Growing up as the only Jewish family in our small upstate town of Keeseville had its challenges. Most people were very accepting, but at times we Cohens felt as outsiders. Unfortunately for me, one of the worst experiences I had was because of the problems arose when I was included.
As many of the Catholic children attended a parochial school through sixth grade, most of my friends were Methodists. We were a close group, sharing not only the classroom but also dinners at each other’s homes and frequent sleep-overs. Knowing that I was Jewish was never an issue, and they were happy to share my holidays and to share theirs.
While my classmates in Keeseville were Christian, I also had a group of Jewish classmates at the synagogue in Plattsburgh to which my family belonged. I rarely saw them outside of synagogue as the shul was fifteen miles north of us. As they and their families lived near each other and socialized with them, I considered them acquaintances but certainly not close friends. As a matter of fact, I felt like the Country Mouse to their City Mouse existence in the big metropolis of Plattsburgh. Therefore, I felt as if I lived two different lives: my Jewish life consisting of Sunday school and Friday night services in Plattsburgh, and my secular life consisting of secular school and close friendships in Keeseville.
When we were all in around sixth grade, the Methodist church had a special event planned for their youth. Two sisters, elderly and either widowed or never married, offered their home to have a weekly get-together in which each of the participants were to make Christmas candles. The mothers of the girls called my mother and asked if I could join them. My mother gave her permission. Glad to be included, I joined the group despite some discomfort that I, the Jewish girl, was participating in a Christmas activity.
Over a period of four weeks, around eight of us climbed the stairs to the ladies’ apartment above one of the stores on Front Street. We melted wax and crayons and then dipped strings into the hot liquid. The two ladies then hung up the candles, let them dry, and had them ready for us the following week. While the other girls created layers of red and green and decorated their creations with holly, I chose blue and white for my candles in honor of Chanukah.
On the last day of our candle making adventure, we all gathered at the usual time and began putting on the final touches of our masterpieces. One of the ladies announced that she had a very special surprise. The church had contacted the Plattsburgh Press Republican and asked them to do a holiday story about our candle making project. “So, young ladies, she announced, “the reporter will be coming this afternoon to take pictures and interview you all for the article,” she said. “Isn’t that exciting?”
It may have been exciting for my friends, but I immediately panicked. What if my Jewish friends saw my picture with a group of Methodists making Christmas candles? Would they look at me unfavorably, as a further outsider to their life in Plattsburgh? I knew that I could not be in that picture, a public statement that I joined Christians in their religious school events.
“Thank you very much,” I said to the two ladies. “But I don’t want to be in the picture.”
“What do you mean?” one of the ladies asked.
“I don’t want to be in the picture,” I replied. “I enjoyed making the candles, but I don’t want my picture in the newspaper. If my friends in Plattsburgh see it, they will think I’m not acting like a Jew.”
I grabbed my candle and left. Little did I know what havoc I had wrought.
By that evening, my mother had received several phone calls from my friends’ mothers. They said what I did was rude and shameful. My actions indicated that I ashamed of associating with Christians. As a result, I had not only embarrassed not only myself but also my parents and sibling, the only Jewish family in our town.
My mother was upset and told me that she agreed with the other mothers. My father, however, understood. “You learned a lesson from this, Marilyn,” he told me. “Never put yourself in any situation in which you feel uncomfortable and would feel ashamed.” Fortunately for all of us Cohens, the tempest I created calmed down fairly soon. My friends certainly forgot about it, and the adults moved on to other, more current kerfuffles in our small town. Peace and goodwill returned.
Fifty-five years later, I still look back on this incident with remorse, especially for bringing the wrath of the Keeseville Methodists on my mother. I also have a much more mature perspective: I appreciate how difficult it was for me as a child of to reconcile the need to be accepted by my Christian friends while not betraying my Jewish heritage.
I haven’t had anymore “candle debacles” since that incident in Keeseville. This doesn’t mean that I still don’t struggle with the holiday season. I, along with many other Jew, still walk a fine line between sharing the joy of the holidays while maintaining my Jewish identity. It’s a dilemma I first faced as a child and continue to face today.