When I saw the nativity, menorah, solstice and atheist displays in Palisades Park last New Year’s Eve, I remembered a turquoise trailer that appeared every week at my elementary school.
I hated that trailer. That’s where Christian kids from Franklin Elementary went on Fridays in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The only time I saw the inside of the trailer was with my friend Lisa. Lisa and I were among the few students from families who opted out of religious education at our public school. We spent those afternoons coloring while Protestant kids went to the trailer for Released Time Religious Education and Catholic children went to St. Monica’s Catholic Church.
After school one Friday a woman invited Lisa and me into the trailer. Somehow the woman discovered one of us was Jewish. I remember she leaned down to our eye level and smiled. She stared into my eyes, and then looked at Lisa.
“I can always tell by the eyes — you’re Jewish,” she said, pointing to Lisa. Lisa looked at me and we both giggled.
“I’m Jewish,” I said. I was glad the woman guessed wrong; she had no special powers.
The full effect of the Holocaust, and what it meant to families like mine whose relatives died in concentration camps, was not yet visible in 1960 America, but I felt its undertow. The woman’s guess about who was Jewish was wrong — this time.
That’s what I thought about the morning I took my mother for a walk in Palisades Park. In December 2011 there was an added attraction: For the first time in 60 years, non-church groups set up most of the stalls at the park’s annual holiday displays. Many of those displays were signs mounted on tall stakes with quotations about the separation of church and state, or greetings from yoga masters or atheists.
There were several larger challenging displays like the one with a sign, “What Myths Do You See?” above images of Santa Claus, Jesus, and a devil.
Walking with my family, I felt a lightness I find hard to describe. Perhaps it was due to the fact I was born the first year of the nativity displays. As a child, those scenes said to me that the status quo was still white and Christian; few children of color attended my elementary school and I knew only two other Jews. These new displays reflected a different nation.
The 2011 holiday season was the first time the city had more requests for space than were available. Administrators set up a lottery; atheist groups drew a majority of the spaces. Church groups, used to setting up many nativity displays, were angry they got only two stalls. A Jewish display featured a menorah, while the atheist and solstice groups only decorated about a dozen of their 21 allotted stalls, leaving many spaces empty. I wondered if they’d run out of volunteers, or were fearful of reaction to their messages.
It’s funny how little signs and dressed-up store mannequins can bring out profoundly different feelings in people. I heard about the controversy before my husband and I drove to Santa Monica from our home in Davis, 400 miles north. I wasn’t surprised sparks flew between people who think Christmas should dominate December and those who don’t want any public religious displays. I was a little startled, however, that some people, including members of my own not-very-religious family, objected to the displays for other reasons.
I walked with my son through the displays.
“I love this one,” I said, pointing to a quote from the “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” President James Madison. It read, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”
My friendly son, a high school physics teacher, was surprised by my obvious delight.
“I thought the way the atheists went about getting the spaces wasn’t right,” he said. “They surprised everyone by applying for all those spaces. It feels a little sneaky.”
I stopped and squinted at him in surprise.
“I’m just glad that for the first time in my life, I’ve seen something other than nativity scenes in this public space,” I said, suddenly angry. “I was the kid who had to go to the library to draw because I was Jewish. I hated being singled out.”
My daughter-in-law, who identifies herself as a “reluctant atheist,” told me that she, too, objected to the way the atheists stated their beliefs.
“You can be an atheist and still respect the beliefs of others and their right to display their ideas during the holiday season,” she said.
My sister also surprised me.
“They’ve got the same Wise Men they used in the 1960s,” she exclaimed, pointing at the stiff yellowish-pink toned mannequins in one stall that looked like the ones from Henshey’s Department Store where we got school clothes before the advent of the Santa Monica Mall or the promenade. The Mary figure had bright red chipped nail polish and matching lipstick. Her robe barely concealed her pointed breasts. The lamb in the manger was green and brown, had a hole near its hindquarters, and the ears were cracked and flaking.
My sister remembered the Released Time Religious Education afternoons of our childhood differently. “I liked staying in my classroom and doing art projects,” she said. “The teacher paid more attention to the few of us, and we used big pieces of art paper. Oh, I couldn’t wait!”
My memories of being separated from the Christian students mingled with others from the era. Our house was often the site of mom’s music concerts to support musicians, artists and writers, many of them Jews, who were forced to answer to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As a child, I was confused by this frightening committee. What could possibly be un-American about our hardworking friends and family members?
Although the Holocaust was not discussed much in our household, I knew terrible things happened to Jews, including members of our own family.
Which is probably why as a child I understood the need to keep a low profile. My parents publicly spoke out against HUAC, but didn’t challenge the religious education trailer near my school. I saw that Jews were a minority in Santa Monica. Even last December I wasn’t sorry the atheists took the lead in Palisades Park. It’s risky to be an innovator. It makes you a target.
Back at the park, I was glad to hear my sister’s cheerful memories of coloring during religious education, and her less jaundiced experiences of the nativity scenes. The next morning, my husband, son and I returned to Palisades Park for a look at the ocean.
What we found were vandalized displays. Every one of the atheist and solstice displays was defaced with black spray paint. The gray mist of the day before was gone and the sun was shining brightly New Year’s morning, but I was chilled to the bone. The undertow of the Holocaust I felt as a child was stronger than ever.

Lyra Halprin is a Davis, Calif. writer raised in Santa Monica whose work has aired on NPR, KQED-San Francisco and Capital Public Radio-Sacramento, and appeared in magazines, newspapers and online venues.

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