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Black Lamb


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‘Tis the season

December 1st, 2004


I have always liked Christmas, but as an outsider I’ve had a peculiar relationship to it. Being a Jew in America, or a Zoroastrian for that matter, means being marinated in the larger Christian culture, like it or not.

Christians are oblivious to the phenomenon, as in the old conundrum: does a fish know it’s in water? These days, what with political correctness and the brother/sisterhood of all people, a perfunctory nod is given to ecumenicism, so we will see the odd Hanukkah menorah, Kwanzaa candelabra, or hear the mention of Ramadan.

Don’t mean nothin’, Clyde. Christmas is what’s happening.

Sensitive gentiles (you know who you are) will lament the commercialization of the holiday, and make efforts to ask about your tradition, but that does usually not preclude the attitude that This Is The Way It Should Be. We are, after all, a Christian country.

So, no matter to what degree we resist it, we all celebrate the alleged birthday of an itinerant teacher from an obscure Roman province who spoke of peace and love and whose followers ordained for him on his death the standard respect given to great men in that day: ascribing to him a virgin birth and a divine fatherhood. They did the same for Aristotle, Pericles, Socrates, many others.

Well then, despite the fact that you were likely born in the spring (December 25th was the feast of Mithra, patron deity of the Roman army), and that you never claimed to be divine, happy birthday, Jesus.

Now, you may be cringing already. “Grinch!” you may yell. Or, “Scrooge!” Not at all.

I love Christmas, or at least the season. It is a time when we must think of others, even if only in a mercantile way. It’s good to get our heads out of our own navels from time to time. People who are caught up in the spirit of the thing are nice to each other for no reason. And, that “people of good will” feeling is the greatest contribution of the religion, to my mind.

I sing carols. I send dozens of cards, usually the “Seasons Greetings” non-denominational kind. I sneak in a few Hanukkah cards to my closest relations every now and then. I need something besides heartburn to remind me I’m Jewish.

When I was a small child, maybe three or four years old, I lived with my mother and grandparents in a large Bronx apartment. My grandparents were observant Jews and kept a kosher home. Their kids were not so rigorous and ate whatever they liked.

That Christmas, my aunt and uncle decided to get a Christmas tree for me. I hadn’t asked. Indeed, it was to be a surprise. My grandmother, according to legend, pitched a conniption. She would not allow it in her home. My grandfather didn’t see the harm.

So, on Christmas eve Murray and Kitty went out for a tree. They brought it back to the apartment, and my grandmother immediately went on strike, refusing to cook, clean, or even come out of her bedroom as long as the offending evergreen was present.

I was asleep when they brought it in. They set it up in the living room, decorated it with lots of lights, and transported me to the couch, so that the tree was the first thing I saw when I got up in the morning. Nothing, including Jimi Hendrix’s first LP or psychedelic drugs, ever blew my mind like that tree.

Kitty and Murray kept the decorations and had a tree every year for at least thirty years. They made all the usual jokes about Hanukkah bushes, but no one really minded. We all loved it. We had the best of both worlds, a tree, a menorah, and latkes.

Some of my earliest memories are of going into Manhattan to see the extravagant Christmas displays in the store windows. Macy’s and Gimbel’s, the two big competing department stores, went at each other with weapons of mass delight. All of their street windows were full of elaborate tableaux, lights, toys. It was beyond gorgeous.

Rockefeller Center had a tree that was bigger than any I ever saw until I laid eyes on the redwoods and Douglas firs of the west, and it was full of lights. Who wouldn’t love it?

Christmas became part of the culture to me, as indeed it was. I bitch about the hassle of getting a tree, and addressing the cards, and shopping, but I love it. Christmas morning is an undiminished pleasure, as wonderful now as ever, and we don’t even have kids. Adults behave like kids, and that’s another good thing.

One more defining moment from Christmases past. I went to yeshiva, Hebrew religious school, through seventh grade, with the exception of a half-year in public school in fourth grade. While in PS 42, Far Rockaway, New York, for the first time I experienced the holiday season the way most of America did. We cut out paper jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween, made hand turkeys for Thanksgiving, and awaited Christmas.

A day or so before our Christmas holiday, my teacher, New York Italian, said to the class, “We will soon be celebrating Christmas, the birth of Jesus, which the little Jewish children call Hanukkah.” Then, she went nattering on.

I was stunned. I couldn’t believe a teacher could be that stupid. I looked around to the other Jewish kids in the class, and they avoided my eyes. It was up to me. But talking back to a teacher in those days was as unthinkable as respecting one is today. I struggled inwardly, and gave up. My own silence shamed me.

I ascribe my later rebelliousness at least in part to this shame. When I entered public school for good in eighth grade, I made a reputation for smart-assing teachers, vetting their every mistake, cutting no slack. Years later, I wrote a short story using this as the central conflict, and giving my eight-year-old hero the balls I didn’t have. People like the story, but it has done nothing to salve my psychic wound. Christmas has always been for me both more and less than would be expected by an objective observer. Maybe that comes with being an outsider in a gentile world.

Pass the eggnog. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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