You’re never too old to learn about cultural diversity.
I realized this over the weekend, on the eve of Hanukkah. My mom, a fourth grade teacher, told me about an incident she’d just experienced at a local party-supply store.
She was shopping for her annual Hanukkah lesson, in which she briefly teaches her students the meaning of the holiday, demonstrates how she lights our family menorah, and leads them in a spirited game of dreidel. Everyone goes home with a little bag of chocolate gelt, a dreidel and maybe a Hanukkah-themed pencil.
The lesson is always a big hit among her students and their parents – most of whom are not Jewish.
However, when my mom got home from buying 30 dreidels, bags of gelt, Hanukkah pencils and stickers from our local party-supply store and opened up the bag, she was shocked. There among her purchases was a religious pamphlet urging her to accept Jesus and pray for forgiveness for her sins. The cashier must have placed it there as she rang up the items.
Here in the United States we are lucky to enjoy religious freedom, and that means we are all free to talk about and share our religious beliefs with others. But when my mom told me about what happened and showed me the pamphlet, I felt nothing but disappointment.
I was disappointed that the cashier had made no attempt to engage my mom in any meaningful conversation about what she was buying, even though she clearly had formed her own opinions about it.
But most of all, I was disappointed that this person had not been taught to accept and value all cultures and religions. This cashier could have asked my mom questions about Hanukkah, marveled at the wonderful diversity of cultures and faiths that coexist here in California, or simply handed her the receipt and wished her a good day.
Instead, her reaction to meeting someone different was to try and make that person more like herself. This, to me, is an intolerant and, frankly, uninteresting way to go through life. Who really wants every single person on Earth to believe and do exactly the same things? Diversity should be celebrated and nurtured, not trampled upon.
Students all around the world can learn to appreciate different cultures and religious practices through the testimonies of genocide survivors in the Visual History Archive. Survivors describe not only the harrowing events of genocide, but also their lives before and after the conflict – their family traditions, the foods they ate, the spiritual beliefs that guided them. This is a deeply affecting and eye-opening way for students to “meet” and learn from people who are very different from themselves.
Through testimony, students also learn how intolerance can lead to genocide when ordinary citizens don’t stand up for the freedom of all their neighbors, whether they have the same religious beliefs or not.
It’s never too late to educate ourselves, and our kids, about the beauty of all the cultures of the world. Developing relationships with people from different backgrounds makes us smarter, more forward-thinking, and more peaceful. This holiday season, let’s wish our friends, neighbors and coworkers a “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” and everything in between.