Monica Weitzman led the protest. It was December, 1952, and we were in the second grade at Eugene Field Elementary School in Chicago. Monica said the Jewish kids shouldn’t sing the Christmas carols we were beginning to sing in class; we should remain silent, she said. Singing about angels and Mary and Jesus gave her shpilkes.
Monica wasn’t just anybody. She was a brunette butterball of a girl with thick curly hair and a vampish smile. Her voice was big and throaty. When she sang with her full-throttle Sophie Tucker shimmy on the Morris B. Sachs Amateur Hour on TV she almost made it to the semi-finals. When she stopped singing the Christmas carols, everyone noticed.
I was torn. I loved singing; I loved the Christmas carols. But I also loved Monica. When I confided to my mother she advised me to sing inside.
“That way,” she said, “you have it both ways.”
I liked Christmas. I liked the baby in the manger, and the Wise Men, and the presents. I really liked the idea of the presents. Hanukkah was OK, but it didn’t have a tree lit up like Riverview Park, and stockings hanging on the mantle, bulging with goodies, and the ubiquitous bell-ringing glitter of the biggest holiday of the year, as far as presents were concerned. The menorah was cool; I liked lighting the candles, but we were too poor to get gifts every night like the rich Jews were supposed to do. We barely got one. In fact we barely had furniture; the hand-me-downs we had were supplemented with orange crates as end tables and shelves. I loved the stickers of snow-capped mountains rising majestically above the endless groves of California oranges.
Daddy ran a failing live poultry store on the South Side. The place wasn’t kosher but their clientele didn’t care. The year it died we ate a lot of chicken, usually fried. When Daddy came home from work he smelled of blood and feathers and chicken shit.
“Why can’t Jews have Christmas?” I asked him.
He paused a minute, his blue-grey eyes boring into mine.
“You know Christ was a Jew, right?”
“He was not,” I said. That was ridiculous. I had seen the religious icons downstairs at the Ryan’s. They were Catholics, eight of them, in the two-bedroom apartment like ours. There were five of us and we didn’t fit very well. Maureen Ryan refused to play with me; she went to St. Jerome’s and she said I was a Christ Killer. But she secretly liked me, so she and her sister devised twisted games involving various martyrs and Christ-killers getting thrown into a pit of snakes at the bottom of the stairs leading to the basement. I was always the martyr or Christ Killer and I’d play if I had nothing better going on. They had pictures of Christ all over their apartment and he did not look Jewish to me. He looked like Flash Gordon with long blond hair. He was definitely a goy.
But I also never knew when Daddy was pulling my leg.
“That’s stupid,” I said. “He invented being Christian.”
“He was a Jew,” Daddy said. “You know the Last Supper? It was a Seder like we have over at bubbies’.”
I looked at my mother in disbelief; she nodded in agreement.
“What about Santa Claus?” I asked. “Is he Jewish.”
“Of course,” Daddy said. “His real name is Mendel. He came from Afghanistan.”
I laughed out loud. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard. Afghanistan—it sounded like baby talk. I knew he made that up.
“What’s so funny?” he asked. “You don’t think there’s Jews in Afghanistan? There’s Jews everywhere.”
“Santa Claus lives at the North Pole,” I said. “He drives a sleigh with reindeer.”
Daddy gave me a village idiot stare and shook his head slowly.
“According to who? The goys? In the first place, he doesn’t have a sleigh. He has a flying carpet. Those aren’t reindeer; they’re camels. They don’t pull anything; they’re loaded down with presents. Beasts of burden.”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
“So if Christ was Jewish, and Santa Claus was Jewish, why can’t we celebrate Christmas?”
“Do whatever the hell you want,” Daddy said. He took off his shoes and turned on the radio to listen to Jack Benny.
But I was liberated, set free to create the best Christmas I could. Like I said, we didn’t have much. But I set up an orange crate in the front hall to serve as our mantel. I put the little tin menorah on top of it. Then using Crayolas, I drew green holly leaves on brown paper and cut them out to festoon the mantle. I made stockings out of construction paper I pilfered from school in the leg of my pants and hung them from the top of the orange crate, one for each of us. I also stole a lot of penny-candy to fill them; I eventually got into trouble for that.
In the meantime, Monica’s silent protest had gathered supporters. A delegation of Jewish mothers went to the school and struck a bargain. In exchange for joining in the carols, the Jewish kids would get to sing a Hanukkah song.
It was the greatest holiday ever. I got to sing carols in the assembly at school; then we all sang “Oh, Hanukkah, O Hanukkah” and when Monica took her solo, I got to light the candles in the onstage Menorah.
On Christmas Eve Mommy roasted a chicken and covered it with paprika, turning it bright red. Boy did that make us laugh. She garnished it with parsley sprigs and served it surrounded by green olives with red pimentos and pearl onions like strings of little ornaments. I cut Jewish stars out of thick slices of raw potato, and she cooked them like French fries. It was the best meal I’d ever had.
That night I waited for Mendel to come. I think I must have stayed up all night, but I never heard him, and I was really disappointed because I wanted to see the flying carpet. But at some point I fell asleep and that’s when he must have come; when I woke up and went out into the front hall, the orange crate was full of presents.
My parents slept on a convertible sofa in the living room. Mommy was asleep with daddy draped over her like a bearskin. Daddy cracked one eye.
There I was, dancing with impatience. I held out the box.
“Can I open it?” I asked.
“What the hell do I care?” he said.
I sat down on the floor and opened the wrapping paper. Inside the box was a Lionel electric train; not much of a train, but what there was, was classy. A yellow streamliner engine, a green freight car, a bright red caboose, and enough track for a nice tight oval.
I got one of the sweet potato plants Mommy grew in pickle jars and put it in the center of the track. I took the Chinese figurines that Mommy lacquered and nestled them among the leaves, the lords and ladies of my domain. Mommy and Daddy watched me play with the train for hours until my sisters got up and opened their presents, and we got to have bagels with cream cheese and lox for breakfast.
St. Paul, 2004