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The Center for the New American Dream
doncha just love that name? — is a nonprofit organization dedicated to
reducing consumption, promoting quality of life, and protecting the
environment; it claims the country is beginning to rediscover the true
meaning of Christmas: “more joy, less ‘stuff,’” which is why its
newsletter is called, simply enough, Enough! Supposedly, more
and more Americans feel that the Christmas holiday — maybe even
Chanukah, or Kwanzaa, for that matter — have
become too commercialized, and so they intend to buy fewer
gifts
and simplify their
holiday celebrations.

“Why not combine the Chanukah and Christmas holidays and have Mary in
labor for eight nights,” suggests CL, one overly innovative Internet
philosopher who obviously has been doing too much listening to Adam
Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”:

    Put on your yarmulke

    Here comes Chanukah

    So much funukah. …

I never knew what religion I was as a little girl till it was
too late; then, suddenly there I was, a full-fledged Jew. Involved in
all sorts of global conspiracies
– learning to write a check almost before I could walk; eating lox and
bagels for Sunday breakfast; matzoh ball soup on Friday night; chopped
– actually, pulverized — liver with schmaltz (chicken fat),
minced hard-boiled eggs, onions, and gribenes (cracklings) on
Saturday; never having to worry about bad breath because didn’t the
Bible — or somebody’s mother– say we were the Chosen People?

This was confusing. How could I be a Jew if I went to Vacation
Bible School
for three weeks every summer
until I was five and wore one of those buttons saying, “I am a
Lutheran”
?
How
could I be a Jew if, instead of a Chanukah Menorah, our family had a
Christmas tree that I personally decorated with strands of cranberries,
tinsel, blown-glass ornaments, white plastic reindeer, and chubby
Santas? Yet I was, and being Jewish meant I couldn’t mix meat with milk,
or eat bacon, or lobster or ham — or have Christmas. But we did
because my mother thought it was a pretty season.

Being Jewish meant I had rich relatives in Livingston, N.J., an
Italian uncle-by-marriage who made bathtub
wine with his feet, Bronx aunts whose
lives were full of tsouris — complaints — and tragedy, and
goody-goody cousins I couldn’t stand because they had freckles and red
hair like Howdy Doody. Being Jewish meant my parents were interested in
us getting “assimilated,” blending in and becoming like everyone else.
My electronics-engineer father lost God in a vacuum tube. My homemaker
mom never lit Sabbath candles for Shabbos. I never spun a
dreidel
or
collected those nifty chocolate coins called Chanukah gelt. Yes,
these were mixed messages. America: Love it or leave it, what a country,
you have the freedom here to become what you’re not. Being Jewish was
great, except I wanted to be Catholic.

“Maaaaa, what’s that word for what we are?” I came home one day from
kindergarten and asked my first generation-American mother Yetta.
“You’re Jewish, maidelah, remember,” she replied, throwing in one
of her many Yiddish nicknames for me in our bilingual household.
Jewish. No one else was, were they? We were the only Jews on our
block. Surrounded by Italians, so that’s what I wanted to be. Dark and
Mediterranean and expressive, I could “pass.” I babysat for Ricky and
Karen DeSante and read the catechism book I found laying around their
house. I became a checkout girl at the local supermarket, where I met my
best friend Mary Sestito and envied her grandfather chasing her
grandmother around their house for hanky-panky. I parked with the
devastatingly handsome dairy manager Artie Bruno, he of the battered
black Chevy Impala. I talked with my hands and learned to say “ba fa
nable
!” — “go jump into the Bay of Naples!” — and other choice
Roman oaths. No one, and I mean no one, ever mentioned “the Jews.”

For a time, I even forgot I was one. When I was 13, while I had the
measles, I read “The Song Of Bernadette” through twice, convinced, like
another “best friend” of mine, Jeanne Dunn, that I desperately wanted to
be a nun. The first Jewish nun. I even quit Sunday school right before
my confirmation — I felt I needed more information about “the
afterlife” and where, exactly, we went when we died. “With God,” the
Rabbi told us. Yeah, but was it a condo, a coop, a timeshare, or an
Airstream trailer? Me, I wanted the house number. I saw Catholicism like
unit pricing at the supermarket. There was Heaven. There was Hell. There
was Purgatory. There were mortal sins. There were venial sins. There
were the rosary and stations of the cross. There were risqué movies that
the Church condemned. There was fish on Friday. Catholicism was all
that, and more. And just think, the mother of God was a virgin, like me.

Of the three major forms of American Judaism — orthodox,
conservative and reformed — we were the most diluted. We had
“confirmation” instead of Bar Mitzvah. To me, Reformed Judaism was like
drive-by worship — dial “6″ for the rabbi, “0″ for an outside line to
God, “9″ for prayers and “1″ for Dya prefer cannolis or schnecken
at the Oneg Shabbat Sabbath service. Religion “lite” rather than
spiritual enlightenment. But the rabbi didn’t want me to quit. He WANTED
me to get confirmed, even though I was a doubter. He came to my house.
My mother was swooning in a corner chair, zonked out on tranquilizers
and antidepressants for a menopause gone awry. “How can you do this to
us,” he intoned sanctimoniously, “we’ve already engraved your name in
gold on a white leather Bible.” Really. But I was preternaturally aware.
“Rabbi, belief is such a privilege,” I said, “and I just don’t know what
I believe. I don’t want to add another hypocrite to your growing
congregation.”

When you’re Jewish, or any other minority, you quickly get used to
being the “Other.” You notice “they” have blond hair and snub noses. And
you don’t. You wonder why Bobby Silberstein, the handsomest boy in high
school, dates all the shiksas, cute non-Jewish cheerleaders. (He
went on to marry, and divorce Diana Ross.) At synagogue, or, as they
called it, temple, they prepared you for the worst: “Scratch a non-Jew,
you have an anti-Semite,” they warn, in an effort to keep you from the
excessively alluring prospect of inter-marriage — Opposites
Attract
!! — which would thereby accomplish peacefully what Hitler
had yearned for, extermination of our people.

Which brings us to The Book. In my mother’s possession was a thin
black-covered book of photographs as pornographic as anything I would
ever see in my life. These were horror photographs from the
Holocaust
– documentary evidence of atrocities suffered by Jews at the hands of
Hitler’s minions. Mountains of wedding rings. Soap made from the flesh
of the faithful. Lampshades fabricated from the skin of believers.
Stacks and stacks of bones. Yes, many of our own relatives had perished
in the death camps. My mother refused to talk about it. It was too
painful to contemplate. And then, in some misguided impulse toward
show-and-tell, I brought The Book to school, and Judy Staebler stole it
from me. As much as I wanted to be Catholic, SHE wanted to be Jewish, a
Liz Taylor for her time.

What is a Typical Jew? I for one do not know. My parents did not give
me braces or dancing lessons or send me to summer camp. They did not
give me a “Sweet 16″ party or buy me a car. They did not offer me a nose
job. Perhaps I did not want any of those things. When I went to work at
16, I bought myself a car, a nifty little two-toned Nash Metropolitan,
which I never really drove because my father hated women drivers. My
parents had a classic marriage: He was a fascist, she was a doormat. She
didn’t drive, he drove her … crazy. They put their intersecting
pathologies to work, and it worked for them. At least, until, at age 75,
the year before she died, she announced she wanted a divorce. “Ma,” I
said, “what made you wait so long? You didn’t want to do it until after
the children were dead, or what?”

No, we were not your typical Jewish family, whatever that is. Little
did any of us know that my younger brother had secretly been gay since
he was 11. Anyway, he was the one who finally put the kibosh on
Christmas. Piously coming home from Sunday School one week, like one of
those kids in Russia who ratted on their parents and got them sent to
the salt-mines in Siberia, he had to go and announce
Chanukah was better;
that way you got more presents — eight days instead of one — and he
DEMANDED we celebrate it. Somehow I don’t think that’s really what the
ancients had in mind when they created the Festival of Lights to
celebrate a miracle of the oil lamp that was never extinguished.

Last year, I walked my dog Freda, literally on her last legs, in the
unseasonably balmy December morning, tying her leash on the wrought iron
railing of my friends Anne and Arnie Arcadia’s big red brick house in
center city Philadelphia. Surprise of surprises, inside, Anne is
stirring a large steaming aluminum kettle and I can’t imagine why.

Ordinarily Anne, a marital convert to Judaism, never comes
near preparing food, except her once-a-year epic excursion into
“turkey coma,”
the gigantic Thanksgiving dinner she and Arnie throw for friends, family
and (arguably) grown-up orphans like me. That’s it for her cooking.
When Anne’s not busy working in community politics, she’s even busier as
a corporate wife. So she always orders out. We joke she’s a
princess-by-injection. But here she was with this huge pot on the stove.
And a gorgeous stud standing up on her sink painting the ceiling, like
some wannabe Michelangelo. Well, Anne says, if you think he’s
gorgeous, you should see the plumber, he will truly take your
breath away. But the plumber is late, so we will just have to imagine
him. Then she picks up this metal THING and plunks it into the steaming
kettle and stirs. And stirs. And stirs.

Soon she holds up for my inspection the most beautiful menorah I have
ever seen, a gray spray of flowers, looking like something from one of
our Czechoslovakian grandmothers. But no, Anne said, it was from Israel
and that I was privileged, she said, to see her doing ordinary household
things, a sight no one was permitted to witness particularly since she
was rumored NEVER to do anything like that. But, here, she is “cooking”
the menorah to remove years and years of embedded paraffin, which had
dulled its sheen and robbed its majesty.

I think back to those winter holidays in New Jersey as a little girl,
with our Christmas trees until my brother came running home from Sunday
School bursting with the information that we were entitled by religion
to eight nights of gifts, not one! While he always played all the
angles, I preferred a pretty story, and indeed the legend behind the
Festival of Lights was a lovely one, light out of darkness. I’m still a
sucker for miracles. I have no memories of my mother carrying out any
rituals of our religion. Lighting candles or reciting prayers, that was
left to us to learn, or not. And so, when I married, and unmarried, my
own kind of man, a musical atheist who stretched his brain with Zen
puzzles on his way to seeking artistic Satori, I thought my menorah days
were over.

Now, in Anne’s kitchen, I was in the presence of a menorah to be
reckoned with. Not those thrift-shop castoffs, those mostly tacky
tourist menorahs, brassy uninspired souvenirs from Israel, enameled with
the colors of the rainbow, or, even worse, fake verdigris. But this one
Anne had was a revelation, particularly because I didn’t even realize it
was close to Chanukah time. I’m not really an observant Jew. Though
someone else I know, this impossibly ebullient woman Joy, who’s not even
Jewish, said SHE was invited to a Latkah party. I imagined these
pummeled helpless macerated children of Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Head stacked
on plates around the table, a kind of potato wake. Something I had never
even heard of, let alone attended. WAH!!

Meanwhile, the rising cloud of steam from the kettle flushes our
faces. Cheered, I start to say something, but Anne shushes me. As we
watch, streams of tiny dark blue bubbles seem to emerge from the very
pores of the menorah. I start to say something again, but Anne shushes
me once more. And so we stand there, lapsed Jew and convert, transfixed,
peering into the battered aluminum kettle. Oblivious to the impossible
parade of muscles that seems to surround us, we give our full attention
instead to the bubbles’ joyous dance — how their watery Horah
around the menorah so suddenly sets something free, and the silvery
surface becomes translucent, finally luminous.

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