Here’s what I know about Jews:
- We don’t name our houses.
- Due to weak constitutions, propensity for nausea, and irritable bowels, we are not seaworthy.
- We don’t celebrate Christmas.
Were she alive today, my nana would tell me not to feel bad and to look on the bright side (neither of which, I might add, are normal activities for the Jews). She’d tsk, saying we have our own customs and holidays sprinkled throughout the year, some even involving deli. If I think about it, I’m okay with my house being anonymous. Half the time I’m convinced the furnace will combust, so it is probably better that I don’t humanize the place and get too attached. I feel little pull toward the ocean, because I am not a strong swimmer and am terrified of sailboats. But Christmas, with its twinkle and catchy tunes, well—that’s the one I can’t quite let go of. Christmas is pretty. I want to hug Christmas. I want to deck the halls and hang my stocking with care. I want trees and cookies and shiny wrapping paper with twinkly bows.
“What about a nativity scene?” Buzz says. “You want that, too?”
“Why would I want that?” I say, knowing full well the dog would eat it.
“Uh, to celebrate the birth of Christ?”
“What does Christ have to do with it?”
“Everything?” Buzz says. “You know that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, right?”
“Oh, please,” I say. “Since when does Christmas have a thing to do with religion?”
I want to tell him he is misinformed, that Christmas is about those teeny precious foil-wrapped milk-chocolate balls, but he seems agitated. Anyway, what does he know, the Grinch? Perhaps I should put nothing under the tree for him. Yes, I have a giant tree dominating my living room, shedding its glorious needles, as the woodstove dries the place out. I don’t even mind the constant sweeping. No matter how get-off-my-lawn Buzz gets about my obsession with Christmas, I’m not ruffled. Why? Because I embrace the holiday spirit, that’s why. And he best get used to it, for I—and please forgive me, here, Nana—I am a Christmas Jew.
“I think you’re kind of missing the whole point of Christmas,” Buzz says under his breath.
Once again, Buzz is misguided. I have seen every Charlie Brown special ever made; I know the meaning of the holidays. Every single one. With the possible exception of the Jewish ones, because there aren’t many cartoons about Yom Kippur. Growing up, we were cafeteria Jews. Sliding our tray along the line, picking and choosing which parts of the religion looked good that day. In my house, being a Jew involved a yearly family trip to temple and some after-school Hebrew lessons for my brother in order to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Ace had no choice in the matter, but I was asked if I wanted a bat mitzvah in the same way I was asked if I wanted liver on my plate. The answer to both was no. Liver was gross and the guy who came over to give my brother bar mitzvah lessons smelled like vegetable soup, plus he wore these little rain boots over his shoes no matter the weather, ones he called “rubbers.” I’d peeked in a few times on their training, and, frankly, it seemed like a drag. Religion just wasn’t my thing. I paid no attention during our enforced yearly visit to synagogue, just counted the myriad of overhead lights and swung my feet back and forth with enough gusto to warrant leg pinching by my mother. I took home teeny bruises under my tights but never any Talmudic lessons or Judaic nuggets. I had retention problems, anyway, unless it was for Happy Days episodes.
Religion seemed old-fashioned. My house was all about modern times, and modern times called for modern measures—shortcuts, really—the rearranging of dusty rules instilled thousands of years ago in some desert. If women could vote and be firemen and wear pants now, why couldn’t they wear their pants while sitting next to their men at synagogue? That is why, my mother told me, we joined the reformed Temple Emanuel, the one Zaida Max said was for “idiots.”
According to Zaida Max, his shul was the real deal—the only deal—plus it didn’t cost “an arm and a leg” like the one his son went to. Things were as they should be at Zaida Max’s house of worship. He sat up front with the men and Nana was in the back with the womenfolk. The ladies were to organize the yearly rummage sale and talk gefilte fish in the pews, just as they’d done throughout the ages.
The Jewish holiday dinners were Zaida Max’s show, so we’d pile into the family Jaguar and cruise across town to their split-level. There Zaida Max would take his place at the head of the table, telling his wife that she’d outdone herself with the trays of desiccated chicken and various other mystery meat dishes she swore were our favorites. I should note here that while Nana Esther made all her food with pure love, she was in danger of having her nana license revoked for being a rotten cook. Occasionally Zaida Max would throw my other grandparents a shank bone by letting them host the holidays over at their apartment where the food was edible.
As the years passed and Nana began using salt when a recipe called for sugar, my father took over the festivities. By that time, my parents had sold our childhood home and moved into a swanky apartment, which almost made Zaida Max blow a head gasket, “but if that’s how he wants to spend his money…” Nonetheless, he’d drink the Chivas Regal he’d requested and mutter under his breath about the latest electric knife or track lighting my father tried to impress him with.
“The holidays are about family,” my father would toast from his new seat at the head of the table, raising a glass of cabernet instead of the usual Manischewitz.
“What’s he saying now?” Zaida Max would shout, refusing to wear his hearing aid. “Jesus, whoever heard of half this food he’s cooked up?”
Nana Esther would smile and say it all looked delicious.
“Since when does a man take a microwave-cooking course?”
We had all been trained not to listen to Zaida Max’s comments. That became increasingly challenging when, at the last Passover seder, he had one too many Chivases and regaled us with stories of himself back in the day when the ladies loved him because of his “ten-incher.”
Hanukah is not the Grand Poobah of Judaism. That title goes to Yom Kippur, which is our fanciest holiday, about atonement, which is nowhere near as sexy as tinsel.
The one Jewish holiday we celebrated without my grandparents was Hanukah. The Festival of Lights. Which, in my estimation, is not only a bitch to spell but not that much of a festival. Eight nights of gift giving and candle lighting sounds intriguing on paper, but if you’ve ever seen a Hanukah present, you know that they are almost always socks or a toothbrush, and eight nights of candle lighting is eight nights of panic that the house could end up in flames, which amounts to eight nights of lost sleep. Hanukah usually falls around Christmastime, so they are often lumped together as the highlight of their respective religions. But Hanukah is not the Grand Poobah of Judaism. That title goes to Yom Kippur, which is our fanciest holiday, about atonement, which is nowhere near as sexy as tinsel.
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I have spent many hours going over my upbringing, trying to untangle why I love Christmas so much. As a kid, you compared yourself to others to see what they have that you don’t. If there were Ding Dongs in your friend’s Bee Gees lunch box, your browning pear looked sad and detestable, as did the paper sack with drawn-on smiley face it came in. If your neighbor had the full ColecoVision setup (complete with steering wheel and gas pedal), it just wasn’t the same to sit in your room trying to spell boobs on your Little Professor calculator. You inventoried what you had—be it toys or holidays or parents—and constantly wanted something other than what you were saddled with. Even if your parents raised you right, with Walton Mountain values, you were still a kid, and kids measured life in stuff.
What other control did we have? We lived under our parents’ rules, dreaming up our escape, in the same way that our own parents felt locked into the customs of their parents, searching to find their loopholes as they had families of their own. My father’s parents were steeped in Jewish religion and tradition. And while they weren’t true Orthodox and didn’t keep kosher, they followed the rest of the religion to the letter of the law.
When it was my father’s time to rule his own roost, he settled into his own comfort level. No stranger to decorations or sparkle, it seemed natural that my father felt a tug toward Christmas. He made up his own conditions that would allow him to celebrate the birth of Christ without rotting in hell, or wherever misbehaved Jews were sent. A tree would be bought, but one that lived outside on the balcony of the teeny country lake house where their best friends’ nanny drowned. It was where we sardined ourselves for long weekends and the two weeks that the shmattah industry closed down every Christmas.
Accessorizing the tree was acceptable, but only with strands of lights and absolutely no star at the top. This was enough Christmas for my father, and I took what I could get. Inside the house there were no Yuletide signs, only recent candle wax residue stuck to the counter to remind us we were indeed Jews. However, much to my delight, space was made around our fireplace for Santa to worm his way down the chimney with care (extra care, of course, because we were Jews, and we worried about his descent).
Ace and I would watch the specials—Rudolph or the Grinch or Charlie Brown—going to bed straight after, praying to God that Santa would not mind that we were Jewish, or at least not mind enough to not bring me a McDonald’s Play Set, KerPlunk, and the much-coveted Mr. Microphone. The idea of Santa was allowed, as were his lovely gifts, but no contact was permitted—definitely no time spent together taking pictures on his lap at the mall.
“Now, this is what the holidays are all about,” said my father as we ripped open our haul. It’s possible, like all his other pronouncements around holiday time, that he was referring to family. I took it to mean Christmas was about presents. And getting as far away from your family as possible so you could play with your toys in peace.
When left to my own devices as an adult, I may or may not have pulled some holiday trickery. I should add a disclaimer here: Our daughter’s birthday falls around Christmas, and I am in charge of all present fetching and cake baking, and I am quick to frazzle. One night, after the kids were in bed, Buzz walked into the kitchen as I was looking for my Christmas cookie-cutter collection.
“Hey, when’s Hanukah this year?”
I made some extra clanking noises in the utensil drawer.
“Hello?” he said.
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“No,” I said. “Sorry. It’s really loud with all the spoons.”
“When is Hanukah this year?”
“Um,” I said, face still in the drawer, “I think it was last week.”
“What?” He squinted and tilted his head.
“I skipped it.”
“I skipped Hanukah this year.”
“You skipped it?” Buzz said, like he was the religion police. “Isn’t lighting candles the bare minimum we could do for the kids? It’s not like we do anything else Jewish.”
I regretted that speech I’d made years earlier, the one about how when we had our own family we’d let our kids decide if they were interested in religion. We would do our part by doling out the information, and they could figure out what they wanted to do with all the Jewish business. The problem being I was so focused on my award-winning speech that I might have forgotten to give them any information at all. And now Buzz was actually calling me on it. It’s not like I hadn’t made other sweeping speeches before the kids showed up, stuff about no television or plastic toys, and all that went out the window. I thought it only natural that the Jewish stuff would follow suit. Buzz had always ignored my soapbox in the past. Now, suddenly, he was a rabbi?
The next year, he paid closer attention. Shortly after Thanksgiving, he started in with the Hanukah reminders. In order to avoid another fight, I set out about the streets of Brooklyn to find my family something Jewish. I brought home a darling menorah in the shape of a Christmas tree. I thought it was terrific—genius, even—but have you met my husband, Moishe? He found it offensive and grumbled for the entire eight nights. It was better when we skipped the whole affair.
I solved the following year’s holiday dilemma by ordering a battery-operated menorah. Turn a candle clockwise and watch it twinkle. It was better for the environment, plus there wasn’t an iota of fire panic. I think the exact word Buzz used to describe my new treasure was “bullshit.”
When Hanukah rolled around again, I told Buzz to get his own damn menorah. He found one in the desk drawer of his childhood room. It was ugly, and quite possibly broken, since it seemed to have only seven candleholders. Either his mother had bought it on sale at an outlet center or it was a Kwanza candelabra. Either way, when he does things his way, Buzz rarely complains, so that issue was finally laid to rest. Things were relatively smooth after that, until the year when Hanukah had the nerve to barge in on Thanksgiving. Everyone was talking about how it wouldn’t happen again for another 700 years, giving it dumb names like Thanksgivingmukah and trying to meld latkes with mashed potatoes. People really went out of their way to spotlight the holiday I was secretly planning to skip again. Instead, off to Rite Aid I went, in search of knee socks and Band-Aids, steadying myself for eight nights of fire shpilkes. The good news is that Hanukah ended early enough to give me almost the entire month of December to focus on Christmas.
When Buzz and I were young marrieds, I used to buy the most Charlie Brown Christmas tree I could find. Tree sellers from the wilds of my home country would set up stations along the blocks of New York City, the scent of pine overtaking the smell of rat pee coming from our local supermarket. The tree hawkers would sell syrup and wreaths and trees, sleeping in their vans when the last purchase was made for the night. Knowing that space in Manhattan equaled wealth, they’d jack up the price of the larger trees, because one had to be well-to-do to fit an oversized spruce in their classic six. No matter. I looked for the saddest excuse for a tree, one that was slightly bald and whose weak branches drooped and looked fearful of ornament hanging.
“I’m not putting anything on this tree,” Buzz said, after being wrangled to join me on my excursion. He had rules and principles for everything.
“Like no star at the top or angels or anything like that.”
“Obviously no angels,” I said. “We’re Jewish.”
“And none of that silver string stuff.”
“Yeah. No tinsel.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I just want to go on record as saying I am officially against this tree,” Buzz said, securing his gloves so that he didn’t get hurt by pine needles. “If the dog eats it and dies or water spills everywhere, you have to deal with it.”
“Absolutely.” I often agree to Buzz’s terms but rarely follow them. “Can you just help me carry it home?”
He sighed. “I gotta do everything around here.”
After much deliberation, I pointed toward my desired tree.
“That one?” he said. “It looks dead.”
“It’s not dead. It’s hilarious.”
“Does our Christmas tree have to be funny?”
“It’s a runt.”
I then delivered a line Buzz was famous for giving me. “You can’t be against this and also have input.”
Hoist by his own stupid petard, he helped me rescue the challenged sapling and bring it home.
Once settled in by the window, the tree looked naked. And dejected. I felt sort of bad for it. I knew it had spent its life unpopular and friendless in the Canadian forest. And every time I walked by it, a sense of malaise and loneliness came over me. I thought I was being a do-gooder, rescuing a loser tree no one else wanted, but all it made me do was think about all the other losers out in the world. All the people who were alone on the holidays, eating French bread pizza in their basement apartments, considering asphyxiation. My tree made me sad for all the sad people out there. People with nowhere to go. People who hid in their dark rooms until the second of January, when all the merriment and sparkly shit was over. My people. There were tons of us in towns all over America, probably even Canada. The morale sappers, the downbeat, the petulant—we were everywhere. And then it finally hit me why I love Christmas so much.
At Christmas, you are not alone in your aloneness.
Despondency is traditionally a solitary event. Feeling kind-of-bad a lot of the time, like I do, is barely an event at all. If you bother to explain constant malaise, people roll their eyes, thinking you’re just trying to get attention or that you’re a hypochondriac or jealous that you don’t have celiac. But at Christmastime we have brethren. There are legions of sad sacks all over the nation, hunkered down alone or, worse, with family, who tell them to snap out of it and remind them of people out there with real problems.
People say the Christmas spirit is about kindness and giving—maybe so. But the unsung part of Christmas is having really low, terrible spirits. These days, however, mental health has an excellent PR machine behind it. Especially in December. If you tell someone you find the world a sad and lonely place on a Tuesday, they smile and back away and go talk to someone else at the bank. But if you share that the holidays make you blue, it’s become perfectly acceptable. At Christmas, you are not alone in your aloneness. You don’t even have to fake it till you make it or whatever nonsense your therapist or Page-A-Day calendar tells you. You can go ahead and feel bad all you want. You can listen to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and weep, you can not show up to parties, you can eat Santa’s cookies to try filling the void. It’s a mental-health all-you-can-eat buffet. With presents. It makes me positively giddy.
Understanding that the uncheery had their very own season gave me a whole new reason to buy a tree. The year after our loser tree, I went a different route, purchasing one from Urban Outfitters— white-and-silver, acrylic, with poseable arms. It never required sweeping or watering, which, if you’re in the doldrums, can really take great effort. Plus with no heavy lifting or potential water spillage, there was little for Buzz to complain about.
“Oh, you’re still doing this,” he said, when he saw me dragging the delivery box into the brownstone.
He told me that if the tree fell over, I had to pick it up.
“I thought you liked tradition,” I said. “Christmas is like the tradition of all traditions.”
“Not for Jews!”
He still didn’t get it.
And then came the kids. If Christmas wasn’t for the darn children, then who was it for?
“The Gentiles,” said Buzz, packing up the car for Vermont. We would only be up there for a week, so I boxed up our acrylic tree and Buzz couldn’t grouse because we had a basement in which to store it. That year I had a penchant for all things turquoise and bought some Christmas balls to match my obsession. I spent hours arranging the arms and balls to look just the way I’d seen Martha Stewart do it.
“Looks good,” said Buzz.
“You think?” I said, tilting my head. “I dunno. Looks too Jewish.”
“All the blue and white. It’s like a Hanukah tree at the bank.”
When we moved to Vermont permanently, and Christmas rolled around, we were finally in a real house with real room for a real tree. It was time to begin with the ornaments. With themes. Every year each family member would choose (or, in the case of Buzz, have chosen for him) an ornament representing him- or herself over that past year. The tree is covered in Matchbox cars and lip balm and key chains from different places we’ve lived. Finally my tree had personality and lights and enough nostalgia to really make me morose.
When everyone went to bed, I could sit in front of it and feel weepy about how everything was going by so fast and how even though the kids were still in footie pajamas it would only be a matter of minutes before they were off to college and not wanting to come home for the tradition I’d spent their entire lives trying to create for them. Alone with my tree, I could eat cookies and cry and feel as bad as I wanted. It was a Christmas wish come true. Hanukah candles burn fast and bright. It’s fleeting. But the tree sits there for weeks, allowing me to nurture my pit of despair. I can feel thankful for what I have and awful that I don’t have the tools to appreciate it. I can admire my handiwork on the tree and also suffer guilt for potentially being a bad Jew. A tree can do all that for me, and then some.
When the kids rip into their Hanukah socks or Christmas Batman Castle, I want to give them the spiel about how the holidays are not just about presents. But then they’d ask me what they were all about and I’d have to change the subject because I only have vague information about oil and the desert but not enough to make a point. I don’t think they even know who Jesus is, unless it’s to use his name in vain, and I don’t even know how to begin explaining that guy. And I certainly don’t want to spark the idea in them that the holidays are about bad feelings. They can figure that one out on their own. So I let them rape their presents, like the maniacs they are.
Buzz often says we are cultural Jews. I take that to mean I am Jewish because I am nervous and also prefer dry, overcooked chicken. But when I think about how I really enjoy wallowing in a vat of despair around the holidays and then also feel guilty about it, I think maybe that’s how I bring my Jewishness into the mix. I make a mental note to do better, to locate some matzo, to write a treatment for a television special called It Would Have Been Enough for Us, Charlie Brown. I would watch it with my kids every year.
In the meantime, I continue to increase my Christmas tradition by embracing a new trapping every year. Ornaments, handmade advent calendars; this year, I want stockings. I can’t help myself. Mingling my grim attitude with decking the halls feels like home to me. Feeling miserable and enjoying it, that’s who I am. For I—sorry, Nana—I am a Christmas Jew.
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