I HAVE A Hanukkah bush. My husband, The Prince, has a Christmas tree. They sit in a corner of the dining room and you’re forgiven if you see only one. Or the other. It’s a single tree—we just see it differently.
A star as a tree-topper would be going too far for me so the compromise is a sparkly red jester with gilded boots, as in, Surely you jest, you granddaughter of orthodox Jews.
My parents always had a tree, though this would have been anathema to my father’s folks. My grandmother was a balabusta—Yiddish for a helluva homemaker— who passed her face to my father who passed that face to me, with only minor alterations. My grandfather, a short, slim, energetic man with a tidy mustache, had a furniture store on Madison Avenue in New York and bought and sold antiques and real estate.
There’s a small photo of them on my living room bookcase, in front of the Nora Ephron section. They’re sprawled about in what I assume is Central Park. Grandma is draped in a kimono, surrounded by six of their seven children. The last, my father, was just a large bulge under her robe. Grandpa, the only one standing, is in the background, so proud. This would have been around 1910.
My mother, a Catholic, converted when she married my dad, a rather intense, year-long process, from which she emerged with fluid Hebrew prayers, and perfect latkes and matzoh balls.
Dad rejected the orthodoxy of his family, though for years there was no bacon or lobster in the house, though he was happy to indulge his taste for tref* in restaurants. That ended when my mother said: “Jerome, if you can eat it out you can eat it in.” We were cultural Jews, only descending on the shul for the high holy days, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. But we could never have dairy with meat except for creamed spinach, which didn’t count, and—I don’t know why—butter, which also somehow didn’t count. Is ANY of that part of the point of this story?
Anyway, we always had a tree. Growing up Jewish, surrounded by Christmas, is tough. All the lights, the parties, the eggnog, the presents. The glitz. Many parents did (and do) their best to inflate the rather minor holiday of Hanukkah—the decorations, the gifts—brought to competition level with the Christians. I’ve been wracking my brains for the name of the guy I once knew, from Texas he was, Dallas, I’m pretty sure. His folks had a six-foot menorah next to the grand piano in the living room. Must have been Dallas.
Not for us. Dad was a furniture designer, an interior designer, a man who surrounded himself with beauty, luxury and glamour, but always tasteful. When I was a kid, the living room was all sleek lines, brown silk, and white leather chairs flanking the fireplace. No six-foot menorahs for us, though we did have a champagne-pale oak baby grand in the bay window, framed by a swoosh of heavy curtains.
Meanwhile, Dad was an overstuffed little Jewish boy with his nose pressed to the holiday windows at Saks, wanting to share the . . . glitz.
So, when he married my mother, up went a tree, a fabulous tree. I’m doing it for her, he’d offer as an excuse. She, who you’ll recall from several paragraphs back, had converted to be with him and was perfectly happy lighting the menorah candles and reciting the prayers she’d studied so hard.
Just as he put up a tree for her, I put one up along with the menorah, in memory of them, and for my own goy toy, and Baby and her little family when they visit. If I feel a twinge of guilt, I put on these holographic glasses friends gave us that turn every light on the tree into a Star of David. It’s miraculous—a festival of lights, one might say.
Happy holidays, whatever you are. May you have peace and health in the new year—what more could any of us want?
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” always has greenery about, the holidays or not.
*Tref (pronounced TRAYF): foods that were banned at some time in history, generally for health reasons, but have become enshrined in Jewish (and Muslim) dogma as taboo. Which, of course, makes them more delicious to contemplate. Like you know, crab cakes.