Elan, Son of Two Peoples
By: Heidi Smith Hyde
Illustrated by: Mikela Prevost
On new years day I got on a kick to visit my local library’s website and place on hold books about how the new year is celebrated across the globe. My intention was to bring these books into my classroom to read aloud during the first week back after winter break. I came across the usual books I assumed were out there, and then as I continued to scroll through the website lists I found some real gems.
One of these gems was the book, Elan, Son of Two Peoples. Written by: Heidi Smith Hydeand illustrated by: Mikela Prevost. What struck me the most about this text was the fact that it melded two cultures Judaism and Pueblo Indian into one beautifully told story based on a real life experience.
Growing up I felt that I had one identity that I truly could understand and that was of being a Jewish girl raised in Anchorage, Alaska. I understood my culture, the religion that tied it together, and yet I also learned about the identity my father grew up with. I was raised in a home with two Jewish parents. However, my father’s identity shifted in his adulthood after meeting my mother. He studied Judaism years into their marriage before deciding to commit to the religion, study with a rabbi, and accept a new identity for himself. When I grew up I never once felt that because my father converted to Judaism it might even mean for one moment that I was “half” anything. I was Jewish. I was the child of both of my parents. I learned to love and accept all of the family that both sides matriarchal and patriarchal brought with them.
When I was in sixth grade I started having discussions about my bat mitzvah. There was one girl who went to my elementary school (yes, sixth grade was still elementary school, in Anchorage that is), who also went to temple with me once a week. It wasn’t until a conversation at the, lo and behold, lunch room table where I really had to stop in my tracks and consider what she said in response to a question posed during our meal. Someone said something about religion to her and bat mitzvahs, and then in response she replied, without batting an eyelash, “Well I mean, yeah I’m Jewish, I’ll probably have one, but I’m only half Jewish because my mom’s Catholic. We celebrate Christmas and stuff, but we go to temple. But I’m only half Jewish, ok?”
I just stared at her.
I didn’t know what to say.
It was as if a balloon had been popped and I was left with the pieces surrounding me. I could not fathom why she would think that it be necessary to identify as only half Jewish when we went to services together, Hebrew school on Sunday’s and sat and discussed the historical experiences of our ancestors together. Being a young twelve-year-old girl, I regretfully did not question her much on the issue. When I was asked, “Are you Jewish?” I said yes, yes I am. I felt no need to clarify my parent’s identities or backgrounds. I felt rooted in what I knew for sure, and I did it unapologetically. Why share all of this background and story you might be wondering?
I first considered this story of Elan in relation to myself. Upon a deeper reflection I considered, what this story might mean for my students. I teach twenty-seven beautiful children each weekday in my classroom. I realized when reading Elan’s story that this was also the story of my students. Past and present children that walk a fine line with race, culture, and identity every day. Perhaps their story is patterned differently, yes, but the connectivity in which I found with their stories, my own, and Elan’s was where the pulse of the matter began.
We are all products of someone’s journey. People who came before us to struggle, find determination and grit enough to bring forth lives they could be proud of and share with their children. Honoring who you are and where you come from, while simultaneously cultivating your own pathway is a gift bestowed upon us daily. I realized that my friend from elementary school’s identify was different from mine. What she said on that day was her story, her life, and her way of carrying who she was in relation to her family, her friends, and her being. I did not have to agree, disagree, or even have an opinion of it. It was not my story to tell.
On this day of all days when, Martin Luther King Jr. is recognized, I found myself drawn towards writing about this book. It is because of Martin’s words and more importantly his actions, that made it possible for our nation to have light shed upon segregation, racism, and bigotry. His action and belief in hope, a hope for change, and a call to action changed our nation. I find myself leaning towards his words and the words of so many like-minded human’s who have had the bravery to stand up and fight for love, for freedom, and for equality. My heritage taught me to, “never forget the Holocaust and what our people have survived,” to question, to read, to give tzedakah, to act with tikkun-olam, and to believe in and have hope. That’s what I’m doing today, holding hope.