My father grew up in Pelham Parkway in the Bronx in a Jewish section of the neighborhood. Nearly all of his friends, and his parents friends were Jewish. He said he could tell the Jews from the gentiles (whom the Yids of the day called ‘goyim’) by the color of their shoes. Jews always wore black shoes, the goyim, brown.
But in the early seventies he moved to Massapequa, Long Island to work for a law firm . And that’s where I grew up. I’m not sure what the demographic is today, but when I grew up, Massapequa was mostly Italian, followed by Irish, with a smattering of Jews. Take the number of Jews, divide by two, and that gave you the number of Asians. My high school graduating class had only one person of African descent. My town was very white, very European, and very Christian.
Because most of my friends were at least part Italian, there were a lot of Roman Catholics among them. But a few were Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Protestant. I remember, a few years before I was to be Bar Mitzvah’d, my friends asked me in front of my house why I didn’t want to be baptized. They suggested I sneak off to their church and get baptized without my parents knowing. When I politely refused, I got the sense that deep down that’s when they realized I wasn’t like them.
Walking to school one day during Passover, I showed a friend of mine a Bazooka bubble gum comic which was written in Hebrew. He swore and swore again that it was Chinese, and not Hebrew. I protested, but he did not believe me.
Once in a while I heard a lame and cliched joke about Jews being cheap, and for years I didn’t pick up change on the sidewalk for fear people might think I was a penny-pinching Jew. But for the most part, I never encountered much anti-semitism growing up. I believe part of that was my light hair and blue eyes, plus my ethnically ambiguous last name which made people assume I was just another one of them. In a Jewish day camp I remember being asked dozens of times, “Really? You’re Jewish? You sure you weren’t adopted?” People always were surprised. I didn’t fit the stereotype. (Ironically, I have encountered more anti-semitism as an adult in New York City; people assume I’m not Jewish and sometimes say racist things before I make them eat their words.)
I’ve been asked if Christmas was ever painful for me, and it never really was. The only thing I ever missed was Christmas morning (brought to life by the famous Christmas Story film), and the excitement of waking up just after dawn to a glowing tree and a floor full of presents. But I knew early on there was no Santa Claus, and my mother warned me not to tell my friends, not to spoil it for them. So I watched in quiet enjoyment as my friends explained, in elaborate detail, how they saw Santa once eating cookies by the tree, or flying over their house.
Hannukah for me was always a time of closeness with my family. We’d light the candles together every night, and because it was cold and dark outside, everyone stayed home, for the most part. I remember the bright colors of the Hannukah candles, and the excitement of wondering what gifts I might be receiving that year. And my Christian friends seemed jealous of me, because I received one gift per day, for a total of eight. A few friends would count off the number of gifts they received, in order to make sure I understood they received more than eight. But it was always a gentle rivalry, never vindictive.
As I got older, I’d get invited to friends’ houses on Christmas Eve or Day, and I was flattered that they’d allow me to take part in their holiday experience. In my late teen and early twenties, Christmas time was a time to get wasted, and I remember many nights wandering in a drunken, stoned haze past rainbows of holiday lights around my neighborhood. The colors swirled in my vision, but I always felt safe and warm. I felt like I was participating in the celebration too.
Christmas and Hannukah share a lot of similarities. The public display of lights, the act of gift giving. And both are celebrations of a miracle. Hannukah, the victory over the Greek armies and the consecrated oil which lasted until new oil could be found. Christmas, the miracle birth of Jesus. I’ve always felt them to be sister holidays, that even though they are of different faiths, that they share a common goal, to bring families and friends together, to take a pause at the end of the year, a breath, and return to what really matters.
So I just wanted to take this time to say, in a rather long-winded way, Merry Christmas to all my friends. I hope the new year brings you much happiness and joy.