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A Jewish Child on Christmas

May 9, 2009 | by Sarah Shapiro

My parents succeeded in creating a wonderful Christmas - yet inside me something was amiss.

For some people, Christmas never keeps its promise. But for me as a child, Christmas never failed. It was always magical, always a mystery, always the one day of the year that could be counted on to bring us together as a family. In other words, it was the one celebration (aside from Passover dinner at Aunt Sophie's) that my father, Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, wouldn't dream of missing.

For him, a child of immigrants in New York City during the Depression, Jewish holidays were a grim business. Observance was enforced by well-meaning grownups who -- in their own distress, and in their ignorance of both Judaism and of basic child psychology -- meted out fearfulness in the garb of piety. Boring hours in synagogue, uttering endless prayers in an ancient tongue, reciting words whose meaning was left unexplained...while meanwhile, out on the street, to identify oneself as a Jew was to court anti-Semitic violence.

The only holiday we observed in full was the one my father had never experienced personally.

As a father, he resolved early on that his own children would be spared: no one was going to force-feed his daughters any superstitious nonsense. Indeed, the only holiday we observed in full was the one he himself had never experienced personally -- the one with no religious baggage, and whose whimsical traditions he and my mother could sort of create from scratch, improvising as they went along. For him -- and therefore for us -- it was nothing but fun and a shimmering joy, and the fact that he could bestow it so guiltlessly upon his children represented, for him, America's wonderful liberation from his own parents' Old World ties and tribal bondage. Come December 24th, no urgent meeting in Washington, no lecture in Des Moines, not even an editorial deadline, could have dragged him from our midst in snowy Connecticut.

God's Little Acre

My father may have aimed for freedom from ritual, but our observance of Christmas had many, and we guarded them zealously, inflexibly. From late November on, the suspense grew deliciously day by day. Presents -- some already wrapped and ribboned -- were hidden in the chilly closed-in porch where the ping-pong table, waiting idly for warmer weather, wobbled under its annual burden. I'd sneak out there sometimes to take a peek, and the pile kept rising higher. The tree got decorated only on Christmas Eve, not before, and only tiny white lights were permitted -- no tawdry multi-colored ones. Ditto for bulbs -- none but silver and gold. Each year, four handmade paper angels appeared on the mantelpiece, one for each daughter. I was the littlest, last in the row, in red robe and golden wings.

Once (it was the mid-1950s, and the Holocaust had already gotten a fast, temporary burial under a thick, deep silence), one of my sister's friends drove us kids into town for the annual community carol-sing on Christmas Eve. There, on the charming village green known as "God's Little Acre," surrounded on all sides by the whitest and loveliest of Colonial-era churches - Congregational, Methodist and Episcopalian -- we joined the assembly of our fellow citizens as "Silent Night, Holy Night" rose on their happy, sonorous voices up into the frosty air.

Before daybreak next morning, opening my eyes into pre-dawn darkness and seeing that the longed-for moment had finally arrived, I'd jump out of bed to rouse my big sisters (who were always a few steps ahead of me in blase sophistication.) A blissful mysteriousness animated everything, and here in the Jerusalem coffee shop where I type on my laptop forty years later, a fleeting kinesthetic memory just now streaked through some buried region of my brain (like a falling star, no sooner did it appear than it was already gone) of the nearly unbearable excitement, standing there waiting for them at the top of the stairs.

Then, the magic -- the wonder of it! -- when from the bottom steps, we'd first set eyes on the four red stockings hung over the fireplace, and the twinkling tree with its star on top, and the heap of shining presents under its boughs! We'd dump out our stockings on the floor to see what we got, and if I'd ever harbored any hope that Santa Claus was real, the walnuts and oranges would have disabused me of any such notion. Health food was Mommy's unmistakable trademark. No fat and merry savior would have restricted our white sugar intake to one red-and-white striped candy cane per stocking.

We weren't supposed to open anything more until our parents got up, and even then, no one could just plow ahead self-centeredly. We had to take turns -- unwrapping the presents one by one, with everyone else looking on -- so it always took all morning long, opening everything all together, as a family. Then came the huge family breakfast, the one time all year we did such a thing, to eat breakfast all together, formally, in the dining room -- with white candles on the table, and linen napkins, and the red-plaid tablecloth saved exclusively for this day. Even the menu was a firmly set tradition: sausage and scrambled eggs.

Then, at last, the crowning glory: my father would appear in his annual Santa Claus costume, which as the years went by, became more and more comical and absurd: Santa as an old woman, Santa as gorilla, Santa with little bells and a tin can hanging pitifully from his tail.

My stash of Christmas presents was always big, and satisfying. Though there was always an inexplicable sort of deflation and collapse into nothingness the day after ? is that all there is? -- I recall feeling jealous of someone else's gift on only one occasion in all those years. Late one afternoon on the 25th, after all my new toys and new clothes had been put away and the world ? suddenly depleted of mystery, collapsed in on itself like a black hole -- I was talking on the phone to Linda, a friend from elementary school. We were comparing notes on our respective hauls -- among other things, I'd gotten a musical spinning top and a yellow parka -- when she reported a pair of red Suzy-Long-Legs, which incited my intense envy. But in the same conversation, she casually astounded me with the news that she and her siblings had gotten into a fight over a present. It was a shock. On Christmas Day? I was horrified, and silently relieved. Linda's family had allowed this day -- this day? -- to be tainted by business as usual. Red tights or no red tights, I was luckier, after all.

They succeeded so well, my parents, creating a wonderful celebration for their children, and themselves. What would have made them suspect that somewhere inside me, something was amiss.

That one Christmas Eve when we ventured out into the larger community and I stood surrounded in all my smallness by the tall, smiling people on the village green, stamping their feet in the cold and laughing and talking, and with all the graceful white steeples soaring up around us into the starry night... perhaps that was when I first got an inkling...

No matter how radiant, glorious, and enchanting, something craven and pitiful was going on.

All those people were familiar with this place. They came here every Sunday. We didn't. We never went anywhere like this. God's Little Acre? Even Santa Claus seemed realer than God. And that story about the baby in the manger: even the grownups seemed to believe it. For us, it was just... a beautiful picture.

Something was suddenly very plain, and I didn't want to see it. To be a Jewish child singing Christmas carols was to a fool. A misfit. I was making a fool of myself in my own eyes. All this longing to belong... to partake of someone else's joy. No matter how radiant, glorious, magical, and enchanting matter how deeply I was stirred by these baffling words on my own lips...something craven and pitiful was going on. Something had been hidden, or I was hiding from something. And the whole thing had spawned something like... contempt. For what?

For... myself?

It was useless.

I couldn't see why it should be so, but in my heart of hearts I knew. To be a Jewish child on Christmas... was to be scared of who I was.

In the Woods

At 22, I began advertising to my family that I'd discovered my Jewish identity. I got work teaching English in the most conservative, old-school Orthodox society I could find -- Hasidic Williamsburg -- and my first day on the job happened to be Sunday, December 25th.

On the car ride going back to Connecticut a few days before the holiday, there I was in the back seat, my parents in the front, when I made my announcement. I was not going to be joining the family this year for Christmas morning festivities. I had a job. Not only was this a great touché as far as religion was concerned; it was also almost the first time in my life that I was going to earn a penny.

I remember now (with sorrow) how my father gripped the steering wheel and spun his head around. "Sarah!" It was as if he'd been struck. "What do you mean?"

"I got a job teaching English, and it starts on December 25th," I explained proudly.

"But Sarah, this is a family tradition! We're always together on this day. You can't do that!" My mother reached out and put one hand upon his.

"Oh, yes, I can," I shot back, my voice rising. "Christmas is a Christian holiday, and we're not Christian. I'm Jewish and so are you!"

"We don't look upon it as a religious holiday! It has nothing at all to do with religion!" His voice cracked. "For us it's a national holiday!"

I did go to my first day of work, and all the little girls seemed to enjoy the class, though the principal fired me politely when I showed up the next morning. Evidently some parents had complained that the new English teacher had had their daughters memorize a strange, Gentile sounding song about someone named Sally.

One two one,
One two one.
One two, one two,

My mother said
I never should
Play with the gypsies
In the woods.

My parents would have joined right in. That song was one of our family traditions, dating back to my mother's Utah childhood. I'd shared it with my new charges with pleasure, and all their sweet and vivid voices had rung out:

I've got a bonnet trimmed in blue
Do you wear it? Yes I do!
When do you wear it? When I can.
When I go out with my young man!

Little did I know, coming from a family whose Christmas tree was at that moment standing in all its splendor in our living room, that little girls named Raizie and Feiga and Sorale, from old Hasidic families in Williamsburg, have never heard of girls called Sally. Nor do they know what's so great about young men, much less that young ladies "go out" with them.

My shame was great. I had lost Christmas with my father, and the Hasidim in Brooklyn. too. My show of independence had been a sham, and the Jewishness I'd claimed as my own wasn't mine at all.

Between Light and Darkness

My own children, and children's children, haven't had to go through this particular brand of confusion, this divided sense of self... this standing on the outside looking in. The little flames that light up our window throughout Chanukah have always been mirrored in all the windows of their neighborhood, and throughout Jerusalem, and around the world.

They don't share my persistent sense of loss, when December 25th comes around... not of the Christian holiday their mother once coveted, but of the valiant father who didn't know that it's not freedom from ritual a little girl needs, but her own rituals. The religious traditions he abandoned -- because to him as a boy, their meaning had never been revealed -- were the very ones that could have held all my undifferentiated yearnings in their steady embrace. Only they could have quenched my childish longing for predictable ritual and family togetherness, beauty, drama, excitement, order, for the self-esteem engendered by self-discipline, and above all, for inclusion -- to feel I belonged.

What did I, like every child, need? I needed to know there's such a thing as miracles in the world -- something invisible and transcendent, beyond the mundane. Magical? Yes, but more than magical. Something real. For the ideal is real. L'havdil bain kodesh l'chol. Blessed are You Who distinguishes between sacred and secular, and between light and darkness.

Everyone around that little boy was in the dark. There was no one who could tell the child who became my father: Your people celebrate the miracle of Creation itself, every Friday night. That's the one day each week that brings parents and children together -- no matter what, kids, you can count on it -- with special linen on the table, and singing, and candlelight.

This article appears in American Jewish Spirit.


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