It has come to my attention that the self-portrait I've painted here may not be entirely true to life. I realized it last week when a fellow blogger confessed, as if admitting to a puppy-killing spree or a career in telemarketing, that he is not Jewish. "You may hate me for this," he said, "but... well... I love bacon. There, I said it."
People, people, people... I am not some kind of uber-Jew. Jewish in culture and personality, yes, but my religious observance is spurred only by celebrations, funerals and rare instances of obligation or guilt. Holidays are an excuse to eat something naughty and wear something nice. My dating pool spans the breadth of the world's races and spiritual persuasions.
And I love bacon too.
I do write a lot about being Jewish, and I suppose my cultural identity is partly responsible, but mostly it's just good material. Let's face it: My people are like cartoons. The mothers, the grandmothers, the issues with food... You can't make this stuff up.
In fact -- and you may find this hard to believe in light of my Hannukah poem -- Christmas is my favorite holiday of all. There's something about the smells and the sounds and the warm fuzziness of it all that makes me feel like a small child in footie pajamas, wrapped in an oversized quilt.
Every year when I was a small child my Grandma escorted me to Santaland at Macy's department store in Manhattan. It was the pinnacle of my year. I was intoxicated by the smell of pine, the merry elves, the warm, glittering lights and ornaments and tinsel I'd never experienced at home. And candy -- there was always so much candy.
On my third Christmas -- 1978 -- we sat in the front of a mostly empty bus on our way from Queens to 34th Street. Maybe the driver liked my curls, or my wide-eyed excitement, or my Grandma (she was a real knockout back then)... Perhaps he was just having a long and lonely day. Whatever the reason, he was hell-bent on conversation.
"Are you going to visit Santa, little girl?" he asked me sweetly.
I sat silent and played with the rings on Grandma's hand.
"Have you been to the North Pole before?"
I tugged at my mittens and didn't answer.
"What are you going to ask Santa to bring you for Christmas?" He was a patient man, I'll give him that.
I stared out the window while we went on like this for a dozen blocks or so, the bus driver lobbing festive queries across the aisle and me playing deaf and dumb, until finally I leaned against my grandmother, cupped my little mitten around my mouth and whispered, "Grandma, I don't think he knows we're Jewish."
In December the following year, I came home from the small church where I attended nursery school (my Mom was the music teacher there; it made sense at the time) eager to share the story I'd learned in class that day: The Tale of Baby Cheeses. Throughout December and into the new year I recounted the miracle to anyone who would listen. Needless to say, my version was...a little off, but people seemed to find it entertaining still.
That was the year the Bensons moved into the white columned house up the street. They had one little girl the same age as me, and a boy about a year older than my baby brother. We were all fast friends. The Bensons were from Oklahoma; their traditions, canned chicken soup and charming Southern lilts opened up an exciting new world to me -- especially since I had yet to enter the public school system and shake my Forest Hills accent. When Jennifer caught sight of the menorah glowing in my kitchen it was the first time I'd heard the word "purdy." When I was greeted at the door by her cockerspaniel, Cookie, it was the first time she'd heard the word "dawg." One year my brother got antsy about his Hannukah presents and enlisted his buddy to investigate the scene: Little Stephen, slick as Bond, sauntered up to my mother and asked, "So, uh... what's Matthew getting for Jewish this year?"
Matt and I were always invited to help trim the Bensons' tree. Hour after blissful hour we lifted delicate baubles and figurines from their cardboard cradles and listened, rapt, to the sentimental history behind each one. While my family lit candles that burned in the kitchen for an hour or two, the Bensons' entire home twinkled and glowed from the moment the sun went down and long into the night. Their house smelled like eggnog, mine smelled like grease and potatoes. We had an eight-inch menorah, they had an eight-foot tree. At seven years old, where would you want to be? They had to kick me out each night when it was time to go to bed.
Since then I've developed a deeper fondness for the traditions of my own wintertime holiday. (Though it's not widely known that Hannukah is barely a blip on the radar in other countries around the world. American consumerism made a mountain out of that molehill.) But I will never shed my love for Christmas, and tomorrow morning I'll celebrate with special touches to my Sunday breakfast: a dash of cinnamon in my French toast; a dash of nutmeg in my French roast; and of course, a sweet, smoky slab of bacon to round out the meal.
Happy Holidays everyone.