It was the beginning of Chanukah, the eight-day festival that commemorates the victory of the Jews in the second century BCE over the Assyrian Greeks who had invaded the country.
My family was not at all observant, but we always lit candles in the eight-branched menorah – one on the first day, two on the second, and so on until all eight (plus a “servant” candle used to light the others) were ablaze on the last night.
I was 6, and the only Jewish girl in the first-grade at Kennedy Crossan Elementary School in Philadelphia. (There were two Jewish boys in the grade, but 6-year-old girl didn’t understand that.)
We lived in a very Jewish neighborhood of houses newly built in the early 1950s. But my street was near the border of a much older, heavily German-American community, and our house was in the Crossan district.
My mother had a miniature Chanukah menorah that held birthday candles, and she let me take it to school for Show and Tell.
I gave my garbled version of the reason for the holiday and told my classmates how we lit candles every night for eight nights.
The other students had never heard of Chanukah. Some of them tittered.
That’s when my teacher, Miss Loreaux, showed her mettle.
Emily Loreaux was a tall, older woman with tight, gray curls and a kind face.
Few students could spell her name. Many couldn’t even pronounce it, calling her “Miss Low Row.” She had been at Crossan a long time and would be there for many years to come.
We didn’t know anything about her private life, but occasionally we’d see her walking away from school, wearing a long, green, wool coat and a little, brown, close-fitting hat, in the company of a gentleman.
Years later, when my sister was still at Crossan, Miss Loreaux married and became Mrs. Murdock. We wondered, was that gentleman friend of hers a Catholic, unable to divorce and therefore to remarry – or was Miss Loreaux Catholic and unwilling to marry a divorced man?
Like a Jane Eyre character, did the gentleman friend have a wife like the first Mrs. Rochester, locked away in a mental hospital? We students speculated and gossiped as we grew old enough to wonder, but never knew.
Miss Loreaux stared down the giggling students. “I’m lighting my menorah tonight,” she said.
The class quieted immediately. A few threw admiring glances my way.
I couldn’t contain my excitement. As soon as school let out, I ran home and told my mother, “Guess what? Miss Loreaux is Jewish! She said she’s going to light her Chanukah menorah tonight!”
My mother smiled quietly, and explained to me that Miss Loreaux was not Jewish but that she was a “mensch” – an upright, honorable, decent person.
She made me understand what a nice thing she had done, identifying herself with me so that I wouldn’t feel like an outsider.
That incident stayed with me all these years. It probably made an impression on the rest of the class too, because throughout my seven years at Kennedy Crossan Elementary School, no one ever made fun of me or denigrated me because of my religion.
A good teacher imparts more than the three Rs, and Miss Loreaux was one of the best.
Happy Chanukah, wherever you are.
Photo credit: menorah by idovermani