Holiday Heebeegeebies

With every fat Santa on the streetcorner and every wreath in every window, I am reminded of how much I am an outsider living in a Christian world. I don't know why I get the holiday heebeegeebies. After all, Christmas celebrates the birth of the world's most famous Jewish carpenter. And the idea for the Christmas tree came from an old Jewish woodsman named Oscar Tannenbaum. There's even a song in his honor. "O. Tannenbaum, O. Tannenbaum." Still, as most of the people in this country rush to celebrate Christmas, I feel left out. Especially when I watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Deep in my own self-conscious paranoia, each time I watch the wonderful collaboration between Dr. Seuss--aka Theodore Geisel--and animation guru Chuck Jones, I can't help but think that I am watching How the Jew Stole Christmas. In reality, I know that is not the case. Geisel was one of the first and most vocal anti-Nazi political cartoonists in this country. But there are no Jews in Whoville. No menorahs or latkes. No dreidels or bagels or yarmulkes or tchotchkes. No torahs. No talmuds. No nudnicks. No schnorrers. No Who's been bar mitzvahed. Sure and begorrah. Each year at this time, I am reminded of what my old friend John Maroney's grandmother used to say about the Jews being responsible for killing Christ. And I remember watching my friends running around, putting up trees and ornaments and wondering why there was no Hanukkah Harry to come down the chimney and put gifts under the Hanukkah Bush. When I was a little older, I understood. Jews are understandably nervous about chimneys and fireplaces and ovens and such. Which is why, to this day, I cannot watch Hansel and Gretel. Stories about old German ladies trying to stick kids in ovens give me the creeps. When I was a kid, it used to sting when the Christian kids taunted me about "Chewanakah" or "Hanakanakanaka." My first memories of Christmas are from Brooklyn, where there were two kinds of people: Catholics and Jews. We had dinner with a Puerto Rican couple downstairs. Theresa and her husband had a big tree and many pictures of a guy with a beard named Jesus. Wow. Jesus. The name reverberated around my young brain. I remember being frightened by the tree and by the guy with the beard. They were something I had never experienced before. Over the years, my awe, along with my alienation, increased. Years of Hebrew School taught me that Hanukkah, though minor in its religious value, was a special time. A time to celebrate freedom and the strength of my people. But it also reinforced my feelings of being an outsider. Goyim wrecking the temple. Goyim killing Jews. A big old hunk named Judah Maccabeah gathering an army and standing up to the Assyrians, or whoever it was that was doing bad things to my forebearers. Judah Maccabeah was especially important to young American Jewish boys. Through a combination of pop culture and mothers like mine who didn't want their boychicks to get hurt playing football, some of us had pretty low self-esteem when it came to manly-man things like sports. (I, of all people, should have known better. My uncle, Sid Gordon, was a two-time National League All-Star. He once beat the hell out of a teammate who made anti-Jewish remarks.) I eventually learned to question religion, anyway. Especially the Bible, where people had only two pastimes. They smote and begat. When they were not smoting, they were begatting. When they were not begatting, they were smoting. Abraham, the father of my people, was ready to skewer his son. Lived to be 900 and had about a bazillion kids. His relatives threw Ishmael out of the tent and into the desert. Ishmael's relatives got even. They grew up to be Ayatollahs. The God of the Bible is a pretty picky dude. In Leviticus 22:22, he tells Moses he wants a sacrificial animal. But not just any animal. "Do not offer to the Lord the blind, the injured or the maimed, or anything with warts or festering or running sores." During the Yule season, I think about a God who does not want sacrificial animals with warts or running sores. I think about the folks shoving each other over the last Megazoid doll in the store and wonder if they have similar thoughts. The other difference I began to notice between Christmas and Hanukkah were the greeting cards. On Christmas cards, you have a bunch of Aryan-looking motherfuckers sitting around drinking eggnog. On Hanukkah cards, you have a bunch of sword-bearing Maccabeahs running around lopping off the heads of Assyrians. I know that I am not the only one to feel left out by the good folks at Hallmark. My good buddy Bill Price is black. Every year at this time, he too feels like a stranger in a strange land. Everywhere he looks, on every card and every poster, Santa is always a pasty old white guy. Jesus is always a white guy. Even Rudolph and his homeboys look like they came over on the Mayflower. "Why can't they make black Santas?" Bill complained to me many years ago. "Why can't there be stained glass with a black Jesus?""Aha," I said, seizing on the opportunity to share with a Christian my feelings of holiday loneliness. "See. See. I know how you feel, Bill. Not only is Santa always white, if you look down his pants I bet you'll find he never had a bris." Billy tried to argue that there was no comparison. But he was wrong. I have, finally, come to grips with Christmas. Well, sort of. My daughter is looking forward to having breakfast with Santa and seeing presents under the tree. She is also looking forward, but less so, to Hanukkah. But that is only because she is three and sees Santas everywhere. Images of Hanukkah are harder to find, and besides, what is more fun than a jolly fat man with a beard? It probably reminds her of her daddy. There is no religion involved in our celebration of Christmas. No proselytizing or prayer. The real concepts behind Christmas and Hanukkah--birth and freedom--are too heady for a pre-schooler to comprehend. And maybe that is as it should be. My daughter's having a blast. My son is too young to know what is going on. Neither of them are feeling weirded out. With any luck, they never will feel like outsiders. Merry Hanukkah. Happy Christmas.

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