When I was a kid in New York in the early fifties, I celebrated Christmas and Hanukah. Basically I thought that was a good thing (more presents), but it was also troubling in a low-grade percolating sort of way – a form of denial. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the Christmas tree, loved decorating it, loved the bulging stockings of gifts, loved the decorations in Macy’s store window, the roasting chestnuts, the cider, the tree in Rockefeller Center, hearing “White Christmas” blasting everywhere (yes, I knew it was written by a Jew before I was seven) – all of it.
Yet Christmas seemed to be my mother’s thing. She was from the more assimilated branch of the family and my father was going along for the ride – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – into the brave new world of American materialism. Religion, of course, was not the issue. My father, however, made us celebrate Hanukah, a relatively doughty event to me at that time with scant festivities, perfunctory decorations and fewer (mostly minor) presents stretched out over eight days. Sometimes it even felt like a chore – I have never been much of a chocoholic and to have to rain gratitude on some great aunt for distributing a few gold foil wrapped chocolate coins felt to my arrogant child self like an Old Country annoyance. Hanukah was also a guilt-provoking reminder that if I wanted to be a real Jew I had to learn this weird-looking language with unintelligible letters when I was sure in my seven-year old brain that French and Spanish would be more useful.
The odd thing to me now – thinking back – is that in the midst of all this we were considerably less than a decade from the liberation of Auschwitz, which had taken place during my lifetime. I was conscious of that from a child’s point of view because several nurses in my father’s office (he was a doctor) were survivors with tattoos on their arms. I knew they had been through a bad thing, but I’m not sure when I realized how bad it actually was. Maybe I still haven’t. It’s human nature to run away from confronting things like that and I think it’s no accident that Jews (from Serge Gainsbourg in Paris to Allen Ginsburg in New Jersey) were at the forefront of the experiments in human freedom that broke out only a few years later with the Beat Generation and went on in different ways for decades. (Ginsburg’s “Howl” was published in 1956, barely a decade beyond the camps.) For the second half of the Twentieth Century, everything played at warp speed. Given the pace of events, it’s probably no accident that Abbie Hoffman ended up the way he did.
Sorry to have gone off on this depressing tilt in the holiday season, but it clearly has something to do with my mood, which I am trying to lift. It’s eighty degrees today in Los Angeles and I have no right to be sour. I have a seven-year old daughter who, like her father before her, gets to celebrate Christmas and Hanukah. Madeleine, my sons Raphael and Jesse and, of course, my wife Sheryl are the joys of my life. I am very lucky in my immediate family and also my extended family, my sisters and brother-in-laws, niece and nephews and my mother, who remembers better than any of us those dark days of the 1930s and 1940s. Those of us who live in America don’t know how lucky we are. Season’s Greetings to all!
UPDATE: Tammy says we all have reason to be happy this year.