Jesus Died So We Could Eat Chinese
Being Jewish is always particularly more in my face at Christmas time. As a child on Fulton Avenue, we celebrated Christmas and never Hanukah. In junior high a friend whose mother has converted to Judaism and is being raised with Jewish oomph is disgusted by this and gifts me a menorah and candles and teaches me the prayers. During my childhood we always have a Christmas tree and stockings although in teenhood my mother fusses about the mess of a tree and expense and my sister and I have to guilt her into it. My mother always rhapsodized about mantillas, midnight mass and all things Catholic although she never attended church and I suspect that if she’d had her religious bearings straight she would have more likely coveted Episcopal or even Congregational over papist. So even though she is too cheap to spring for a tree, the menorah isn’t a great hit.
Himself and I have a tree our first years together, the last of which was at our Owl House cottage in Echo Park. We join a synagogue, known to be friendly to intermarrieds but I have a ton of cool ornaments and I love the smell of the tree. Himself, as I recall, is like Grandma in his reticence to drag a messy, expensive tree down our little walk street but I insist. I don’t remember whether we actually get through the holiday or not before our galloping Airedale Andrew gets tangled in the lights and topples the thing which Himself says is a sign and who am I to argue? I suspect this message from on high may have merely been an opportunity to indulge his cheap, lazy assed self. I still miss the smell of a tree.
My sister, fourteen years older, does Christmas stuff before she’s completely immobilized by multiple sclerosis, sort of trying to fabricate a memory to sentimentalize. There were different boyfriends/husband over the years but an artificial silver flocked tree, red table linens and Honey Baked Ham always figure into the festivities. She has fourteen Christmases with both of my parents before I am born. They divorce when I’m seven and I can’t excavate even a faint sense memory of Christmas with married parents on Fulton Avenue. All I remember is waking up to a stocking and presents and a nagging inside that something fundamental is missing. I think it is the first Christmas after the divorce and my father arrives in the morning. I am sitting by the tree and have opened board games and Barbies. My dad presents me with a big box, professionally wrapped with sheer paper and I see right away that it is a Creepy Crawlers kit. I wonder then, as I still do, who would be stupid enough to wrap a kid’s gift in such transparent paper. A big metal mold is filled with a liquid and placed on a heating element to produce realistic looking insects. It is quite sensational and the burning rubber smell of the thing makes me feel very grown up to be playing with heat and electricity and all.
The 17 year old is looking at colleges where Jews are likely to be very sparse. There were a few at my college and even though I’ve been raised as nothing with a mother you yearned to star in the remake of Song of Bernadette in a largely Jewish neighborhood, in the face of a student body so largely comprised not of Jews, I feel, if no particularly strong affinity, a certain comfort zone with my landsmen. A lot of our friends are not Jewish but they know Jews and other people who do not celebrate the birth of the purported savior. Nevertheless, here in Los Angeles there is no shortage of people, when the kids are littler, to ask them what Santa was going to bring them. We teach our kids not to lie but I feel uncomfortable with them revealing their Jewishness to all and sundry and the “no Christmas, I’m Jewish,” will inevitably make the asker of an innocent question feel bad and guilty. And if they simply answer that Santa’s bringing them “nothing” I look like a total asshole. People wish me Merry Christmas all the time and it’s “back at ya” but there is a nonce of weirdness. Slaves of political correctness will say “Happy Holidays” but there is always that extra beat before the greeting for the wink wink nod nod “Goddam those friggin Jews and Arabs for messing with our Christmas.”
Having a kernel of residual unhappiness from my own childhood holiday experiences makes me hyper conscious about what I contribute that may imprint my own kids’ psyches. I feel sort of guilty that I am depriving them of the American peace love and wonder experience of Christmas. My mother-in-law thought I was a bitch because I never sent her pictures of the kids with Santa. All this and I’m not even such a big deal Jew myself. I buy the kids too much stuff for Chanukah early on and unfortunately for them, it dawns on me that this is stupid and hollow long before they get the message. A couple years ago, on a whim, I decide to indulge and diffuse their giant Christmas jealously by surprising everyone with a stocking. I remember always particularly liking the stocking part, overflowing with little sweets and goodies but the ones I assemble for my boys are met with indifference. Spuds grouses about his Christmas envy and I remind him about the stockings and how everyone in the family was nonplussed by them. I’ve taken this to mean that it felt unnatural and not particularly good and with our having been there/done that, now we could go acceptingly back to being Hanukkah people. Spuds corrects me. “I would have liked getting the stocking if there’d been more than gum and flashlights and crap in it.”
When Spuds is about three months old and the 17 year old is three and both are in diapers and I am nursing Spuds, which makes his sibling mad as all get out, we drive to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with my sister. There is a snow storm and we are stranded in a coffee shop in Baker. Two ladies in saris help me change Spuds in an acrid ladies room without a diaper table. It takes about twelve hours for us to reach Vegas and we notice immediately the casinos are jammed with Asians and Indians and if a non-Jew says Jews I would scream “HOW DO YOU KNOW THEY ARE JEWS?” but they are Jews. Oddly in this disparate mishmosh of cultures, having only in common nothing particular to worship on this national holiday, there is a sense of belonging.
My sister Sheri is near the end of her life, but, a compulsive gambler, she loves the casinos. We pay one of her nurses to accompany us out to dinner at a surprisingly fine restaurant at a tawdry downtrodden downtown casino, filled on Christmas Eve not with infidels but hardcore drunks and gamblers, a number of which we see thrown out the front door by security. My father makes some money on a building purchased via eminent domain and we send my sister a big check for a customized van. Ostensibly, she should have been able to drive it herself with hand controls but her muscle control has deteriorated to the point where this isn’t possible.
The van does have a ramp and grooves to lock a wheelchair in place. The attendant drives Sheri in the van and we follow behind with the kids in their car seats. The van pulls off the road and we stop behind it. The straps haven’t been fastened correctly and on a curve, they give way and Sheri flies from her wheelchair. She is crumpled helpless on the floor of the van. We hoist her back into the chair and continue on to downtown Vegas.
My sister is separated from her husband but clings to him. He moves in with a girlfriend miles from her huge Sam’s Town adjacent apartment complex although my sister believes he still lives nearby. He takes all the furnishings they amassed in their marriage and my sister’s apartment contains a hospital bed, a motorized scooter she is never able to use, a card table and three folding chairs, the fourth of the set is poised by the backdoor for the nurses’ smoking breaks. Her husband sells the van and buys his girlfriend a sportscar and my sister is relegated to Dial a Ride.
Last year we travel again, north this time, to help relations make a Merry Christmas but while no one ends up splayed like a ragdoll on the floor of a van, things get all bollixed up. Birthmother plans an extravaganza to introduce her long lost son to friends and family and informs Himself right before the event, that, by the way, no one is to know that you were adopted. Again, there’s the lying thing we’ve been teaching the kids not to do. Not to mention the disrespect to the only parents he ever knew, who while flawed, did adopt him and rear him so she could live unencumbered. The party is cancelled when Himself gently refuses to capitulate and participate inthe charade she has orchestrated but by her command we are forced to join her for several meals. so we stay in a dank apartment in a shitty part of San Francisco and endure two days of psychological torture.
This year Chanukah is low key and over and done a full week before Christmas. I make latkes and donuts and complain about the greasy smell that permeates everything in the house and don’t weigh myself for a week. The kids get modest gifts and my Turkish stepmother brings us a carload full of the same discount house gifts she gave us last year and some baked goods. I like the fried stuff and am too old for presents, being almost phobic now about the accretion of things. Birthmother, like Himself’s late adoptive parents makes, not the first, hostile response to our Judaism which harshes the little Chanukah gumption I have going. I light the candles and know about the miracle of the oil but also that really, the holiday celebrates the triumph of inflexible doctrinaire Jews over more moderate kinsmen, who while still affiliating themselves with Judaism, had assimilated and were starting to toy with Greek innovations like democracy.
I often feel that I’m just a Jewish poser and unworthy to rail against what I perceive of as slights and hostility. As Jay Michaelson writes in "The Myth of Authenticity," the Orthodox seem to have commandeered the market. I have not taken the plunge into the separatism and rigid proscriptions of Orthodoxy although I always felt a twinge that by not doing so I don’t really deserve to call myself a Jew. That we belong to a temple but only go once in a while and light candles most Friday nights makes me feel like a dabbler with no right to take umbrage with those insensitive, indifferent or hostile to my faith.
We usually do the joked to death Jewish Christmas of Chinese food and a movie, as the cavernous Chinatown restaurant on Christmas day has sort of that same community of outsiders feel as the big casinos on the Strip but there is always that outsiderness that resonates more than the communal aspect. This year we are attending a Christmas Eve soiree hosted by gentiles who spend lots of time with Jews and will not look askance at our strange dietary habits. On Christmas Day we will wake before sunrise and bundle up and head out to the men’s prison at Tehachapi, to visit our penpal Alan who we connected with via a Jewish social service program. The relationships I have fostered with Jews in prison makes me feel more Jewish I think than shaving my head and wearing a wig in public or kashering the stove at 500 degrees would. I don’t think the 613 Mitzvot say anything about prison penpals but gradually I’ve started to feel less fake and inauthentic and at my most Jewish when I am at my most human.
Merry Christmas and Shabbat Shalom.