In Richfield, New York, where I grew up in the 1950s, Jewish kids had a hard time of it at Christmas. In my family, the Seidensteins, my sister and I had to endure the remorseless barrage of Christmas music that played over department store intercoms and radio stations; the Christmas carols in praise of “The Little Lord Jesus” that we were instructed to sing in music class; as well as the endless questions from our non-Jewish friends regarding what we wanted for Christmas: was it the Remco Bulldog Tank, or—in my sister’s case—the recently-marketed “Barbie Doll”? That pallid alternative known as Chanukkah barely registered in the minds of our small town’s mostly Polish and Italian denizens, many of whom regarded Jews as creatures quite likely bearing cloven hooves—or, at best, as exotic interlopers to be tolerated with a sort of patronizing annoyance. My parents tried hard to make Chanukkah appealing to my sister and me, but even eight days of gifts and the bright, nightly flickering of holiday candles could hardly compete with Santa Claus, mistletoe, and visions of sugar plums. And then, there was that small, pricking emptiness that came from the knowledge that a Jewish child at Christmas was always to remain outside the Great Toy Store of holiday joy—viewing the bounty only through the cold glass of one’s Jewishness.
My mother had been raised in a vehemently secular Jewish home and had little investment in our faith’s theology. For her, Judaism was a kind of social network of ethnic cooks and public-spirited liberals, occasionally to be found raising money for the recently-born State of Israel. My father, on the other hand, was raised in a strictly Orthodox family, with several illustrious rabbis among our Eastern European forbears--most of whom had been sent to the ovens by “Mr. Hitler” as my father would refer to him, curling his lip in a kind of lupine snarl. Although my father never forced his children into the trappings of Orthodox Judaism, he himself kept up the required rituals of our faith. I would sometimes see him alone in his study, wrapped in his prayer shawl and tefillin (phylacteries), swaying and chanting in the ancient movements known as davening. He did not insist that we “keep kosher” in our household, but would never partake of pork or non-kosher meats.
Christmas in Richfield, New York always meant a blizzard of decorations. Our main street would be decked out in sprigs of ersatz evergreen, strung with red, green and blue Christmas lights. Store windows bore the requisite images of Santa and his reindeer; Frosty the Snowman; or--among the more devout--pictures of the baby Jesus in his crèche. The local stores sold stenciling kits that contained small sponges and washable, red and green paints, allowing children to decorate the widows of their homes with nativity scenes, prancing elves, and praying angels. When I was seven, I borrowed such a kit from one of my many Christian friends. Then, one Saturday morning in early December—unbeknownst to my parents--my sister and I covered our living room window with the forbidden images. Upon our return from sledding a few hours later, we discovered that all our lovingly-applied angels and elves had been completely expunged.
“What were you kids thinking?” my mother exclaimed. “Your father would have had a fit, and on Shabbas no less! It’s a good thing I got to that window in time!” I remember feeling my face fill with blood, and seeing the look of helpless incomprehension on my sister’s five-year-old face. I suppose it was then that the first inklings of revenge whispered to me, though another five years would pass before I worked up the chutzpah to take on my father.
Looking back on those years before my father died of colon cancer, I can see that Christmas was hardly the only issue between him and me. Morris Seidenstein was a businessman by profession—he ran a large, retail clothing outlet in our little town—but by temperament, my father was a rabbinical scholar. He had virtually memorized the only tractate of the Talmud—known as Pirke Avot-- devoted solely to ethics, and he could quote the ancient rabbis almost verbatim. As children, my sister and I were often regaled with these Talmudic teachings over the dinner table—usually in the form of a question.
“So, who can tell me what Shammai said about Torah study? Joel? Rebecca? Children, please, we have been over this before—surely, one of you must remember!”
My sister was more amenable than I to my father’s dinner-table inquisitions—the sort of pedagogy that medical students and interns refer to as “pimping”.
“I remember, Daddy!” Rebecca would exclaim proudly. “Shammai said, ‘Make your Torah study a fixed duty, say little and do much, and greet all people…umm…greet all people…’”
“...with a cheerful countenance. Excellent, Rivkah, excellent!” my father would chime in, using my sister’s Hebrew name and affectionately mussing her curly blond hair.
I would play along with my father’s ritual when I felt it was in my prudential interest; but often, I replied to his questions with a sullen, “I don’t know.” This pitiful rebellion usually provoked a brief lecture regarding the yetzer hara—the “Evil Impulse”—and the passage in Leviticus 19:3 that states, “Let each of you revere his mother and father.”
As I approached my twelfth birthday, my father naturally raised the matter of preparing me for my Bar Mitzvah —literally, “Son of the Commandment”, and something a Jewish boy becomes at age thirteen, rather than “has.” This preparation would require several meetings with our rabbi to plan for the event itself, and the onerous process of learning a portion of the Torah to recite before the congregation—not to mention, writing a speech! I had little if any interest in Judaism, and still less in the whole travail of Bar Mitzvah preparation. At the first meeting with our rabbi, I sat silently while my father and Rabbi Levin exchanged solemn nods and grave understandings, regarding “what Joel will need to do.” After an hour, I rose from my chair, announced that I had homework to do, and walked the sixteen blocks from the synagogue back to our house. Two months of “restricted activities” followed by way of punishment, during which I was not permitted to see my friends or to watch my favorite TV show--a brand-new science fiction series called “The Twilight Zone.”
Now, the Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar, and every 19 years, Christmas happens to fall on the first night of Chanukah. This was the case in 1959, the year before I would become “Bar Mitzvah”. For reasons that were quite opaque to me, this rare intersection triggered in my twelve year-old heart feelings of barely suppressible rage. My father would have said that I was giving in to my yetzer hara. All I knew at the time is that I would find a way to pay my father back for his years of “pimping”-- and for his high-minded commitment to the tiresome ethics of the Talmud.
I decided that even Rebecca would not be in on the plot—a maneuver which, in today’s politics, might be termed giving my little sister “plausible deniability.” On the day before Christmas, I walked five blocks over to Cappiolla’s Christmas Tree Stand and looked for the largest, bushiest wreath I could find. I settled on one with a tag that read “The legendary Whitman Original Christmas Wreath is a favorite choice for the holidays. Crafted on a base of fresh Maine balsam, this gorgeous wreath is meticulously finished with white reindeer moss, red berries, Austrian pine cones and a weatherproof red velvet bow.”
I was surprised by the weight and heft of the thing—not to mention that, at a cost of over $4, it would blow nearly my entire month’s allowance. As I shelled out the money, Old Man Cappiolla gave me a suspicious look, allowing his cigarette to droop slightly as his jaw slackened. Since our family was well-known in Richfield, Mr. Cappiolla almost certainly knew that I was not “of the faith”, and I suppose he correctly sensed that my motives were far from benign. As he placed the wreath in a large plastic bag, Cappiolla emitted a derisive snort, and I felt my face flush. When I got home, I immediately hid the wreath under some old chairs in our garage.
The next day—Christmas day--was the beginning of the Jewish festival of rededication. On the mantelpiece in our living room, the big, gold menorah that had been in our family for generations sat ready for the first night’s ritual. The candles were arranged as prescribed by ancient tradition: one candle fixed in the far-right cup of the nine-branched candelabrum, with the shammus—the “servant” candle—positioned in the central branch.
As my father, mother, sister and I finished the traditional Chanukkah meal of potato latkes, the phone rang--as I suspected it would. Our neighbors directly across the street—the Feingolds—never failed to notice the slightest change in our front yard, whether an untrimmed hedge, a patch of crabgrass, or a newspaper we had neglected to retrieve. Herb Feingold was now speaking to my father in a voice so loud, the rest of us could hear it from ten feet away.
“What?” my father said sharply. “Herb, what are you talking about? A what is on our door?” My father rolled his eyes at us, placed his index finger near his temple, and made a swirling motion, as if to say, “Feingold is completely mishugah—out of his mind!”
But the barking from the receiver persisted. “Herb, how on earth could a wreath—a Christmas wreath? OK, OK, I’ll check! Thanks for the call. Yeah, you, too--have a happy holiday.”
My father looked at us sheepishly, and shrugged his shoulders. “Feingold is probably drinking again. I’ll be right back.” My mother and sister looked at me in perplexed silence, while I felt a kind of exhilarated terror tingle through my arms and legs. Yes: this would be a Chanukkah unlike any other the Seidensteins would ever have!
We heard the front door open with a creak. A pause of perhaps a minute followed, after which we heard the front door slam shut. My father returned to the kitchen, extending the Whitman Original Christmas Wreath before him like some decaying carcass. The blanched skin of his face was pulled taut around his cheekbones, like an over-tightened drum head.
“Who?” my father said, in a voice that seemed to come from some other-worldly cavern. “Who?”
Receiving only his family’s frozen silence, my father looked at my face and knew in an instant of my desecration. His mouth drew down like the mask on the marquee at the Richfield Town Theater. In what seemed like an hour to me, I watched my father struggle with the muscles of his face, still holding the wreath in front of us. I pictured him sitting at the dinner table, pimping my sister and me with yet another question from the Talmud: “Joel, Rebecca: what does Ben Zoma teach us about anger, in Chapter 4 of Pirke Avot? Joel, surely you remember! Ben Zoma says, ‘Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions…’”
Without saying a word, my father walked into the living room, still holding the wreath. He stood before the mantelpiece, in front of the menorah that had been handed down to us from the great rabbis and Chassidic scholars of Poland and Lithuania, long dead or recently gassed. My father picked up the shammas—the servant candle—and lit it with a long wooden match. Tossing the wreath into the fireplace, my father then knelt down and held the candle beneath the wreath until the red, velvet bow burst into flame. It would take another few minutes for the branches of fresh balsam to catch fire. In the thin light of our fireplace, I thought I saw my father smiling—but when he raised his head, I could see that he was only baring his teeth.