It was the night before Thanksgiving 2015, and I was taking my then seven-year-old son ice skating for the first time at a small outdoor rink on the edge of Colonial Williamsburg. We had been in Virginia for about a week as part of a year-long sabbatical road trip I was taking with him and my wife, and this was our last night visiting the restored 18th-century city.
I held Judah’s hand as we tottered around the ice. I hadn’t been on skates for some 30 years, and I was worried not only about falling but also about the consequences of focusing 175 pounds on the narrow steel blades of my skates. Since my early 40s, I’ve suffered from a pain in the ball of my foot caused by a necrotic sesamoid bone that requires me to wear the sort of orthotics that don’t fit into ice skates. Even if I didn’t slam down on the ice and break a leg or hip, I thought, I’d pay for this extravagance in the morning. But that’s what it meant to be a dad, at 51, of a young boy. The result of that night on the ice, however, was not sore feet, but a different sort of ache, a feeling of loss, a yearning for something I thought I had happily left behind a decade ago on the same trip that killed my sesamoid bone—the joys of Christmas.
I am a child of Jewish parents, both Holocaust survivors, but I was raised Lutheran. That year on the ice marked the 10th since I had begun not only admitting publicly to “being of Jewish descent” but also identifying culturally and living religiously as a Jew. A decade earlier, I had travelled to Israel ostensibly researching a spiritual novel set in the early years of the Christian church, shortly after the death of Jesus. I left Chicago a lapsed Protestant seeking inspiration in the footsteps of Jesus—perhaps a bit too literally, because during that month in the Holy Land I wore sandals exclusively, and that primitive footwear delivered the death blow to my dying sesamoid bone. I came back with a pain in the ball of my foot and a thirst to learn everything I could about the religion my parents had surrendered. It was a change as unexpected and life-altering as the one that occurred when I first learned of my Jewish identity.
Around the time I was confirmed as a Lutheran, my father granted me a kind of private bar mitzvah. He sat down with me one morning at the kitchen table and informed me that he and my mother had been born and raised as Jews, and that Nazis—or their Hungarian counterparts, the Arrow Cross—had murdered three out of four of my grandparents as well as my only true uncle, my father’s brother.
I had always known, of course, that my parents came from Hungary. What I didn’t know was that my father’s father and my father’s older brother had been shot by the Arrow Cross and that their bodies, in all likelihood, were dumped into the Danube. I didn’t know my mother’s father had been deported to Bergen Belsen and was killed when Allied planes bombed a train in which he was being transported by the Nazis. I didn’t know my mother’s mother had gone looking for her husband, my grandfather, after his deportation and was never seen again. She was reported to have been beaten to death in the streets of Budapest by Arrow Cross hooligans. I learned all this for the first time that morning.
I also learned that both my parents survived the last few months of the war by pretending to be Christians.
They didn’t know each other at the time. It was years later, my father told me, that he and my mother met in an Austrian refugee camp after the war (they were fleeing Communists then, not Nazis), and they didn’t begin dating until a few years after that, when they emigrated, separately, to Canada. They still identified as Jews back then. But when they got married in the late 1950s, they converted to Christianity in the hopes of sparing their children and grandchildren the horrors they had experienced.
The story helped me understand my parents better. There was always so much tension in our house, and my mother and father seemed unhappy with both themselves and each other. But their tale of survival helped me see them more as enobled, tragic figures at a time in my life when I had ceased looking up to them as heroic.
It did not, however, rouse in me any great interest in Judaism. On the contrary, it confirmed my faith as a Christian. I considered myself to have been blessed by God to have not been raised Jewish. I ought to have been a Jew, I told myself, but He arranged things so that I would be raised in the knowledge of Jesus.
With the exception of a short-lived crisis of faith in college, I lived happily as a Christian for the next 27 years, which is not to say I was a happy person. I was not. I have been chronically dysthymic since early childhood. But if I was discontent with everything else about my life, if I felt a perennial sense of low self-worth, I always felt OK about being Christian. Even when I ceased to believe in a literal way, I felt Christianity had provided me with a solid and satisfying ethical and spiritual basis.
Then my father died, and a year later I went to Israel to research a novel set in the days of the early Church—and everything changed.
The whys and wherefores of what happened to me that month in Israel are subjects for another memoir. But, in short, at the age of 41, I met Orthodox Jews for the first time, learned from them that Judaism was not just about following the “letter of the law,” as I had been taught in Sunday school, but that it was a deeply spiritual faith and in many ways more suited to me than the one I had grown up in. Immediately on returning to the U.S., I began studying with a rabbi and taking my Friday-night dinners with an Orthodox couple who “adopted” me. About a month after I got back, I had a middle-aged bris at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago. A year after that, I met my wife through J-Date. We got married six months later (in Israel), put mezzuzahs on our doors, kashered our kitchen, and had our one and only boy the following year. He, unlike me, entered into the covenant, i.e., was circumcised, on his eighth day of life.
The year that I first took my son skating, my family and I commemorated the 10th anniversary of my renewed Judaism by returning to Israel for the chagim, the High Holidays, and it had been on my mind since then to take stock of what I had and had not taken on with regard to my Jewish identity. But what I realized for the first time that Thanksgiving eve with Judah in Williamsburg, Virginia, was that it had also been 10 years since I gave up something I once truly loved—not boiled shrimp and soft-shell crabs, rib-tips and cheeseburgers. I once took great pleasure in consuming those now forbidden foods, and I still miss them occasionally. But there’s not much emotion attached to, say, a good lobster bisque. Christmas, however, is a different thing.
Colonial Williamsburg, if you haven’t been, is a “living museum” in which costumed actors inhabit a restoration of what was once the capital of Revolutionary War–era Virginia. Everything is rendered as authentically as possible. The buildings are composed of bricks baked on site in a giant wood-burning kiln. The homes are lit with candles and oil lamps. The men wear britches, and the women wear corsets.
My parents had taken me there as a child, and I hadn’t been back since then. The only memory I had of the place was of a Red Coat officer standing by a horse and of my father rescuing me from an angry gander. I had apparently gotten too near the bird’s goslings, and the gander went after me, but my dad was bigger than their dad and chased him away. That’s the No. 1 rule of dads, right? Protect the kids.
Some 40-plus years later, in the Colonial city, my wife and son and I had spent the morning listening to George Washington lecture about Thanksgiving and the Constitutional Congress. In the afternoon, we watched slaves debate religion with a slaveholder. We drank spiced liquid chocolate in an 18th-century coffeehouse and joined Virginia recruits as they enlisted in the Revolutionary Army and were drilled by a young sergeant. So it seemed a little anachronistic, as night fell, to be skating around an ice rink listening to “Jingle Bell Rock.”
My wife, who doesn’t skate anymore because of a hip condition that puts to shame my necrotic sesamoid, and who was raised in Israel in the 1970s where you’d have been hard-pressed to find a jingle bell, found the disparity jarring.
“Why don’t they play 18th-century music?” she asked the ticket seller at the rink. She pointed out that, while you could see the horse-drawn carriages from where we stood, we were technically outside Colonial Williamsburg and so part of the 21st century. My son was also disturbed. “Why are they playing Christmas music?” he complained. He had not grown up as part of a majority culture, as I had, and didn’t get it.
At first, I too found the music an unwelcome contrast. But as we made our way around the rink, my son falling every few yards, me picking him up, I entered a time warp of my own, remembering not only the days when I was Judah’s age and just learning to skate but also the times when the music I now found irritating filled me with joy.
Until that moment, the first 10 years without Christmas had been surprisingly easy for me. I can remember times when I was no more aware of it being December 25 than I was aware it was Super Bowl Sunday. Perennially uninterested in spectator sports, I ignored the latter for nearly my entire life and, firmly ensconced in my Jewish identity, had comfortably disregarded the former for the past decade. So it was odd when I found myself singing along with Bobby Helms as Judah and I skated around the rink, especially since, even as a Christian, I had objected to the playing of holiday music prior to the evening of November 23.
When I was a kid growing up in White Plains, New York, in the 1970s, still unaware of my family’s Jewish history—a Lutheran kid who was heartbroken if he missed the annual televised airing of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and who loved dressing up as a shepherd for the yuletide pageant—Christmas didn’t begin until the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, when Santa brought up the rear. The smiling white-bearded fat man in red leaning forward on his rolling sleigh and waving to the crowds of parents and kids lined up on 34th Street—that was the signal for the start of the Christmas season. Even then, the holiday season was more than a month long, and that was long enough even for the jolliest of Christmas revelers. So later in life, while I was still nominally Christian, I was scandalized when stores began hauling out fake trees and tinsel on Halloween morning, and it seemed to me kind of sadistic to subject the public to two full months of “Let It Snow” and “Feliz Navidad.”
And yet, there I was that night on the border of Colonial Williamsburg, the kosher turkey not yet stuffed with challah bread crumbs and thrust into the “meat oven,” listening to “Jingle Bell Rock” and feeling kind of nostalgic. And then they started playing, “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over),” and I really began to struggle.
Jewish or not, I can’t be emotionally agnostic when I hear John Lennon’s voice ring out, “And so this is Christmas….” The words and the tune evade reason, logic, and faith, operating on paths of Christmas sentiment laid down long before I ever lit a Chanukah candle. Lennon’s tune inevitably produces in me a yearning for something I can’t quite name—not for Jesus, not even for peace, but maybe for some sort of hopefulness that transcends tragedy, the kind of naive optimism that kept the one-time Beatle believing he could end a war with a song. And the kind of optimism that kept me believing in good will toward men even after Lennon was gunned down my sophomore year in high school, 17 days before Christmas.
The song used to be a bit of a rarity. Prior to Lennon’s death, only the hippest of DJs played it. And even in the years immediately following Lennon’s murder, it didn’t usually get the kind of play it gets today. When I was a freshman in college, only about three years after Lennon was killed, I had to beg a local radio station to air the song. I had just eaten my turkey dinner at the cafeteria by myself. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home, and I longed for something that would make me feel a little less lonely, and I knew “Happy X-Mas” would do the trick. The DJ said that she wasn’t sure she could manage it, but she’d see, and I was filled with warmth and gratitude when, 20 minutes later, I heard, “And so this is Christmas.…”
Not all my memories of Lennon’s song are happy ones, but they’re all meaningful. The song was actually the catalyst for one of the worst Christmas mornings of my childhood. We were all sitting around the tree getting ready to open gifts, my mother and father, me and my two older brothers. My dad, who was in a rare mood of holiday spirit, because December was never an easy time for him, asked, “Why doesn’t someone put on some Christmas music?”
So my oldest brother, Ed, who I suppose was around 15 at the time, ran upstairs and retrieved his 45-rpm record of the Lennon song and put it on.
The moment he heard “And so this is Christmas …,” my dad said, “No, that’s not what I meant. I meant Christmas music.”
“This is Christmas music,” Ed said.
“No, I meant real Christmas music.”
“This is real Christmas music.”
To my brother and me, it was. But to my father, real Christmas music was sung by the likes of Bing Crosby and was about snow and sleigh bells, not rock music by a Beatle protesting a war that—it being the mid-’70s—really was now over. I understood how Ed felt, but I could see where this was going.
“Let’s just hear the rest of the song,” Ed said.
“No,” my father said, “turn it off.”
“Why? It’s a great song.”
Turn it off, turn it off, I thought to myself, but I didn’t say anything.
“Turn it off,” my dad repeated.
“No,” Ed said. “Let me finish the song.”
And that was that. My dad stood up, cheeks as red as any Santa’s, and called out the name of the man for whom the holiday was named: “Jesus Christ! No one listens to me! No one respects me!”
That was a recurring theme in my father’s complaints. My mother once explained to me that he expected to be treated the way his father was treated in the old country, in Budapest, as a kind of patriarch. In America, however, he was just “Dad,” and he could never get used to that.
So he stormed off to his room and slammed the door shut. Then Ed stormed off to his room and slammed the door shut. And I and my mom and my brother Steve were left sitting around the living room with all those unopened presents and a feeling of dread.
So much for war is over. So much for rocking around the Christmas tree.
Though it was my favorite holiday, Christmas was a fraught celebration at my home, mostly because of my dad. Among other things, he was terrible at exchanging gifts. You could never get the right thing for him. If you gave him a new shirt, he would complain that it wasn’t 100-percent cotton. If you gave him a razor, he’d say it was the wrong brand. My mother once bought him an expensive set of golf clubs. My father was a doctor, and she thought he might like to take up the sport. He didn’t try them once, and they became playthings for me and my brothers. He mostly left the gift-giving to my mother, but one year he took it upon himself to get us something he found impressive—table lamps that lit up when you touched the lampshade. My dad loved gadgets, but we didn’t share his enthusiasm. My brothers and I said something like “gee, thanks” and put them aside never to be activated, and my dad’s feelings were hurt.
My dad, like so many men of his generation—and like so many Holocaust survivors—was a mystery to his children, and my mother often had to interpret him for me. She told me that my father grew up poor and wasn’t used to getting and giving gifts. When I was older and knew the family history, she said it was because Christmas was still foreign to him. Both stories were probably true. Regardless, he was hard to please.
But it wasn’t all bad. One of my oldest memories is of buying my first Christmas presents for my family. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe eight or nine. I saved up my allowance and walked to the local drugstore, which was the closest shop to our house, to see what I could afford. I got three blue-ink Bic pens for my dad, the kind with the pull-off caps, and a pack of gumballs for each of my brothers. I didn’t know what to get my mom, but the kindly druggist suggested a bottle of Jergin’s hand lotion, and that’s what I got her. It meant a lot to me to buy Christmas presents for the first time, and those gifts are fixed in my memory. And that year my dad was gracious about the gift.
“These are my favorite pens,” he told me.
I don’t have any Jewish memories to compete with that because, of course, I wasn’t raised Jewish, didn’t even know I was a Jew until I was 13. But then again, I do have at least one kind of Jewish memory of Christmas in the ’70s.
It was the year after the Bic pens, and, again, I wanted something special for my mom. Our neighbors were having a garage sale, and there was this blue ceramic vase shaped like a fish that I thought was pretty cool. It only cost 50 cents, so I got it for my mom, and she kept it with our other tchotchkes for the next 40 years or so. But when I bragged to one of Ed’s friends that I had bought this vase for my mother at the garage sale, his response was, “You bought your mother a present at a garage sale? What, are you a Jew?”
I was, but I didn’t know it yet. It’s always been a bit of a mixed-up holiday for me, I guess.
The first thing I wanted to be, my parents used to tell me, was not a writer, but a reindeer. And even after I learned that my parents had been Jews and Holocaust survivors and that therefore I was in some way a Jew, it was many years before my attachment to Christmas waned. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I attended the midnight service at Trinity Lutheran Church and always looked forward to the last five minutes. That’s when the entire congregation, even kids, held aloft small white candles poked through little white cardboard squares and sang “Silent Night.” On the way home, my dad would drive us through the neighborhood about a half mile from our house where homeowners competed to erect the most elaborate displays, and none of us ever used the words “gaudy” or “tacky” or “kitschy” to describe those reindeer on the rooftops or life-size crèches or animatronic elves. We didn’t scoff at the hundreds of dollars in electrical bills. We were all, even my dad, sincerely and unironically impressed, delighted, and grateful.
In high school, my friends and I used to don Santa hats immediately after Thanksgiving dinner and, except to sleep and shower, didn’t take them off until Boxing Day. In college, I typically worked retail during what was then called Christmas break, and I loved the feeling of entering a mall festooned with garlands and strings of white lights, gigantic ornaments hanging from the ceiling, and Santa seated by the escalator beneath the food court. It was exciting to be part of the holiday frenzy, and there was a joy even in working a cash register when Vince Guaraldi’s “O Tannenbaum” lilted over the store speakers.
Then something happened to me as an adult. It was gradual, probably not taking root until my 30s, but I started to lose interest in Christmas. The cartoon and claymation specials I watched on TV every year weren’t so special anymore. I grew too self-conscious to wear my Santa hat, and the anxiety around gift-giving began to wear on me. I always spent the holiday with my parents, but in the last couple of years before my father’s death, I took a pass on the midnight service, which now seemed more like a bother than a treat.
So it seems that when I got to Israel in the fall of 2005, I was in a good place to put down the Cross and pick up the Magen David. Only a couple of months later, after my return, I bought my first menorah and gave away my ornaments with nary a pang of nostalgia. Although I did hang on to the dozen or so Christmas CDs I had collected over the years. I had a special fondness for the whole range of holiday tunes: traditional melodies like “Greensleeves”; American standards my dad would have appreciated, such as Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song”; novelty jingles like the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late”; and even the delightfully pretentious classic-rock strains of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Father Christmas.” I had a habit of buying a new Christmas CD every December, and though, after returning from Israel, I removed all those yuletide tunes from my iPod, I couldn’t quite get myself to give away the CDs themselves—a reluctance that, looking back, presaged this current crisis.
I sometimes like to remind my wife and son that many of those great Christmas songs were penned by Jews, as if perhaps that makes it OK for me to still be attached to that music. “White Christmas,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and even “The Christmas Song” were all written by members of the tribe. So what’s not to like? But I know I’m rationalizing. I know that’s not why I still take some pleasure in Christmas music. If it’s true, as some say, that one can never stop being a Jew, it’s also true that you can never quite shake off Christmas once it has worked its way into your system; it’s cultural DNA. In my case, it’s also a by-product of growing up in a traumatized Jewish household of modern-day Marranos. It’s the result of living as a Christian for four decades. And it’s a consequence of there being some really great Christmas songs.
Did I mention my boy’s name is Judah? There are lots of reasons we chose that name. One was so he would have a moniker that both his American and Israeli cousins could pronounce (as opposed to, say, Yitzchak). Another was, well, just because it was a “strong name.” That’s what lots of people used to say when we’d tell them the name we had chosen. “Judah, that’s a strong name,” they’d say. I wanted him to be strong, a lion cub.
A bigger reason, though, for me at least, was that it was based on the name Judah—that is, from the tribe of Judah—that the people once known as Hebrews and Israelites came to be called “Jews.” Unlike me, my son will always know he was a Jew. He can’t help it. The word is built into his name. His name is the foundation of the word.
And we’ve done more than give him a strong Jewish name. We have striven from the start to give him a strong Jewish identity. When he was a baby first coming home from the hospital, we helped him to reach up and touch the mezuzah on our door post before entering the house. We taped a card with a Hebrew blessing and a picture of a revered rabbi to the inside of his crib. My wife spoke Hebrew to him from birth and, when he began talking, wouldn’t respond to him if he said “mommy” instead of “imma.” We sent him to a Jewish preschool and now take him to shul every Saturday. At home in Chattanooga, he goes to a weekly Hebrew School, and on our year-long sabbatical road trip, he attended Hebrew School online. Every Friday night during our Shabbos dinner, we discuss the weekly parsha—the portion of the Bible assigned by tradition to that week. We subscribe to PJ Library (a free service that mails Jewish-themed children’s books to Jewish families), my wife reads him stories in Hebrew and teaches him Hebrew songs. We observe all the holidays (even Tu B’Shevat—“the new year for the trees”), spend summers in Israel, and keep a strictly kosher kitchen at home even if we eat only sort-of, kind-of “kosher style” when we go out.
We live a life I consider traditional—or masorti, as the Israelis say—rather than Orthodox, but we have always aspired to build a “Jewish home” and to instill in Judah a Jewish pride and a love of yiddishkeit. I never wanted to do to him what my parents did to me, which was, at 13, to pull the identity rug out from under me by explaining that, despite eight years of Sunday school and six months of confirmation class, I was, in fact, a Jew. I understand why they did that. I don’t blame them, but I didn’t want to do that to my son.
I once heard an Orthodox rabbi speak about Jewish attitudes toward Christmas. It was the Saturday morning after Christmas, and he congratulated those few of us present on showing up to shul instead of lying around on the holiday weekend. He talked about how Christmas had become a holiday that Jews took too much interest in. Some would admire the seasonal displays, some put up Christmas trees. He even took to task those Jews who marked the holiday by going out for Chinese food.
“This is how you express your Jewish identity?” he asked, “by going to a treif restaurant?”
He was scandalized that Jews would brag about such a thing on Facebook. “If you have strong attachments to things that are not Jewish,” he said, “then you are having trouble with your Judaism.”
As I made my way around the ice with Judah that night in Williamsburg, I realized that I still had some strong attachments to Christmas. Was I, a decade after embracing my suppressed religious and ethnic heritage, now having trouble with my Judaism?
As we circumnavigated the rink, Judah was delighted to be holding my hand and skating for the first time. Maybe he sensed that I was struggling to stay on my feet. Maybe he saw that I was wrestling with something else.
“You know,” he said, “you’re a really good daddy.”
As I’ve mentioned, I had a difficult childhood. Things got better as an adult, but I’ve struggled my whole life with depression, addiction, frustrated ambition, and feelings of low self-worth. But that one sentence made up for about everything that ever felt wrong in my life. And maybe that gave me more confidence in Judah’s attachment to Judaism and in the commitments I had made earlier.
Christmas may have stuck, but so had my Judaism. I knew I didn’t want any Christmas trees at our house. I knew I was OK with leaving behind Santa and baby Jesus. I didn’t have any second thoughts about my decision to embrace the religion of my ancestors even if it never produced for me any heartrending holiday music. Nonetheless, I saw then that Christmas was part of who I was and who I am and that I wanted Judah to know his dad better than I knew mine.
“Do you know who sings this song?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “who?”
“John Lennon,” I said. “One of the Beatles. I used to really love this song.”