A Jewish Christmas

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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.

 

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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.

 

Larry Mellman
St. Paul, 2004

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A few things about Reji Thomas

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(Reji with Pam Booton who rides shotgun.)

Here’s a few things about Reji:

The first time I met her she complimented me on my glasses. “They’re old,” I said. “I’ll have to get  new ones soon.” She made a dismissive gesture and said, “what the hell for? Leave them with me. I’ll fix them. I’ll even grind new lenses.”

I figured she was blowing smoke up my ass.

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(Pam outside Reji’s studio in Austin, Texas.)

Pam, Reji’s interface with the day-to-day world, brought me to Reji’s studio which reminded me of nothing more than Laurel Canyon, LA, in the sixties. I’ve been to artists’ studios before and I’m not easily impressed.

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Reji’s studio was chock-a-block with canvases propped against the walls in layers.

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There were more higher up, stacked all the way to the mushroom ceiling. Everywhere you looked were layers of something.

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So much. Overwhelming. Whirligig colors, abstract design, pop art iconography. Amid mountains of materials, packing boxes, art,  pieces of art, and art to be, even some furniture was tucked away.

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As Reji gave me a tour of her work, things slowly came together. Focusing on one canvas, then another, and another, I began to appreciate her genius for painting, her particular artistry, craftsmanship, and vision.

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The paintings spanned decades and reflected a multitude of styles, influences, and echoes, morphing into a symbolic language of their own, expressive of Reji’s complex and often contentious personas: veteran with PTSD, etcher of over 6,000 panes of glass for the Texas state capitol, spark plug and godmother of a singular artistic community, and a black woman embroiled with soul-zapping life-sapping  bureaucracies of old white men. She is a palimpsest of her African descent, her slave past, her people’s history, her personal artistic struggle, and humanity’s conflicted present.

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But that still didn’t mean she could grind lenses.

Then I noticed a beautiful glass bowl.

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“You like that?” she asked, and conversing inaudibly but spiritedly she browsed through stacks of boxes. She unwrapped glass artifacts, goblets, pipes, sconces, angels, amulets.

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“You made those?” I asked, a bit incredulous. I lived in Venice for years and spent much time observing the glassblowers on Murano up close and personal. I have an admirer’s appreciation of the hellish complexities of that peculiar art. Reji nodded in answer to my question, as if it were nothing.

Two things struck me. First, that Reji’s glasswork is unique and personal and accomplished, and second, that she is as accomplished in glass as she is in painting.

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(Etched glass door, one of 6,000 panes Reji created for the Texas state capitol.)

I also understood that she wasn’t blowing smoke up my ass. She could grind lenses with the same finesse and dexterity with which she fashioned an angel or etched a portrait in glass.

“I’m blown away that you are so  accomplished in both painting and glasswork,” I said.

So she smiled and showed me the portrait of her mother. The glass face is set in a plinth of carved stonework.

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“I did that too,” she said, indicating the stonework.

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That’s when I got it.

Reji can and will do whatever is necessary to fulfill her artistic vision. She is an artist in the classical sense of the word, a master craftsman elevated by pure inspiration. She is not only visionary — dazzling, ennobling, joyous, and terrifying — but she is strong and stubborn enough to master what ever medium she needs to realize it.

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(P. S. I bought the bowl and Reji gave me a print for my office 🙂

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Guilty pleasures

As a 70-year-old man it is with a certain abashedness that I am forced to admit that the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly made me laugh and cry like a teenage girl. It is a lushly romantic treatment of the novel that manages to simultaneously deliver all the wit and surgical critique associated with Jane Austen. Keira Knightly is dazzling, deserving of comparison with the young Audrey Hepburn, possessed of a similar gamine charm, eyebrows, and capable of delivering a rainbow of carefully nuanced emotional states. She is alternately filled with awe, frustration, envy, disdain, self-deprecating honesty, proud humility, self-righteousness, and giddy teenage humor.

 

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The under-appreciated Matthew Macfadyen is wonderful as always (cf. The Way We Live  Now) as Darcy, the dour foil to Keira’s Elizabeth, whose slow reveal of his inner nobility is perfectly calibrated. The cast surrounding them is uniformly luxurious and brilliant (Rosamund Pike as Jane, Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet, Donald Sutherland truly touching as Mr. Bennett, Judy Dench a ferocious Lady Catherine de Bourg, even a very young Carey Mulligan as Kitty). If a teenage girl lurks anywhere in your complex psyche (as Tolstoy hid the sublime Natasha Rostova in his bearded, encyclopedic, and mystical anima), I recommend this movie because, like me, you will probably laugh and cry and have a wonderful time.

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Pride and Prejudice led me to another surprise delight, Death Comes to Pemberly, the television adaptation of P. D. James’s “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice, an early 19th-century police procedural built with Jane Austen’s characters and settings. Also beautifully cast, with Matthew Rhys (The Americans, anyone?), Anna Maxwell Martin (Bletchley Circle, Philomena, Bleak House), and Matthew Goode, it is a Masterpiece Mystery where the mystery was fairly easy to unravel (if I could do it anyone could, like, why is this character here?) but swept me along with its gorgeous settings, its sumptuous moodiness, and P.D. James’s cut to the quick dialog.

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Das Rheingold and the art of the deal.

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It all begins with theft.

Down below, the beautiful Rhinemaidens seduce ugly dwarf Alberich and then reject him with harsh ridicule. Alberich is a Nibelung, a race of dwarves who live below ground. Enraged and humiliated by the Rhinemaidens, he steals what they love most, the magic gold they guard which lights their darkness and fills them with delight.

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But the Rhinemaiden’s gold has another power. The man who can forge it into a ring gains power over all the world. In order to forge such a ring, he must first renounce love. The Rhinemaidens laugh that no man would willingly forego love. Furious and hate-filled, Alberich renounces love in order to enslave the world and everything in it. He relishes his triumph. He will reap the world’s wealth for himself and sow only pain and humiliation for everyone else. Theft transforms him from the sorriest of losers into a tyrant without limits.

Valhalla Motel, Rheingold, Act I, Bayreuth 2016.
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Up above, Wotan awakes and sees his new castle gleaming in the dawn, as grand as his ambition. To pay for it, Wotan promised Freia, the goddess of youth, to the giants Fasolt and Fafner for building it. As the giants approach, Wotan’s wife Fricka is frantic. The giants have come for her sister Freia. Even worse, only Freia can grow the golden apples that grant the gods eternal youth. Without Freia they will wither and grow old.

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The deal, engraved on Wotan’s spear, must be repudiated or renegotiated. Wotan has to find something the giants want more than Freia.

Loge, a demigod, appears with the news that Alberich has stolen the Rheingold and forged a magic ring. He immediately enslaved the Nibelungs in the mines and amassed a staggering hoard of gold.

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The gods wonder if the giants will accept the Nibelung’s hoard as payment, instead of Freia. The giants provisionally agree pending inspection of the hoard. When they leave they take Freia as collateral. The instant she leaves the sky darkens, the gods turn grey, their youth fades. Wotan has little time to steal Alberich’s gold.

Wotan and Loge descend into lightless Nibelheim. The power-drunk Alberich is no match for Loge, the wily Loge. Wotan and Loge steal Alberich’s freedom, his gold, and his ring.

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Reduced to toxic rubble by the disaster he brought upon himself, Alberich warns Wotan: “I sinned only against myself, but you, immortal god, sin against all that was, is, and shall be, if you steal my ring.”

Wotan has no choice. He can’t allow Alberich to wield the power of the ring, nor can he lose Freia and her gift of eternal youth. Wotan tears the ring from Alberich’s finger.

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Unable to escape the ruin he has brought upon himself, Alberich curses the ring: Let it bring sorrow and ruin to all who possess it until it returns to him. Let those who wear it be terrified by others’ envy. Slaves to the ring, they will long to die. “Keep it now and guard it well,” Alberich tells Wotan. “You cannot escape my curse.”

“Did you heed his fond farewell?” Loge asks his boss before reminding him that Alberich stole the gold from the Rhine maidens to whom it must return to set things right again.

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In the morning the giants return to Valhalla. At Freia’s approach the pall upon the air begins to dissipate; color drains back into the gods’ faces as their youth returns. The giants agree to accept Alberich’s hoard as ransom for Freia on condition that it be piled up in front of her until they can no longer see her. The angry gods pile gold around Freia until it runs out, complaining of the indignity.

“I can still see her hair,” the giant Fafner objects. “What’s that in your hand?”

Loge reluctantly tosses Alberich’s coveted magic helmet on the pile.

“I can still see the gleam of her eye,” Fasolt objects.

“Cover it,” Fafner orders, eying the ring on Wotan’s finger. “That will hide the gleam in her eye.”

Wotan refuses to toss the ring onto the hoard. Loge reminds the giants that it must be returned to the Rhine maidens.

“No,” Wotan says. “I won it. It’s mine.”

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The giants stand back as the gods plead with Wotan to give up the ring. Without Freia they will grow old and weak. Wotan, defiant, refuses. “I will surrender this ring to no one.”

Sudden darkness falls. A figure rises from a cleft in the earth, shrouded in a cloud of blue light.

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“Yield the ring, Wotan,” she warns, “flee the ring’s curse.”

Wotan asks who she is? She says “I am the endless, all-wise one.” She foretells the ruin of the gods if Wotan refuses to give up the ring. Wotan, awe-struck, asks her to tell him more but she refuses. “I warned you and that’s enough. Brood in care and fear.”

Stunned, Wotan throws the ring on the pile. The giants turn Freia loose and immediately fight over the hoard. Fafner murders Fasolt and drags the hoard away, ring and all.

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“The curse’s terrible power,” Wotan admits. The ring had nearly landed on his finger. As the gods prepare to cross the rainbow bridge to their splendid new castle they hear the Rhinemaidens in the valley below, lamenting the loss of their precious light. Loge shouts to them, “stop your wailing. Your gleaming gold has been eclipsed; bask in the newfound splendor of the gods, now and forever.”

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Das Rheingold ends with the gods’ entry into Valhalla, Freia in hand, their immortality regained, their fortress proud and strong. Far below, the Rhinemaidens keep mournful vigil, lamenting their loss. The music hints at another narrative, how the theft of the gold, the broken deals, the insatiable greed, and the lust for power have reached critical mass, bursting the bonds holding everything together. At the far end of the rainbow bridge everything dissolves into the primeval soup of the nothing before everything was and time starts all over again.

Alberich’s curse

Erda’s warning

Entrance of the gods into Valhalla

Rheingold preview

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Over the land bridge to Apacheria?

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“The Tartar Chinese speak the dialect of the Apaches. The Apaches bear a striking resemblance to the Tartar. About the year 1885, W.B. Horton, who had served as County Superintendent of Schools at Tucson, was appointed Post Trade at Camp Apache and went to San Francisco to purchase his stock, where he hired a Chinese cook. His kitchen adjoined his sleeping apartment, and one evening while in his room he heard in the kitchen some Indians talking. Wondering what they were doing there at that hour of the night, he opened the door and found his cook conversing with an Apache. He asked his cook where he had acquired the Indian language. The cook said: ‘He speak all same me. I Tartar Chinese; he speak same me, little different, not much.’ At Williams [AZ], in Navajo County, is another Tartar Chinaman, Gee Jim, who converses freely with the Apaches in his native language. From these facts it would seem that the Apache is of Tartar origin.”

Thomas Edwin Farish, History of Arizona, v. 7., 1915-1918, pp 12-13.

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Random images, Venice Biennale 2009

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We were warned 70 years ago.

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(The following is from “22 cells in Nuremberg” by Douglas McGlashan Kelley, the American psychiatrist who examined key Nazi leaders in 1945 to determine their suitability to stand trial for atrocities committed by the Third Reich during the Second World War.)

… As far as the leaders go, the Hitlers and the Goerings and the Goebbels and all the rest of them were not special types. Their personality patterns indicate that, while they are not socially desirable individuals, their like could very easily be found in America…

Strong, dominant, aggressive, egocentric personalities like Goering, differing from the normal chiefly in their lack of conscience, are not rare. They can be found anywhere in the U.S. — behind big desks deciding big affairs businessmen, politicians, and racketeers.

Shrewd, smooth, conscienceless speakers and writers like Goebbels, slick, big-time salesmen like Ribbentrop, and all the financial and legalistic hangers-on can be counted among the men whose faces we know by sight.

Political rabble rousers, the Streicher and Ley types, can be encountered at any political meeting; and I am sure in our armed forces we could locate smooth, political generals or colonels who would be willing to string along with a party able to assure them rapid promotion to the top.

No, the Nazi leaders were not spectacular types, not personalities such as appear only once in a century. They simply had three quite unremarkable characteristics in common — and the opportunity to seize power. These three characteristics were: overweening ambition, low ethical standards, a strongly developed nationalism which justified anything done in the name of Germandom.

Let us look about us. Have we no ultranationalists among us who would approve any policy, however evil, so long as it could be said to be of advantage to America? Have we no men so ruthlessly eager to achieve power that they would not quite willingly climb over the corpses of our minorities if by doing so they could gain totalitarian control over the rest of us.

So much for the leaders of a potential American Nazism. What of the followers? Shocking as it may seem to some of us, we as a people greatly resemble the Germans of two decades ago. We have a very similar background of ideological concepts, and we are similarly inclined to base our thinking on emotional rather than on intellectual evaluations. And no one can deny that the basic appeals that Hitler used — demanding minority persecution, demanding development of a stronger nation, demanding that veterans take over the government, demanding government control of private business — all are present in the United States today.

It is a deeply disturbing experience to return from Nuremberg to America and find the same racial prejudices that the Nazis preached being roused here in the same words that rang through the corridors of Nuremberg Jail.

… [W]e must never forget that Hitler was elected by democratic methods in a democratic system, which we ourselves helped to set up [after World War I]. He was elected in a democratic way because of the failure of German democratic forces to prevent his election, because of the fundamental apathy and lack of interest of those forces. Such apathy and disinterest is not unknown in the United States. It has been made painfully obvious in many elections that a small minority, functioning as an active unit, can and does win elections that determine the fate of an apathetic, lethargic, nonvoting majority.

“Here then lies the method for the prevention of a totalitarian state. Our primary duty is to vote and, if we are to insure ourselves against totalitarianism, we must first of all remove all voting restrictions from our citizens. It is time to make the ballot really free, to eradicate the poll tax and other restrictions on voting.

“Second, at every election every individual citizen eligible to vote must cast his ballot. The larger the vote, the more difficult it is for a machine-guided minority to control elections.”

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