My mother’s parents left their Judaism on “the other side” — a euphemism they used for the euphemism “old country.”
Born in Austria, my grandfather became a securities trader on the New York Curb Market, the name for a free-for-all on the street where stocks that didn’t meet official standards were bought and sold. There weren’t many Jews on the stock exchange in 1910, so he slipped easily into gentile circles, even sending my mother to a Catholic boarding school.
While my mother eventually discovered she was Jewish, she raised us with the traditions she knew. The week before Christmas, she would buy a tree to rival Rockefeller Center’s and invite friends to decorate it. Each night we’d sit by the tree, taking in the lights and anticipating the big event. Christmas morning, my five siblings and I would race downstairs to see whether Santa had been good to us. Once he brought us all child-size electric cars!
Santa’s role in my life had greatly diminished by 1981. I was 27 and living in Jerusalem, curious about the Judaism that was denied, and I wanted to introduce Hanukkah at home on Long Island. Yet when December approached, the yearning for the lights and last-minute shopping returned.
I arrived at our house in Hewlett Harbor, the windows fogged with powdery fake snow, the giant plastic snowman and magi awaiting. A brass menorah was tucked away in my suitcase. But those eight lights suddenly seemed dim in contrast. My 10-year-old brother, Abie, took me to admire the tree — tall but full, like Santa himself.
One night, I nervously, gingerly mentioned that I had brought home a menorah and would like to light the candles. My mother didn’t hear what she didn’t want to hear. Abie wasn’t interested, so I bribed him.
Each night, we would light the candles, and I would give him a present.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I placed the menorah on the windowsill.
“You’re going to set the house on fire,” my mother screamed, pointing to a curtain.
I reached into my pocket for the transliterated prayers. I’d lost them. I knew only the first line. My mother, who laughed unabashedly at others’ misfortune, broke up.
It got worse. Some nights later, after I had memorized the prayers, my mother interrupted to read aloud a Christmas card from a New York bishop (don’t ask). Finally she exploded, accusing me of killing Christmas. My mother — who talked loud, tipped big, cooked for an army and painted her lips a blinding red — basked in any opportunity to gather her brood. Christmas was just that. I didn’t want to Grinch it.
By the fifth night of Hanukkah, Abie’s interest had grown. He beat me to the menorah, chose the candles he wanted and asked to light them. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to recite the blessings.
“What happened to the prayers tonight?” my mother asked.
On the last night of Hanukkah, Abie watched the candles go down as if the ball was dropping in Times Square. He took his gift from the same place behind the curtain. We were ignorant of the Hanukkah traditions, but made our own. My mother glanced toward the windowsill and in a tone free of theatrics said, “Take your menorah upstairs, and be sure to put it away for next year.”
Epilogue: My mother died three days after Christmas, 2008. I married a Jewish man and sent my daughters to Hebrew school. We celebrate the Jewish holidays — and Christmas.
Jennifer Frey lives in Larchmont.