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South Bronx Hannukah

“Wait — what? I thought you were Buddhist, Ms. Q,” says Simone, a talented ninth-grade member of the theater program and speech team I coach at my South Bronx school.

“Nope,” I say. “I do a lot of yoga, but that doesn’t automatically make a person a Buddhist. Technically, I’m Jewish.”

Jewish. It’s still weird for me to say this.

“Wow, I had no idea,” says Simone. Then she gestures to the open paperback on the desk in front of her. “What a weird coincidence,” she says.

I’m sitting in a vacated classroom after school with Simone and her sister Sahirah, who are turning Lois Lowry’s classic young adult Holocaust novel “Number the Stars” into a 10-minute theater piece.

The whole situation is remarkable for a few reasons.

Number one, the sisters have taken the initiative to find their own piece of literature to adapt for competitive performance. As part of our speech team’s new student leadership model, responsibility for “cutting” — editing full-length works of fiction, theater and film into short, thematically coherent pieces in which one or two performers can play up to 10 or even 20 different characters — has shifted away from the adult coaches and landed squarely on the kids’ shoulders. Some kids have resisted this transition. Cutting pieces can be really, really hard. But these two girls have launched right in.

Number two, the girls have chosen to take on a story that, as African-American actors, they mostly likely wouldn’t get a chance to perform outside of the highly imaginative world of forensics (an umbrella term that encompasses competitive speech and debate.) Sure, there’s a recent encouraging trend toward so-called “non-traditional casting” in Hollywood and on Broadway, but in the real-world entertainment industry, it’s still unrealistic that two black performers would get to play white girls growing up in 1940’s Copenhagen. For decades, forensics was dominated by mostly white students from mostly private schools, and kids and coaches typically chose roles that aligned with performers’ cultural backgrounds. But as more schools serving diverse populations create forensics teams, there’s been an explosion of intercultural casting possibilities, giving a new generation of performers a chance to step into the shoes of people who are radically different from themselves.

Simone and Sahirah don’t seem the slightest bit fazed by the idea of playing roles that include a Catholic girl and her Jewish friend, the girls’ family members, German soldiers, Jewish refugees, and members of the Danish resistance. It’s clear that despite the cultural and chronological distance separating the performers from their characters, they feel a strong connection. When I ask them why they chose the piece, Simone says, “Why not? It’s a good story.” Point taken.

The third reason I find it fascinating to be working with these girls on this particular story on this particular day is a personal one, and actually represents much more of a coincidence than the girls know. Not only does our work session coincide with the first night of Hanukkah; it also happens to land on the first Jewish holiday in my life that I’ve ever chosen to celebrate in a meaningful way.

I grew up with a Jewish mom and a Methodist dad, both of them compassionate, vibrant, deeply ethical people — and neither of them religious. We always celebrated Christmas for the festive rituals of decorating the tree, baking cookies and giving gifts, but the Christian element of the holiday was absent.

I understood that having a Jewish mom made me “technically” Jewish, but talk of Judaism was as scarce in my childhood as it was in my mom’s. When World War II broke out, my maternal grandmother was forced to abandon a thriving theatrical career in Europe and flee to New York. She and my grandfather eventually settled in Connecticut, bought a Christmas tree, and melded into the WASP landscape. My mom only found out she was Jewish at the age of 16 when she innocently repeated a joke she’d heard from a school friend at the dinner table, not realizing it was anti-Semitic.

Through my teens and early adulthood, I never thought twice about my Jewish heritage. My family life was nurturing and filled with wonder. I didn’t find myself actively missing exposure to religious traditions. But with the birth of our daughter two years ago, my husband and I made a choice to bring her into contact with all elements of her mixed cultural background — the holiday traditions her paternal grandparents carried with them from Sweden, the rich Irish heritage from my Dad’s side, the Christmas wonderland my mother brings to life every year — and yes, my mom’s family’s Jewish roots as well.

Last year we bought a menorah and our downstairs neighbor lit the candles and sang the blessings for us once or twice. This year I’ve decided to make our celebration more resonant, to learn to sing the blessings myself, and to teach them to my daughter.

As I settle into the classroom with Simone and Sahirah now, the walls bright orange in the last of the daylight, I feel a little flush of excitement about lighting candles later on with my little girl. But I’m also nagged at by an uncomfortable sense of disconnect. How can I embrace the ritual meaningfully when I have such a limited knowledge of Judaism? And how can I make the leap toward teaching my daughter to understand her Jewish heritage when my own connection to it feels so tenuous?

The girls take out the first draft of the script they’ve started piecing together and I find myself shaking my head at the uncanny intersections of art and life. Here we are, a white woman from Connecticut and two black teens from the South Bronx in a classroom together, each of us stepping into the space between the imaginary and the real in order to learn what it means — either for a few brief moments or for a lifetime — to become Jewish.

Over the course of the next two hours, the realities of the South Bronx recede and the three of us lose ourselves in the story of two young girls from different cultures, one struggling to save the life of the other, in a war-torn country half a world away.

At one point, as we’re looking for a way to bring the new script to a close, we decide to read the last chapter of the novel together silently to ourselves. For about 15 minutes, there is total stillness. A feeling of suspension fills the classroom.

I have read other books about the Holocaust. Some have moved me deeply. But I’ve never felt that the stories fully belonged to me.

Sitting with these young performers now, imagining them taking on the characters’ realities as their own, I feel a strong internal shift. For the first time I can remember, the disembodied, fragmented stories from my family’s past begin to solidify, revealing themselves in tangible details in my mind.

I can vividly imagine the dislocating pain my grandmother must have felt at being ripped away from her artistic career and never again achieving theatrical success. I feel the shame and bewilderment my mom must have experienced learning the truth about her background in such a jarring way. I see the faces of my great-uncle’s children who were killed in a concentration camp and then rarely spoken of again. I wonder if someone in my extended family might know the full story of what happened to them, and I realize that I don’t know whom to call.

When the girls and I finish reading and look up at each other, I have to work hard to remember where I am.

Simone breaks the silence. “This is not the same book that I read in sixth grade,” she says quietly, wiping at her eyes. “I swear, the only reason I read this book then was because I was supposed to, because that’s what good students do. I took a test on it and then I forgot the whole thing. Now I’m sitting here and I feel like these characters are me. Like I’ve become them or they’ve become me, or … I don’t know. You know?”

I look at her and say, “Yes.”

This piece also appears at the Huffington Post. The students featured in this article agreed to let Quarfordt share their stories; the views expressed here are her own and not those of her school’s administration.

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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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