Hanukkah Behind Bars

by Judith Fein

Christmas lights fringed the adobe walls in downtown Santa Fe, and I was feeling gloomy. In a few days I'd be leaving the country for a work assignment, and I wouldn't be able to celebrate the holidays with the kids behind bars.

For several years, I had volunteered to teach them creative writing, and I'd become very attached to them. In spite of their crimes, I loved them because they were just kids. Their life stories were punctuated with abuse, abandonment, and pain, and I knew their young hearts would ache with loneliness during the holiday season.

Impulsively, I called the head of the jail. He said I could have a special holiday session with the kids the following night.

Almost all of the Hispanic and Native American kids were Christians, and I wondered if any of them knew what Hanukkah was. I spent the next day buying plastic dreydls (tops) and gold-wrapped chocolate coins called Hanukkah gelt, and then I cut up more than 600 paper chits. In case my Hanukkah idea was a dud, I bought and signed Christmas cards for the kids.

As I was leaving for my Hanukkah mission, my friend Kitt arrived at my house with an enormous 50-pound pillowcase full of candy. "A little something for the kids," she explained.

There were about 60 children gathered in the gym. I walked around the room, patting some on their buzz-cut heads, giving the high-five to others, avoiding eye contact with shy ones. Working with them was a constant dance, and I didn't always know the steps.

As I scanned all those beautiful brown faces and those arms and necks covered with gang tattoos, I hesitated to do the Hanukkah thing.

"What's in that sack?" the kids asked. "Something for Christmas?"

I took a deep breath, asked my ancestors for guidance, and jumped into it. I told the kids that we had been desert people, just like the Indians. I explained that Jesus had been a Jew, and for many years after his death, his disciples and followers were still Jews. I told them about the destruction of the ancient temple and the Inquisition, when many Jews had to hide their religion. The kids took every word deep into the cells of their bodies. They were spiritual sponges.

Then I drew four Hebrew letters on the chalkboard — nun, gimel, hay, and shin. I explained that each of these letters adorned one side of the dreydl; they stood for the Hebrew words "nais gadol haya sham," which meant that a great miracle happened there. The miracle was that the ancient Jewish temple had been ransacked and there was only enough oil in the lamp to burn for 24 hours — yet it burned for eight days.

Then we began the game of dreydl. I distributed the 600 paper chits and spun one of the plastic dreydls on a table top. It landed on shin. Again I spun, and it fell on gimel. I told the kids that each letter required a specific action: do nothing, put in two chits, take half the pot or, if they landed on gimel, all the pot.

We divided up into small groups, ready to play. The girls were not allowed to mix with the boys, and they formed their own groups. They were somewhat interested in the dreydl game, but the boys were passionate about the gambling aspect.

"Is this Jewish poker?" one of them asked.

A detention center is not a happy place, but that night the cold, antiseptic gym was a place of joy. The kids were yelling and high-fiving and spinning those dreydls across the tables. They were calling out "shin" and "hay" and an occasional, excited "gimel" as a lucky winner scooped up the chits in the pot.

An hour passed. The guards were getting restless. One by one, the kids used up their chits until each table had a winner. Tommy, a Navajo kid, was triumphant. His pod-mates surrounded him with congratulatory slaps on the back; they probably would have carried him over their heads if the guards had allowed it.

Marcus, an affable deaf boy, was the victor at his table. How had he understood my instructions?

The winners assembled at a table reserved for the dreydl finals. As they began playing, I schlepped Kitt's huge Hanukkah bag around the room, asking each kid, without looking, to reach in and pull out a candy. I assured them there were people in the community, like Kitt, who cared about them at holiday time.

The playoffs ended when, with a gimel, Manuel won. He jumped into the air with buoyant pride and excitement. With agonizingly slow finger-spelling, I said he was assured luck and money in the future, and I handed him a bag of Hanukkah gelt.

Then, as soon as I finished distributing Christmas cards, the guards barked at the kids to line up to leave the gym.

Gone was the exuberance, the joy. Each kid stared fixedly at the head of the inmate in front of him. I wanted to say good-bye, but when I opened my mouth, the guards forbid me from speaking to the children.

My feeling of letdown must have been visible, because a guard approached me. "Hey," he said, "the kids aren't allowed to speak when they're lined up. But we'll make this one holiday exception. The kids want to tell you something."

I walked down the line of kids and they all said "Thank you" and reached out their heads and hands to be touched and hugged. I held them with great tenderness and affection. Then they all wished me happy holidays and a good, safe trip before they marched away.

As I was packing up my belongings to leave, the head guard said a group of boys had requested that I visit their pod. There a kid named Jacobo handed me a card he had made for Kitt; all his pod-mates had signed it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw tall, lanky Alfonso beckoning to me from another pod. "I think dreydl is my game," he confided.

That night, I understood how Santa felt. What a high it was to spread holiday cheer. I headed toward the metal doors of the sallyport, ready to exit for the outside world, when I heard a faint voice calling out to me. Little Juan was standing in the doorway of his pod. In all the time I had been coming to the center, he had never spoken a word. About 12 years old, he was severely dyslexic, and although I am short, it seemed like he hardly came up to my navel.

"Happy Manukkah, kiss," he whispered with the utmost respect and politeness. "I mean, happy Hanukkah, miss," he corrected himself, flustered and blushing.

I beamed. Tiny Juan beamed back at me as a guard whisked him away to his lonely little bed.

I turned to go, and then I just couldn't help myself. I knew it was wrong; I knew it was inappropriate; but I shouted down the hallway as I disappeared out of sight: "HAPPY HANUKKAH TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!"


Judith Fein is the co-founder and editor of YourLifeIsATrip.com. An award-winning travel journalist and inspirational speaker, she has contributed to over 85 publications and spoken to many thousands of people about traveling and living well. Her website, which she shares with her photojournalist husband Paul Ross, is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us    She wishes you a happy Valentine’s Day and much love throughout the year.

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