in 1939 they built a small synagogue in the heart of the village. It consisted of one large multipurpose room with portable chairs. This served as the sanctuary. Then the ark would be covered, the chairs removed, and it was available for social events. There also was a kitchen and an upstairs room designated as the Sunday school.

My family was not religious, but my parents were eager to join this new synagogue. They went every week to the Friday night services, not because of any strong spiritual feelings, but more for social reasons. After the service there was a friendly get-together with coffee and cake that they looked forward to. My own religious education had been limited to a few classes at the firehouse Sunday school.

In the late 1940s, my mother learned that they needed a new Sunday school teacher. There was no money in the budget, so it had to be a volunteer. For some strange reason, she decided that this would be an ideal job for me! I was 19 with a heavy college schedule. I was very shy and had absolutely no interest in, nor any aptitude for, teaching. Besides, Saturday night was date night. I usually went to bed late and wanted to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

No matter, when my mother had an idea in her head, there was no changing her mind. She never yelled or insisted. She never raised her voice. She spoke calmly and persistently until she guilted you into thinking her way. It was like hypnotism; you didn’t realize you had been manipulated until it was too late. Inexplicably, I found myself "volunteering."

I didn't own a car or have a driver's license, so early every Sunday morning, tired and grumpy, I walked the eight blocks to the synagogue. There I was greeted by an equally grumpy group of youngsters who didn't want to be there either. No one provided me with a curriculum; there were no books, and I was totally unprepared. The children ranged in age from 6 to 11 — much too wide an age range for them to be in one class. What interested the younger children was boring to the older ones, and vice versa. I tried reading Bible stories to them and explaining the meaning of the various holidays. I couldn't hold their interest. They fidgeted and talked and generally ignored me. I lost control of the class early on. I was a terrible teacher, though I managed to hang on until late December, as Hanukkah approached.

That Sunday I tried to teach them about the miracle of Hanukkah, the Maccabee victory and the oil lamp that burned for eight days. The class would have none of it. In desperation, I handed out crayons and paper and asked them to draw something about the upcoming holiday.

Without exception, every child went home with his own drawing of Santa Claus! Needless to say, the congregation was not amused, and my teaching career came to a screeching halt. Hallelujah!

Joanne Siegelman,


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