Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sad Advent

Pausing on Pearl Harbor Day
to acknowledge not only the War Dead but also the reality
that Advent is not all fun and games for everybody.

These sobering anecdotes from my friend Len always haunt me. He lends a touch of humor but also a sense of sadness for his aunts and the anxiety that they should not have had to carry in their hearts. At this time of year, I worry about the so - called arc of justice, fearing mightily that it might never bend as far as we had hoped.
Every year during this season I recall the briefings we children were given by the older relatives on how to interact with the world so we would not inadvertently encourage pogroms. My Aunt Dottie explained that Santa Claus (pronounced "Senta Kloze") was the same as Jesus; we rehearsed giving a hearty greeting to any apparent non-Jews we passed ("Happy Kratzmus!"). She was the family comparative theologian.

When I was a child in New York City, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was one of ever-increasing anxiety. Our most knowledgeable family experts on the subject, my great-aunt Dottie and great-uncle Irving, used every opportunity to explain the dangers and reinforce the rules we needed to follow to avoid inadvertently sparking a pogrom. Even if we followed the rules, someone else might set off a spark. It was always advisable to have a valid passport, a packed suitcase, and cash stashed in small accounts in savings banks near train stations and ports. If we were in their house when this was said, Uncle Irving would bring out their two small suitcases and passports as ocular proof they followed their own advice. When my two oldest great-aunts died, sisters who had never married and who lived most of their lives in an apartment in Brooklyn, they were found to have over a hundred savings accounts scattered through all of the five boroughs.

The rules came annually but in random order, depending on the moment and what teaching opportunity presented itself during this perilous season. The most important rule: don’t ask any questions about the details and characters or you will be spotted by someone who will take your name and you will be blacklisted. You students: if forced to sing holiday songs or make holiday art projects, follow the instructions (do not ask questions about the characters or stories, remember; the teachers get bonuses for reporting suspicious children to the authorities). Be sure to destroy the art projects secretly away from your home. Don’t make eye contact with people ringing bells at store entrances, especially if they are wearing uniforms. If you see three nuns walking towards you on the sidewalk, cross the street, turning around in the opposite direction if necessary; don’t run. When you see crowds of non-Jews all dressed up on Sundays during this month, try to avoid getting close enough to have them notice you; don’t run away. If it can’t be avoided, you can blend in by shouting. “Murray Kratzmus!” Aunt Dottie would lead us in rehearsing the best way to deliver the shibboleth, in her best attempt at non-Yiddish pronunciation. The entire room of listeners, all ages and varieties of relatives, would cheerlessly practice repeating, “Murray Kratzmus!”

All during this period, when there were only five television channels, we were exposed endlessly to broadcasts of the inexplicable seasonal movies and holiday specials. What a relief it was to safely survive that perilous time, to celebrate our returning to normal, low-level worry, with the Family Dinner at the Palace of Wong.

On March 15 2017 Len writes: Another too-timely memory from March 2016 (during the primaries!):
I needed to renew my passport (coincidental timing; its expiration was set ten years ago, so not Trump related). This process reminded me of my older relatives and their worries. Some of them always carried their passports ("just in case," they said). Some of them had gotten into the habit of having many savings accounts so that cash and documents would be available if needed (the winners in this category, as far as I know, were my ancient aunts Gertie and Rose, who lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and had over one hundred savings accounts spread across all of the boroughs). My parents were baffled by anyone choosing to travel to Europe. When I returned from my first summer in Europe (two months in Paris and London) my father said he it was incredibly brave of me to travel by myself there. He associated Europe with the notion of fleeing.

After reading of memories so bittersweet, it seems that only the saddest holiday music is appropriate, compositions of longing for lost innocence, childhood belief, and a certain touching faith in the permanence of life as we know it:

Bert Kaempfert's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" & "Children's Christmas Dream" from one of my dad's favorite albums Christmas Wonderland

Henri Mancini's "Carol for Another Christmas"

Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas"


Cultural historian Stephen Nissenbaum (b 1941) offers a surprisingly optimistic view in his lively analysis of America's excessive, obsessive mid -winter holiday:
"Actually, though, it is clear that the book began earlier still, with my childhood fascination for "The Night Before Christmas," whose verses I recited over and over when December came around. For me, growing up as I did in an Orthodox Jewish household, this was surely part of my fascination for Christmas itself, that magical season which was always beckoning, at school and in the streets only to be withheld each year by the forces of religion and family. (I once decided that Christmas must mean even more to America''s Jewish children than to its Christian ones.) I can remember, one Christmas Day, putting some of my own toys in a sack and attempting to distribute the to other children who lived in my Jersey City apartment house: If I couldn't get presents, at least no one stopped me from giving them away, and in that fashion at least I could participate in the joy of what, much later, I would come to think of as the 'gift exchange' " (from The Battle for Christmas, ix).
Fresh things for the season:
pineapple and pomegranates from the store;
pumpkins and rosemary from our garden!
[Calendar above by Liz Underhill]

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