Saturday, December 18, 2010

fragments on christmas and not being religious

My dad was a bad Jew.

He harbored a fantasy of roasting a suckling pig in our back yard up in Lake Mohegan.  In a pit, of course.  On a spit.  With an apple tucked jauntily in its mouth.  Skin crackling and dripping fat.  Smell wafting mouthwateringly over the neighboring yards and down the street towards the lake and over towards the tiny neighborhood shul and across the water to the larger synagogue.

He loved barbecue too much to ever contemplate a life of keeping kosher. (The stories he would tell from his two weeks of criscrossing the south with one of his best friends in search of all the best barbecue pits left us all with mouths watering.)

Though Jewish by blood (being born to a non-practicing Jewish mother), he was Methodist by background and atheist by choice.  My brother and I, though not Jewish by blood (our Jewish heritage being paternal rather than maternal), were in some ways more Jewish by tradition than our father.

He used to joke that his children, by dint of growing up in Westchester County, knew more about Judaism than his mother, part of whose family had fled to Israel after another part had died in the Holocaust. Or so I understand the family history.

I absorbed fragments of Judaism while being a Shabbos goy of sorts for friends down the block and partaking in their Shabbos rituals.  I sometimes envied them these religious rituals in the face of having none of my own.

My brother, one Christmas morning sometime in the early '80s, turned to the rest of us and lisped in a voice clotted with the sticky goodness of chocolate-covered marshmallow Santas, "Isn't this supposed to be somebody's birthday?"

My father pulled out the Bible and read us the Nativity story right then and there, all of us gathered in the gray winter light and the warming glow of the Christmas tree.  He was always of the opinion that it is good to know the stories of one's enemies, or, less provocatively, the stories behind the rituals in which we sometimes so blindly partake.

He explained that the Christians had borrowed older, deeply ingrained traditions surrounding the winter solstice in order to convert the pagans, and that this was why Christmas is when it is, and that though not necessarily true, it was a good story and worth knowing.

One of my most vivid memories of Christmas is the time our cat, Star, toppled our eight-foot-tall Christmas tree, clinging to the branches and howling as the whole thing came crashing down.  After that the trees were firmly anchored to the living room walls with fishing line and bolts.

Also the yearly Christmas tree expedition with the Crows, two cars forming a caravan stuffed to the gills with thermoses of hot chocolate and tins of our mothers' cookies and overly sugared children and hacksaws and huge freshly-felled trees overhanging the edges of our station wagons.

My dad was a bad Jew who loved Christmas and taught his children to love good stories and imagined roasting suckling pigs to antagonize the neighbors because he loved good barbecue more than most anything and hated the notion of tref.  And the notion of judging things or people as being unclean. And was prone sometimes to overly self-righteous prickliness and/or contrariness, much like his daughter.

My dad was a bad Jew who ate (though never roasted) suckling pig and I am a woman who is sometimes quick to judge people by the verses they quote in public ("You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination") instead of the way they may speak to the people they hold dear ("You are loved, by me, in all the myriad ways that you are...").

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