To Tree Or Not To Tree : A Jewish Family Copes With Christmas in America

flying saucer!

Photo Courtesy of Jewish Extraterrestrials

Written by Howie and Carly Gordon. Howie and Carly just celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary in Berkeley, California. These days, he is a writer and she is a psychotherapist. They’ve raised three kids who are all married now and beginning their own families. They have heard a lot about “the empty nest,” but even though they’ve changed all the locks, the children are all still getting in. In the words of their good friend, Karen McLellan, HAPPY HANUCHRISMASOLSTIBUDIKAH TO ALL!

Editor’s Note: This piece has been Rated R due to strong language referenced in this piece. Sensitive readers should take heed.

Rated R

I had no way to suspect that it was even coming. The family was just sitting around the kitchen table having a pleasant little dinner. It was still a full two weeks before Thanksgiving. There were no clouds on the horizon, no warning signs whatsoever.

“Daddy…” my eldest darling daughter began.

“Juliana?” I acknowledged. The table was full. Life was sweet. Life was good. I happily plunged my fork into a tasty plate of chicken fettuccine. I took that first delicious bite and waited for her words.

“When are we going to get our Christmas tree?” she asked brightly.

I gagged on my noodles. No, no, no, not Christmas trees again. Not already. This was a left hook from God out of nowhere. It was stunning.

Y’see, this was real problem turf. The gathering at the dinner table instantaneously ignited with the talk of Christmas trees. The cat was out of the bag. The shit had hit the fan…and it was all starting real early this year.

Well, the kids all tried to talk at the same time. Mommy quickly became the referee. We listened to the kids’ plea for a Christmas tree. My countenance turned stony. The fettuccine grew lonely and cold. We listened. They squealed. We listened some more.

“JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS!” I finally told them abruptly. God damn it, I was in this family, too! It had come out of me like a knee jerk. Powerful ancestral forces worked me like a ventriloquist. I transformed myself into the Rabbi Daddy.

“JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS!” I told them it was the 11th commandment. I’d done this before. It was last year, probably, and the year before that, too. I seem to do it every year. My parents did it to me and now I was doing it to them. The words poured out of me like I was the righteous Charlton Heston coming down from Mt. Hollywood all bearded in my make-up, the holy fire of God in my eyes, and the ten commandments in my backpack. You might remember it happened when Heston caught Edward G. Robinson leading the chosen people in the orgy of the golden calf.

“JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE GOLDEN CALVES,” or something like it Heston fumed. It was strictly Old Testament. He made Eddie G. and the whole sinful lot of them cow-worshippers feel real bad.

Meanwhile, back at the dinner table, my lovely wife cringed. She did that every year, too. I knew right away that this was going to turn into another one of those long, long nights. It’s become an annual event. Every holiday season, we find ourselves surfing the massive waves of Christmas in our little Jewish dingy and the seas play rough. In God, we trust.

I looked over at Juliana. She had no idea what chaos she’d just unleashed on the family. She was nine-years-old and trying hard to hide the broccoli on her plate. “Daddy, Christmas is fun!” My daughter just wanted to have fun.

“What’s wrong with Daddy that he doesn’t want us to have any fun?” younger sister Polly asked.

“If you’re Jewish, does that mean you have to be grumpy on Christmas?” Juliana reasoned.

“We only celebrate Chanukah,” I told the kids. It was my best Daddy’s- voice-of-authority. All three of them groaned. It was like they were saying,

“Hey, Mom, Dad trying to kill Santa Claus again.”

“Eat your greens,” I told the instigator. Juliana began breaking up the broccoli into smaller pieces. She moved them around on her plate like she was working a jigsaw puzzle.

“You mean we’re really not gonna get a Christmas tree?” Polly the middle-child said, “I don’t believe it!”

“Yeah!” chimed in Bobby, the youngest, the little brother. “No fair,” he said. Now, the whole U.N. was involved, all the countries had been heard from. Juliana grinned as the siblings rallied the cause. She continued to fiddle with her broccoli as if touching it were the same as eating it.

“I’ll give you no Christmas,” said her dancing eyes. She was nine years old and ready for law school. Juliana was gearing-up and preparing to go the distance. It was like her first Super Bowl. This was a fight for Santa Claus. Daddy was nuts. Everybody celebrated Christmas. Mommy was not much help at the table. She became a puddle when Daddy got like this. The kids knew that they had to stick together.

“No fair, no fair!” Polly and Bobby were chanting in unison. The spontaneous demonstration became raucous. It was an Evergreen political movement. The Santa Worshippers were breaking into open revolt.

In most of our family’s decisions, the kids have witnessed Mom & Dad struggling with trying to be fair. As if guided by Pavlovian sonar, they mounted their attack on the fairness doctrine.

“It isn’t fair that being Jewish means you can’t have any Christmas.”

“Everybody has Christmas. How can you not have a Christmas? That’s like pretending there’s no December!”

“It’s no fair! Santa Claus is on television!” Bobby was five years-old. He was trying hard to understand the issues. He turned to Polly and asked incredulously, “You mean Santa Claus isn’t Jewish?” Polly nodded affirmatively. “That can’t be right,” he said. It vexed him greatly.

“It’s no fair, Daddy,” Polly banged her fork on the table. When she scratched the wood and I shot her the you-better-stop-that-right-now-young-lady look. She did, but young Bobby instantly diverted my attention. He launched into a 7.8 on the temper-tantrum scale. It was going to be a tag-team match. My son left his chair and stalked the dinner table fuming. I’d seen this routine before. He was gonna slam a door soon. I threatened his entire baseball card collection if he did.

Bingo! It was like hitting one of those target bears in the penny arcade. It brought Bobby right back to the negotiating table, but he posed his entire body into a militant scowl of defiance. He took a fork and absolutely murdered the chicken thigh on his plate. I heard it groan.

“It’s no fair!” he said with a conclusive finality. He folded his little arms across his chest and pouted out his lower lip. The tears began welling up in his eyes.

“Please, Daddy,” Juliana was jumping back into the game. Her timing was perfect. They were little hyenas were hunting Daddy in a pack. They had done this before. They knew how to wear me down.

Uh-oh. Now, Juliana was batting her eyelashes at me! It was an imitation of Madonna straight from MTV. I stifled a giggle. Freud would have loved this act. She even slid a piece of broccoli into her mouth for added effect. “Please, Daddy?” she begged seductively, “please can we get a Christmas tree?”

“Look,” I said, “that kind of stuff will work with your boyfriends or your husband one day, but not with me.”

The smile left her face. The broccoli went down hard. Daddy was getting heavy. An odd silence came upon the table. I looked around at the sullen faces of my wife and kids. This could not be what any God I wanted to believe in had in mind. I found myself weakening. I did this every year, too. I did not want to be the Hebrew version of Ebeneezer Scrooge. The voice of reason and the mystery of common sense rose within me.

Y’see, I never thought it was fair either. Not in this world.

To tree or not to tree — that was the question. It comes around every year in December. If it had only been the children, I probably could have been the Grinch that stole Christmas. It had been done to me, I could do it to them. The Orthodox Jews have spent at least 2,000 years developing ways to deal with this Christmas thing. Believe me, they’re well-defended and most have very little sense of humor on the subject. They live in packs, reinforce each other, and screen out all the yuletide tinsel like the pork from the beans of real life.

“What Christmas? Oh, is it Christmas? We were so busy having such a wonderfully full and satisfying Chanukah that we didn’t even know it was Christmas. It just slipped our mind, didn’t it, Moishe?”

My kids could have gotten by with just Chanukah. My brother and I did. I could have dealt with the children. I would have dealt with the children, but there was this other problem. And this one, I had married.

Several years back, after I had first solemnly decreed that “JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS,” I found my wife sobbing bitterly in the downstairs bathroom. She was dripping, puffy and wanting to talk. Yoi (that’s Jewish Pittsburghese for “oi”).

She told me that my edict had hurt her feelings.

Well, there are things you say to hurt and then there are things you say that do hurt. This was one of the latter. I hurt her in a way that most husbands really don’t want to hurt their wives. My punishment was gonna be that I would have to spend the rest of the night hearing all about it.

“I’m Jewish, too,” she explained, “but it’s a different kind of Jewish.” Indeed, it was. Her mother was a rabbi’s daughter who was born in Palestine before the state of Israel. Her father came from the only Jewish family in the state of Montana. When she was growing up, she and her older sister were raised Jewish, but they always had Christmas trees for the holidays.

Well, surprise, surprise, my family didn’t. Came Christmas time and we were on the straight bah-humbug ticket in our house. It was a little like getting the flu each year in late December. We celebrated Chanukah and then just stood on the sidelines and watched while the Christians did their thing. Christmas was like watching the Super Bowl when your team didn’t even make the playoffs. It was somebody else’s holiday. You waited until it was over and then you just got on with your life.

There really wasn’t much of a conflict between my wife and me on this subject until we had our own babies. Now, every December, we get to play our new family game called “WHO’S REALLY JEWISH?”

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was raised Orthodox. It’s like a blood type. It’s hard to change. There were reformed and conservative Jews in the neighborhood, but being Orthodox was a lot like having a black-belt in Jewish. It was a righteous status thing. Hebrew machismo. We were the chosen of the chosen. We were the real Jews. We had the-two-different-sets-of-dishes-on-Pesach kind-of Jewish. We had the fast-all-day, don’t-ride-or-watch-TV-on-Yom Kippur kind of Jewish. Uncle Maurice even tore his toilet paper in advance.

We didn’t have the fancy new temple, we had an old shul. It was a converted house. We went to Hebrew school in an upstairs bedroom. We used to make fun of the fancy reform “temples” across the town. We called them B’nai Savings and Loans. We were Jewisher than them and proud of it. Reform Jews used to eat ham-on-matzoh for Pesach! We had no respect for them. “Hey, I dare you to knock this tefillin off my shoulder.”

I was about four years-old when I first learned about this thing called Christmas. I think it was from HOWDY DOODY on TV. I ran downstairs very early on that Christmas morning. I was excited to see what Santa had brought me. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. The living room looked just like it did yesterday and the way it was gonna look again tomorrow.

“JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS.” My parents weren’t kidding. My mother was downright mean about it.

“Christmas, my ass,” I can still hear her grumbling, “I’ll give you Christmas. You should take him outside and horsewhip him,” she’d tell my father. Luckily for me, he was fresh out of horse whips.

My mother talked real tough. She was like her brothers. She had a whole bunch of them. They talked tough, too. Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas in their houses either. My dad might wink and grab a piece of ham outside of the house, but at home, he was on the straight Jewish ticket, too. That was that. We were gonna be different from the families we saw on television. We weren’t gonna be like FATHER KNOWS BEST or DONNA REED. I wasn’t gonna be Beaver Cleaver and my older brother wasn’t gonna be Wally. We were just gonna be Jewish. We were gonna be different. And we just had to shut up about Christmas. Period.

In time, it became easier to live without Christmas. And eventually, we did alright with Chanukah. We have our share of memories of the candles, the gifts and the year that my brother bought Mom a golf cart when he was the only one in the family who had a set of golf clubs.

Our family’s way of being Jewish in America was like being undercover for God. My dad had often cautioned that it wasn’t such a good idea to advertise your Jewishness. Beating up the Jews was still bloodsport in a lot of Pittsburgh neighborhoods. It was a tough working-class city.

We were taught that Jews were supposed to be accepted in American society, but reminded they had been accepted in German society, too, before Herr Hitler came along. Jews had to stay on their toes. The tougher street-wise uncles told us “not to take any shit.” Unlike the black people, it was far easier for Jews to “hide” in America and to fit in. Many changed their names. We learned how to get along. My parents even let us sing the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carols at public school, but we had to hum the parts about Jesus being God or anything like that. You know, “Hmmm, hhmmmm, the Lord.”

Like many other Jewish-American men of my generation, I was pretty much gone from the shul the day after my Bar Mitzvah. I continued to observe the Jewish holidays well within my parents’ wishes until I was out of their house, out of their neighborhood, and out on my own.

Since then, well, I’ve broken the Passover. I’ve eaten bacon. I rode on yontiff. I ate on Yom Kippur. And perhaps this poem says it best:

“Hail Mary,
Full of grace,
Me as Orthodox,
Is out of place.”

In the hippie 60’s, I once took LSD on Yom Kippur to give entirely new meaning to the term “high holiday.” What I’m trying to say is that by the time I met God as an adult, Jewish was just pretty much another way to say, “Wow!” to the universe.

When it comes to organized religions at this stage of life, I like the words of songwriter Woody Guthrie, “…all of them or none of them.” And my wife is fond of the revolutionary Thomas Paine quote, “My country is the world. My religion is to do good.”

When it comes to Christmas trees, however, I am positively haunted. The ghosts and the feelings just won’t let me go. Y’see, I still think of myself as Jewish. I married a Jewish woman. We have Jewish children. There are Jewish ghosts by the way. Instead of clanging chains and going “boo!,” they just kvetch a lot and moan. They sound like Aunt Fanny.

My wife wanted a Christmas tree. The kids wanted a Christmas tree. Why couldn’t I just give them all a Christmas tree?

“Over our dead bodies,” challenged a remarkable gathering of 5,752 years of Jewish ghosts in my conscience. Some of them weren’t even dead yet. My thoughts on the subject are like a car wreck. It’s been a bad collision between my personal history and my dreams. I think we can safely call that our actual lives.

“What’s so bad about a tree?” I ask the ghosts.

“He wants to know what’s so bad about a tree?” they tell each other and laugh knowingly. There’s Samson, Moses, and Mordecai, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They’re prophets and martyrs everyone. It’s like an Orthodox Jewish Dream Team. “What’s so bad about a tree? We’ll tell you what’s so bad about a tree. You’re Jewish, that’s what!” I was about to catch a harangue from the spirit of every Jewish grandfather who ever lived. “You’re Jewish! You do not worship Christmas trees! Here, schmendrick, we’ll draw you a picture:”

treehg

“You get it? You do not worship Christmas trees and you do not worship Christmas! You could look it up, there is no Christmas!”

“Could a bah-humbug be far behind?” I teased.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” they ask. “Christmas is Jesus’s birthday! You want to celebrate Jesus’s birthday? For this we died in the ovens? What kind of a Jew are you? We’re sorry, but men are not Gods, not even Jolson. What’s so hard to understand? Big deal, it’s Jesus’s birthday. So what? We don’t celebrate Elvis’s birthday either. Look, you’re a grown man. You’re a father. Stand up and be counted already. Enough already with these fekukteh Christmas trees!! Your kids are getting older. It’s time they knew they were Jewish! Shame on you! What kind of father are you?”

My wife asked me point blank after our very first argument about Christmas trees: “Do you believe that the miracle of Chanukah is true and that all the other miracle stories of the world’s religions are false?” I gave it a long moment of thought.

“Well, no,” I had to tell her, “not for one minute.” She was smart. It cut through absolutely everything. No, I don’t believe Jewish miracle stories are true and everybody else’s are false.

Attacked by common sense, we discussed how all of the world’s cultures have holidays around the Christmas season. People everywhere have long prayed for and celebrated the return of the light in its seasonal struggle with the dark. It’s been going on since people first started grunting at each other. Cultural festivities like Chanukah, Christmas, Divali Pujah, and Kwanzaa are all fingers of the same hand reaching out for the same light.

My wife wanted to get a Christmas tree. In her Jewish upbringing, it was an entirely different story. They had a Christmas tree. She claims that it had nothing to do with Jesus Christ and everything to do with their family.

Her parents were in the retail clothing business. The Christmas season was their busiest time of the year. Her mom and dad were forced to work long hours in the December days. Their family life was reduced to a bare minimum. Christmas Day was the first day-off her parents had in weeks. Come December 26 and beyond, they were going to be back into the store for the second half of their seasonal rush. It served to make their Christmas day very, very special for them.

My wife is filled with charming memories of her and her older sister making breakfast in bed for their parents who got to sleep in late on Christmas for the first time in many hectic days.

Their family would then gather by the tree and begin a long, slow opening of gifts. Not surprisingly, most of the gifts were clothes. Each item had to be tried on and displayed by each family member for the others. It made for a long, leisurely day of gathered family recalled with great nostalgia, fondness and wet, loving tears by my wife. It was the peace of that day she recalls most vividly. It was the eye of the hurricane in her parents’ strenuous business life. “There was absolutely no tension in the house on that day,” she claims.

Well, these days, there’s tension in our house and the poison ink is mostly coming from me. I hate Christmas trees.

We had our first Christmas tree when the kids were still very young. It seemed like a cute idea at the time, a novelty. With babies, there was so much that was new in our life, what harm could a little Christmas tree do? The lights were pretty. It was a little tree and it was alive. We would later plant it in the yard when Christmas was over. That was the excuse I needed to overcome the guilt of buying it in the first place. It’s taller than our house now.

That Christmas tree and the ones that followed over the next few years have made me quite nuts. I tried to give my wife something she wanted, but discovered I had badly miscalculated my own ability to do so. I felt like I had betrayed myself in the process. The results were ugly.

It was like a time when I took her to the world class Chez Panisse for her birthday. My wife loves fancy restaurants. I don’t. I enjoyed the novelty the first couple of times we went to such places, but it quickly wore off. In the end, I find it an exercise in social snobbery where one pays ridiculously inflated prices for very silly, unsatisfying food. Dollars have not come easily to me in this life and dining on elegant cuisine is not how I’d prefer to spend them.

This was her birthday, though, and not mine. I thought it would be a great idea to take her to Chez Panisse. Hell, it was right around the corner from our house. Surely I could be a gentleman for a couple of hours and offer her this great, great “treat.” Wrong. By the middle of the meal, I had her embarrassed, close to tears and ready to leave. I just couldn’t help myself. It must have been like having dinner with Karl Marx, the least funny Marx brother. Ooops!

And now, it was likewise with this Christmas tree business. I couldn’t face the feelings I got sitting around that Christmas tree on Christmas morning in my own house. Y’know, we’d all get up early and sit around the stupid tree. We were like a white Cosby family. There were sweets, coffee cakes and hot chocolates. We referreed the children opening their presents and then watched them go totally out of their minds with the massive overload of new stuff from all the relatives on her side of the family and all of our Christmasy-type friends.

As this Christmas pageant unfolded, I felt like a stranger in my own house and to my own family. I betrayed the living ghosts of all my years in Pittsburgh and my entire childhood. It was so strange. I had to choke back the tears. After all, I didn’t want to rain on “their” Christmas, so I was just miserable all day.

Jewish people have always seemed fortunate to me in that they have no grand patriarch or matriarch to inflict a central authority on everybody. There can be pink Jews, green Jews, blue Jews or mauve. You can be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Renegade.

Dan Goldblatt was the rabbi who presided at my son’s bris. I met him on the Captain Video bowling team. I call him Rabbi Shortstop. Among several other careers back then, Dan used to moonlight as a Jewish official for ceremonies involving the fairly heavily Hebrew alienated.

I was very grateful that our first child was a girl and that I did not have to deal with the dilemmas of circumcision on the first go-round. I still have acid flashbacks of my own circumcision.

What’s that? You thought we were talking about Christmas trees? Well, we are, but this is the Pandora’s Box that gets opened when you start mucking about with the traditions. Ask Tevya. The only way out is go forward.

What can you say that’s good about circumcision? Hey, let’s clip off his foreskin and tell him he’s Jewish? It’s barbaric. Either God was having a bad day or Abraham was hard of hearing.

The birth of our second daughter again postponed the confrontation on this issue. By the time our son was born, it was our family doctor who helped reconcile me to the necessary voodoo. Abra Cadabra, snip, and you’re Jewish!

The bottom line was that Doctor Hebrew S. Shaman convinced me that it would be medically easier on my son to be circumcised as an infant than at any other time in his life to come. Translation: You’ve got to get to ’em before they can complain about it.

So, we arranged a private ceremony in the pediatrician’s office. I put together a minion of the misguided and the good Rabbi Shortstop blessed our event.

The doctor dipped his finger into some ceremonial wine and placed it to my son’s lips. Some Hebrew was muttered. I think it translated to “Get ’em drunk first.” It reminded me of John Wayne chugging some whiskey before they dug the bullet out. I held my precious son dear to me. We proceeded with his induction into the tribe of the pre-shortened schlongs. I think my wife was hiding in the hall. No, she was in the room. She was the tenth man, how could I forget! I held the baby down and the doctor approached. Could this ritual have been the inspiration for the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac?

When the deed was done, my son wailed his disapproval. I hugged him and wished him nothing but blow-jobs from here on out. The minion laughed heartily and my son began the long road to recovery from being Jewish.

Two years ago, instead of a Christmas tree, I made us a flying saucer. In making my peace with this holiday spirit, it seemed like the perfect solution. My wife and I had decided that we wouldn’t do it her family’s way or my family’s way. We would create our own family’s way.

The magic from the movie ET was big that year. Imagine what the discovery of life on other planets would do to this world’s religions. Our notions of God and creation would be turned upside down. The flying saucer was an ideal symbol!

I cut a big circle out of plywood and painted it silver. When it dried, I taped a giant chrome salad bowl to it. While the kids were at school, I hung it from the ceiling and was decorated it with all manner of bright and colored lights. I thought the kids would be overjoyed.

Well, they weren’t. They were actually pissed-off because they didn’t get the chance to decorate it for themselves. It did produce one precious moment when I overheard Polly explaining to her friends why we didn’t have a Christmas tree… “because we’re Jewish,” she said, “we have a flying saucer.”

Last year, I was going to get a mannequin and decorate that. It seemed like another great alternative symbol to celebrate the spirit of humanity. I just wanted to stay away from Christmas trees.

My wife and I had given all of our gifts for Chanukah. We didn’t give the kids anything for Christmas. Well, my wife did give them stockings filled with candy, but we had tried to build Chanukah into the main event. We even celebrated for all eight days! There was the ritual lighting of the candles and a special activity for each day!

Day One was a party with potato latkes. Day Two was brother and sister present night where they exchanged gifts. Day Three was a fudge tasting contest and a movie night. Day Four was family art night. We made all kinds of stuff. Day Five was ice skating and a concert. Day Six was a treasure hunt with a pinata. Day Seven was make your own ice cream sundae. And the last day featured the retelling of the Chanukah story and Mommy and Daddy giving their presents. They were the really big ones.

It was a long way from the socks and underwear I used to get every year.

We had overplayed the Chanukah to implant the Jewish and then thought we could just go low-key through Christmas. Well, the kids missed the point entirely. They hit the roof and stayed there from the first day of Chanukah until the last relative’s birthday in mid-January. By the end of the holiday season, my wife and I looked like two frazzled people who had survived four weeks of multicultural eclectic shock.

We celebrated everything. Divali Pujah from India…the African-American Kwanzaa, Christmas, the eight days of Chanukah, Michael Rossman’s birthday, the new moon, the solstice, the NFL Play-offs, New Year’s Eve, the Rose Bowl, my older brother’s birthday, my father-in-law’s birthday, our son’s birthday, my mother’s birthday, our middle daughter’s birthday, our brother-in-law’s birthday and my dad’s birthday on January 25.

We started talking about the holiday season this year on the first day of September. “I think we should just go away somewhere where they don’t have Christmas,” my wife proposed. “Do you think they have Christmas at Club Med in Tahiti?”

“We can’t afford Club Med in Tahiti,” I broke her balloon. “I know,” I told her, “I’ll sleep in! When you and the kids are sitting around opening up the presents we’ll just let me sleep!”

“We tried that one year and you just came downstairs more alienated than ever,” she said. We sat there in silence. There just didn’t seem to be any way of getting around the fact that the Christmas season was going to make us fat, broke, confused, chaotic and depressed…again. “’tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la.”

Some time in February, when enough of the new year has already passed that we feel like we’re really ready for that vacation that is not coming, we’ll manage to effectively return to life’s more pressing problems. How are we going to pay the property taxes? How do we keep our three kids in private schools for another year? The house insurance is overdue and the car insurance is coming up. Flog me with my anxieties, I love this modern life.

The term “Hannuchristmakah” was born last year or maybe it was the year before. My wife invented or reinvented the term. It’s not exactly Jews for Jesus, but it does have the net effect of more presents for the kids. We signed up. I had to give up on my idea to decorate a mannequin. We spent twenty-nine dollars on yet another Christmas tree instead. The mannequin would have cost us a hundred.

As it turned out, I should have spent the money. The Christmas tree made me nuts again. JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS.

My wife wants to know why have I been able to embrace the royally unkosher bacon cheeseburger concept and still not Christmas? I don’t know. It’s clearly not rational. The notion of celebrating Christmas just fills me with shame. No other tenant of Jewish law I have transgressed touches me in quite the same way. Hey, I’m just playing the cards I got dealt.

Times change. Good and bad, right and wrong get very blurry and clear from generation to generation. I remember reading about the great concerns of the Jewish elders around the time of Alexander the Great. They were worried about how the Jewish youth were being corrupted and seduced by the Greek way of life. Young Jews were hanging out at the “gymnasia” and even shaving off their beards! “Good Lord,” the elders keened, “could the Jews survive it?

Jewish survival…ever since the Romans expelled the Jews from the Holy Land, the Jews have been obsessed with surviving in exile. It’s like Lou Gehrig’s (now Cal Ripken’s) consecutive game streak in baseball. There seems to be an entire religion based only on surviving. It eschews evolution. The rules seem framed only to keep the streak going. Don’t let any outside influences in. Don’t break the rules. It’s baseball players in the same smelly socks. It’s Wade Boggs eating fried chicken before every game. Keep the streak alive! Remember what happened to the Hittites!

When my brother and I had just come into this world, the Jews were most recently reeling from the modern atrocities in Nazi Germany. They had circled the wagons and survived yet another episode of Jews against the world. Israel was reborn seven days after me. We’re all supposed to go back there, y’know. Each year at Passover, we say, “next year in Jerusalem.” We’ve been saying that for almost 2,000 years. Well, it’s been “next year” for awhile and a lot of us still haven’t made it back. While I have no desire to become an Israeli, the survival of Israel and the survival of the Jews dominated my early life.

Though you still see the occasional swastika spray-painted on a synagogue, the events and experiences of my adult years have led me down another path. I don’t live in Anatevka, the Jewish ghetto anymore, I moved to Berkeley, California. The Jews, who live across the street, are Koreans. Jew just happens to be their family name (Actually, I think they spell it “Jue,” but it’s still pronounced “Jew”).

Anyway, I don’t see that it’s only the Jews who are threatened with extinction today and tomorrow on this planet. I see it as all of us. I cringe when I read today’s headlines about how the Bosnian Serbs are systematically trying to eradicate all the signs of Moslem life from their once shared homeland. I resent both the Israelis and the Palestinians for continuing to spill their hate all over the world’s stage. Enough already. The Irish and the British aren’t much better. I have no tolerance left for any of the blood feuds that have cursed the human condition for hundreds and even thousands of years. I can’t believe this kind of madness still rages and I wonder about what kind of God makes this his playground.

The exponential explosions of human technology on earth are transforming us faster than our traditional institutions can handle the ideas involved. As a student of history, it’s astonishing to me that we haven’t already toasted the earth with nuclear weapons. If there’s any hope at all in the struggle to make a common future, we just don’t need the life and death holy wars of the past continuing to poison our future. A little “ethnic cleansing in the Balkans” goes a long way to reawakening the bloody, unforgiving lessons of history. I fear that if we don’t put all of our Gods in a blender soon and learn to live together, we’ll be doomed to go the way of the mastodon and it will be very ugly on the way out.

To step toward a world that embraces all of our humanities seems well worth jousting with dinosaurs and ghosts of the past. It’s not exactly fun, but it’s necessary. To the casual observer, the very survival of our species seems to depend on it.

And even though I’m filled with thoughts like this, I still can’t escape the personal haunting of “JEWS DON’T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS.” It does not help the peace of my own household, let alone the world. It drives my wife nuts because it insults the way her family did Jewish. What can I do? I’m even more uncomfortable around the Christmas tree on Christmas morning than I am at Chez Panisse eating the spinach crepes. The kids, of course, still want Christmas. They don’t want Christ, they want presents. It’s totally natural and fairly disgusting.

When I weep now on Christmas mornings, it’s not because I have violated some ancient Jewish law. It’s more because I have recognized how I am a victim of natural law. Time has flown by. I weep for my lost childhood and the days of ignorant, uncomplicated innocence. I only get over it to the degree that we all do, we who manage to go on living.

The situation is by no means resolved in our family. Like I said, we’ve already started talking about it again this year and it’s only September. I started writing this piece three years ago as an exercise in trying to come to grips with my own contradictions. I’m no closer now than the day I started.

A couple nights ago, instead of sex, we did three more hours on this subject. Our discussion ended with such emotional exhaustion that sleep itself became the blessed orgasm. We talked about being Jewish and doing the rest of the world’s religions as tourists. “Well, I’ve been to Christmas,” I told her. “Can we go somewhere else this year?”

She says she doesn’t care what we do on Christmas as long as we do it as a family. It’s important, she thinks, that we present a united front to the kids. She thinks that revealing our conflicting values would be damaging.

When my wife read the preceding paragraph, she claimed that’s not what she meant at all. She said…that she said…that making our children’s psyche’s the battleground for our conflicting values would be damaging.

Yeah, well, I can agree with that. Even though it’s an election year, I don’t want to run on the anti-Christmas ticket against my wife with the children as the electorate. McGovern had a better chance of winning.

We skipped sex again last night. This time, it was my doing. When she came to bed late last night after spending four hours fashioning her own reply to this opus and began to make sexual overtures, I was in some neighboring territory to the Twilight Zone where I preferred to watch the shopping channel. I don’t know. When this subject comes up, it’s like we’re a mixed marriage all of a sudden. We haven’t had an issue like this since the great open marriage wars of the early 70’s. It’s wearing me down.

Maybe it’s time to just dust off the flying saucer again. I learned my lesson. This time, I’ll let the kids decorate it for themselves. My wife is afraid that leaking word of the flying saucer will make us sound like one of those Ozark couples from a National Enquirer story who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens. You know, the ones where the wife insists that “they forced me to have sex with them in a Holiday Inn motel room. I gave birth to an eight-pound ear.”

Well, maybe we’ll just get another Christmas tree and I’ll try it again…

Please, who are you kidding? I can’t do that anymore. And I don’t want to go back to Chez Panisse either. Last year, I gave two different friends gift certificates to Chez Panisse for their birthdays on the one condition that they didn’t invite us to go with them.

Like life itself, this is a work in progress. It might be real useful if I could eliminate the phrase “JEWS DON”T CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS” from my vocabulary this year, but it would probably be a lot easier to quit smoking. The intellect heads one way, the heart another. Guess I’ll just have to keep on dancing.

In the meantime, I raise my glass to my children and to yours… and to their future. May they have one. Amen.

“Daddy,” my eldest daughter asked me in the Spring, “why can’t we celebrate Easter?”

Oi.

THE WIFE’S REPLY
by Carly Gordon

The question is not just “to tree or not to tree.” It’s whether or not to get up on Christmas morning and go downstairs, eat something warm & sweet, and open presents that friends have left at your door in the preceding few days.

Somewhere along the line in life I became a pacifist by nature. Or a kid worried about war and destruction. Maybe it was the holocaust stories, or the air raid drills in elementary school, where you had to practice getting under your desk in case of a nuclear attack –as if the desk was going be any help. People all over were building bomb shelters. Something bad was going to happen because people were scared of each other and might go out of control.

I could never get it why people would want to kill each other. It scared me terribly, and still does.

I assume it was my parents who taught me that what people fear most is the unknown, and that when another group of people seem strange and foreign, they can be feared and scapegoated. Those who are Not-Like-Me are easier to kill, they aren’t really people. They’re gooks, they’re niggers, they’re A-rabbs, they’re kikes. These are all words for Other. Them. Not-Like-Me. Goyim. The Other doesn’t actually seem to have feelings which are exactly like mine. We are Not-In-Common.

It has always seemed vital to me to labor against this tendency. It seemed the only way humankind was going to make it. We grew up with the Russians as the bad guys. Now the wall is down, and guess what? They’re human beings! I knew it! I knew it!

I always loved movies where the two young soldiers on opposing sides would meet, rifle to rifle, far away from their troops, and recognize their common humanity. That expresses my deepest wish for the world, and the world I would like to give to my children. A world where we don’t have to be afraid of each other’s prayers and rituals, where we can try each other’s dances, sing each other’s songs, taste each other’s treats, and find the common longing that is echoed in all of our prayers.

My understanding of the Winter holidays is bound by the notion that there were Pagan peoples, long before any of the religions as we know them today, long before any human scientific knowledge of the movement of the earth in relation to the sun. The people were simply scared as the daylight grew shorter and the dark night grew longer. They feared that the sun was leaving them for good. They had the superstitious belief that if they did not engage in certain rituals — prayers to the light, if you will — that life itself would come to an end.

Around the globe, various tribes, unaware of one another, each repeated their individual shtick to make the sun return. And guess what? It always worked! Come Spring, the days got longer, and the nights got shorter! It had worked! Each of those various unaware-of-each-other tribes had “discovered” the magic stuff that brought the sun back. And it turns out there was an amazing amount in common amongst the various rituals. Most of them shared these elements:

  1. Ceremony of lights or placing special lights in special places
  2. Telling of miracle stories
  3. Eating sweets
  4. Trading gifts, or at least giving the kids new stuff to
    keep them amused through the long nights of winter

I want to study more about comparative religions, because the common themes that emerge are very, very comforting to me. I believe we are one people, toasted to a few different hues, and distributed over this spinning globe. Howie says, in Pagan times, it was like there were tribes of us on different islands and in different valleys, where we couldn’t see one another and were unaware of each other’s existence. Each group had its own cosmology with very specific magic to bind its fears (just as each child has its own quite specific ritual of props and behaviors that will make him or her feel safe to face the long darkness at bedtime).

It was only when the various tribes climbed over the hills or canoed to the next island and came into contact with each other’s “alien” magic that the troubles began.

A friend I visited with today was showing me pictures of her father as a child, dressed in finery, circa 1925. In the photo were three beautiful children, the oldest a girl of about 8 or 9. Around her neck was a long string of beads. My friend told me this story: The children’s father had been away on a trip and had brought back trinkets for the children. For his daughter, a string of beads, red and black. The children’s mother saw them, and she threw a fit. “She may not wear those beads! She may not be photographed in those beads! QUAKERS DON’T WEAR RED.” My friend and I wondered how it had come to pass that the child did wear the beads in the photo. Perhaps it was reasoned that colors did not show up in photos. Perhaps the mother just gave in to the child’s protests. My friend said by the time she reached her 70’s, the mother herself even drove a red car. Had something vital been lost? Was she still a Quaker? How far can we bend or change our rituals and still take comfort from them, still know who we are?

I believe that our religious rituals do comfort us, they do give us reference points in the dark night of life, as arbitrary as they may seem to others. Bobby likes his yellow handkerchief to get to sleep with at night, his “feelie.” Juliana likes the hall light on and her yellow pillow, Polly likes to sleep by the wall farthest from the window. On Friday nights, I light the Shabbos candles, we all sing the Hebrew prayer, and we have a shared ritual of comfort that joins us with each other and with our ancestors.

If our rituals give us a sense of comfort, they also give a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of connection to some greater spiritual and moral collective. But it has always seemed to me that a living religion must give you a way to live in the world you live in, not just a way to set you apart from it, to alienate you from it, to divide you into groups who are afraid to join in the dances of the other tribes lest you somehow stop being yourself.

I don’t visualize a totally homogenized world. I think the diversity is delicious. I want our children to know that their ancestors on both sides were Jews. I want them to understand that we are Jews. I also want them to understand that they are first of all human beings. Being Jewish is a permanent heritage that will not wear off if they make a cardboard-and-paste Christmas wreath or a lumpy-cotton-ball Easter bunny at grade school. It will not wear off if they participate in the basically Pagan, non-religious observance of American Christmas (even though the material excess is something I, too, am troubled by and want to diminish). Being Jewish won’t wear off even if they “celebrate” the birthday of Jesus, like we celebrate each other’s birthdays. To me, “celebrate” and “worship” are not the same thing.

My parents said Jesus was a Jew and a great teacher, not a Living God. He said stuff like, “Don’t fight! Make plows out of your swords! Forgive each other! Increase the peace!” We never “worshipped” our Christmas tree.

I have never felt a deep need to celebrate Christmas. Some years I’ve skipped it entirely. (Jeez, one year I “skipped” Thanksgiving! I ate beans and tortillas and walked on the beach alone and went to bed at sundown.) But I hurt at the concept that one ought to feel shame about a decision to participate in a happy ritual which is alive in one’s own culture, alive on every network and up and down all the streets of one’s hometown.

“QUAKERS DON’T WEAR RED.”

“MORMONS DON’T DRINK HOT BEVERAGES.” (or is it Mormons don’t drink caffeine? Well guess what? It turns out that it depends on which Mormons you talk to. The Pepsi-is-ok-but-no-hot-drinks-Mormons, or the Herb-tea-is-ok-but-no-caffeine Mormons.

The important job to me is to find the common tone and the first and most important place to start is with my husband. The notion that our participation in Christmas would be shameful or painful to him, when it had been such a lovely memory in my childhood, is like a dirty trick that the universe pulled on us to challenge our creativity. When I feel his disgust to realize he married one of Those Make Believe Jews from Uptown, I feel devastated. I feel that with one gesture of fear and contempt, I have been made Other.

But, year after year, we have struggled past that point to create for our family a Winter ritual that matches neither his parents’ nor mine, but that brings together elements of each, integrated into the time and place we live in.

I honestly do not care if we never have a Christmas tree again in our house. I never have. What I do care about is that the explanation to the begging children not be “Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” in the firm, contemptuous tone of voice which implies deep disgust for any Jew who would even want or desire any pleasure associated with Christmas.

(This is, by the way, the same tone of voice with which we choked down my birthday dinner at Chez Panisse. It is the tone of voice the puritanical parent reserves for the child found masturbating. It says, “Shame on you! How can you even want such a thing? Nice people don’t do that!”)

Whatever it is that provokes such disgust and contempt in my husband is not anything I need to shove down his throat.

We don’t need a tree to make me happy. We don’t need to buy or wrap Christmas gifts. In fact, one of the difficult parts of the holidays for me is the notion that you Have To Do the same stuff every year. Rituals give comfort, but they also can be rather tiresome and tedious sometimes.

What I am committed to is the two of us, a year at a time if necessary, creating a way to have a good time together as a family while waiting to see if the sun is really going to come back again this year. Something fun and something that joins us with each other, with our community, with our families and ancestors, with the human race.

Dear husband,

My Proposal:

  1. We’re Jews. Every year we’ll do Chanukah. I liked your idea of a different family activity each night. I think it’s played well the past 3 years. I vote to continue that as it was.
  2. We’re humans and fascinated students of the human story. Let’s begin a study of the world’s religions, and how they do The-Winter-Thing. Each year we’ll pick one non-Jewish winter observance to study and create in our home, (possibly include friends). We can get a world map, find out what parts of the world follow this particular custom, cook the foods together, find photos of how it looks, do our own drawings or whatever. This can include very fun and very educational stuff that will join the family in a project. (I think Join-the-Family-in-a-Project may be my new religion.)

After several years of various religions, if “Scandinavian Christmas,” say, turns up for study, it may not have the same odious ring to you as Christmas has in years gone by. If it still rings odious, then we’ll pick something different.

Finally, what to do about American Christmas? (which will be upon us every year.) Anything joyous that doesn’t make you uncomfortable. If we remove or deny the standard “go downstairs and open the presents friends have brought us,” can we work on something to do besides stay home and Not Participate? Can we explain to the kids that we don’t do it because it makes Daddy terribly uncomfortable and because nothing is really worth how bad it makes you feel? (As an alternative to “Jews don’t etc.”)?

I remember you saying that Christmas day was special to you. Your dad, as a Jew, had the only gas station in the South Side of Pittsburgh that was open on Christmas, and you and he went together and did a land office business every year. Could we open a gas station and stay open on Christmas?

The main thing about Christmas for me, as you said in your piece, was that my mom and dad worked day and night in the weeks before Dec. 25, so Christmas day was the lone day we all spent together. The smell of the tree, the look of presents wrapped and un-, the food treats — what all of those signify to me is safety, comfort, togetherness. What I long for as the world is doing Christmas is safety, comfort and togetherness. I want so much for you not to have to be alienated, ashamed, feeling wrongness.

Could we all five curl up in our bedroom with popcorn and videos? Could we have a family football game? Could we ….could we…? I guess my real question is, can you contemplate any ritual of togetherness on Dec. 25 that does not, by its very date, trigger the bad stuff? I lovingly await the answers we discover in the years to come.

It occurs to me as we do this that we are engaging in one of the oldest of Jewish traditions — arguing with other Jews! The Talmudic scholars of old, the truly holy men (women in those days were excluded, another gripe I have with Orthodoxy), the truly holy men would sit for hours discussing the large and small points of Jewish law. This study and dialogue was considered a sacred duty. Next to prayer itself, no activity could bring one closer to G-d.

Hey kid, maybe we’re making it after all!

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Howie Gordon was first featured on Jewrotica in a must-read profile, Schmeckle Movies in California: Howie Gordon’s Hindsight. Other books by Howie Gordon include “Hindsight – True Love and Mischief in the Golden Age of Porn” – Available at – www.hindsightbook.com/

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