Not My Birthday (A Holiday Essay)
by Rachel Maizes
Late October, my friend Janet sat across from me in a Thai restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, her fork heavy with shrimp pad thai. Her voice shook as she confessed she didn’t know how she would get through the holidays, prepare all the food, buy and wrap all the gifts. She even had to wrap the presents her husband gave her, she complained, and she described how she found him, tape on every finger, wrinkles in the paper, little tears at the corners where he had pulled too tight. Midnight mass left her numb with lack of sleep. Her family suffered a curse Christmas morning: someone inevitably fell down the stairs.
I sipped my Chardonnay, smug, content. I didn’t even know when Hanukkah was. We Jews have holidays that wander, like ourselves. I would Google it, dig out the ceramic menorah I bought at Pottery Barn a decade ago, pick up a box of candles at Whole Foods. Menorahs don’t drop needles on the carpet or get knocked over by the cat.
I took my friend’s hand. It will be all right, I said. I suppressed the urge to tell her how wonderful it is to be Jewish on Christmas.
I hadn’t always felt that way. When I was six, riding in the back seat of my mother’s Plymouth Valiant, I would lean into the front to get a better view of the lights strung across Mott Avenue, in Queens, mesmerized by the way the light broke into rays, striations across the black night sky. “Mom,” I said once. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
She turned to me, swerving across the snowy road, unmindful of dogs and shoppers who scrambled madly to get out of the way. “Beautiful? They’re hung by goyim who called us Christ killers and claimed we poisoned their wells.” I didn’t know what to make of the phrase “Christ killers” or why anyone would poison a well or what I had said to make her so angry. But I learned not to mention the lights, or the towering tree in front of Mays department store or the smaller, sweet-smelling trees laid out in front of the supermarket. I imagined taking a tree home, dragging it across the parking lot and tying it to the top of our car like other families did, but I kept my mouth shut.
Hanukkah seemed a poor substitute for Christmas. For eight nights we got socks, balled up and covered in blue and white paper. Knee socks, tube socks, anklets. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we got a handful of chocolate coins, coated with foil and stuffed in a little net. If Hanukkah was a real holiday, why was my Jewish parochial school open?
I longed to sample the pastel Christmas cookies heaped on trays at the mall, but was served fried potato pancakes with applesauce, food that left a sheen on my plate. We lit the menorah. White and blue flames ascended. Wax dripped and puddled, ruining the effect. We played dreidel for nickels and dimes. We screamed at the gyrating top until it fell, then shouted the result: “Take all! Take half! Put in!” It was Atlantic City in Queens.
It seemed like all the other kids—Irish, Italian, Polish, Protestant—celebrated Christmas. Taught by caftaned rabbis that Jews were the chosen people, my ego swelled, but I would have traded being chosen for waking up one Christmas morning to a stack of presents under a tree. When carols came on the radio, my mother violently twisted the dial. But privately, I sang about Rudolph who was rescued by his nonconforming nose. I grieved for the little drummer boy. Perhaps he had no gift to bring because he was Jewish.
More than the holiday separated me from other children. We were kosher, forbidden not only ham and shellfish, but anything made with gelatin, a collagen often derived from animal skin. Back then, before manufacturers caught on to a burgeoning kosher market, Jell-O was off limits. So were Keebler cookies (elves, it turned out, were not Jewish). I couldn’t have Oreos or anything else made by Nabisco.
Our strangeness extended beyond the kitchen. We read the wrong bible. Our Sabbath arrived a day early and mysteriously began on Friday night. We supported a country in the Middle East that wasn’t the origin of our grandparents. We had survived one of the worst genocides the world had ever seen.
Bad at sports. Cheap. Poorly endowed. That was the rap on us and for most of my childhood I feared it was true.
Not having brothers, I wouldn’t get to inspect a Jewish man until Christmas 1982. I was 19 and planned to lose my virginity. The dorms at Barnard, where I was a sophomore, were deserted. Morningside Heights had a withered look, marked by skeletal trees and frozen dog piles. I invited a Jewish friend to visit. Like me, he lacked sexual experience. We groped each other on my thinly padded, single bed, growing sweaty and frustrated, failing, between his truncated peg and my padded flesh, to achieve…anything. We gave up and went skating at Rockefeller Center. My life would eventually include well-endowed Jewish men, but at the time I thought I could see my future and it was small.
The following year, while visiting my sister in San Francisco, I attended my first Christmas party. When it came time to sing carols, I edged my way to a spot in front of the piano and hardly glanced at the mimeographed copies of the words while belting out Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful and Do You Hear What I Hear? What I really wanted was to tell the crowd: All those poisoned wells? It wasn’t me. Swear to God, it wasn’t me.
At the end of the party, the host handed us each a small gift. I don’t remember what was in the package but I’ll never forget the joy of peeling back the tape and unfolding wrapping paper dotted with mistletoe. I felt, for the first time, like a true American.
Soon after the party, I stopped keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath. I ordered Chinese spare ribs from a take-out place on Broadway in Manhattan. I plucked a rib from the little white box and tore at the ropy meat with my teeth. With the first savory bite, I learned what I had been missing. On Saturdays, I went to the movies, wrote papers and avoided the campus synagogue.
After college, I rented an apartment in Bayside with my boyfriend, Charlie. The landlord, a retired electrician, lived upstairs. He believed we were a nice Italian couple (my boyfriend’s last name ended in i and he was Italian).
One December night, Charlie knocked on the landlord’s door and asked for a book of matches. He must have said they were for candles. The man came downstairs a short time later with a bottle of Korbel.
“Happy birthday,” he said to me, grinning.
I pointed to the menorah on the kitchen table. Blue and white candles wobbled in the base.
His face collapsed, the skin sliding into loose wrinkles that gathered around his neck like a scarf. “You’re–”
“Not having a birthday.”
I pried the champagne from his hand and escorted him out.
Charlie and I stayed together for years. His family taught me to eat spaghetti with a spoon and how to pronounce mozzarella (moozarel) and manicotti (mana-got). On Christmas I joined their celebrations, recipient of reindeer sweaters and fruitcakes.
I should have been content, but I wasn’t.
Neither celebrating Christmas, nor lighting a Hanukkah menorah, the fragile connection I had kept to Judaism, satisfied a spiritual itch that grew more violent each passing year. I missed joining the rousing Hebrew chants in the temple and milling about after services as members of the congregation threw back shots of plum brandy and talked in Yiddish about suffering and dishes made with chicken fat. I had found no substitute for the tsimmes, the sweet, yam stew my mother made for the Sabbath. Encountering my share of anti-Semitism compelled me to embrace my identity.
These days if I miss a Jewish holiday I get out of sorts and sleep badly, as if my ancestors are in bed with me, praying and discussing politics. I no longer care that my holidays belong to the minority.
Although the season is hectic, for many of my Christian friends the holidays transcend pastel cookies and bicycles with bows under a tree. They wouldn’t be happy if they weren’t hosting two dozen family members for Christmas dinner or taking their seats in a glowing church at midnight.
I made potato pancakes on a recent Hanukkah and invited friends of all faiths to celebrate. One woman’s five-year-old daughter threw up on her after eating too many chocolate coins. I taught everyone how to play dreidel and handed out gifts to all the children. No one got socks.
Rachel Maizes’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Lilith and Spirituality & Health.
I’ve had many wonderful holidays, but my favorite memory is that of a few summer weeks spent in Italy when I was about 13. My mom had to go to a clinic there for treatment (nothing severe or worrisome in any way, thankfully), and we all went together as a family and took the opportunity to have a beautiful vacation as well. Why this is my favorite holiday memory is because, besides the fact that it was the first time abroad for me, it was a vacation that has broadened my perspective, taught me a lot, and helped shape a bit of who I am today.
Although we did visit many famous places in northern Italy, we stayed mostly in a little town where some friends of my parents lived. While all the renowned attractions in the country were, indeed, marvelous, nothing immersed me in the Italian culture and nothing helped me understand the locals’ Latin spirit better than my stay in this picturesque, almost magical town that many haven’t even heard of.
At 13, I was quite a shallow girl who was interested mostly in having fun with the girls – and not much else. Thanks to the holiday spent in Italy, I also discovered my passion for music, which stayed alive in me to this day and will probably stay forever. My parents’ friends had a son, Ricardo, who was a pianist. While dad had repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to make me study an instrument (and stick to it), when I heard Ricardo play, I instantly fell in love with music and felt a great desire to learn it. Ricardo taught me the first song I ever played on the piano, a silly, playful little tune that I still know by heart. Oh, and he was my first crush, too.
Another reason why I will never forget my holiday in Italy is the short trip we took to the Italian Alps at some point. I had never seen such majestic beauty before! The snow-covered peaks, the intimidating rocks, the fresh, harsh air – what an experience! And what I remember impressed me the most was the fact that, although this was a popular touristic area, the region was incredibly clean, still “natural”, with places that seemed to never have been touched by humans. Then, the shallow teen that I was learned what a real treasure nature is and how important it is to protect it.
Finally, there’s one peculiar memory from this vacation that stuck with me for reasons that I can’t say I grasp. It’s a pineapple & cheese sandwich that they sold at the clinic my mom went to for treatment. What a simple and ingenious mix of flavors – a sheer joy for the taste buds! I think it was the first time I tasted a mix of “regular food” and exotic fruit all in one, and I believe this is what triggered in me the pleasure I know have for experimenting with flavors in my cooking and coming up with unusual dishes. Looking back on it, this simple sandwich can also be a good metaphor for how you shouldn’t overcomplicate things in life – sometimes, the simplest solution and a bit of flair or courage can bring astonishing results.
My trip to Italy helped me understand more about other cultures, allowed me to find my passion (and let’s not forget about my first crush), taught me to cherish nature and do my best to protect it, and – maybe – inspired in me the courage to experiment (or, at least, it gave me the opportunity to discover that I adore pineapple & cheese sandwiches). This is why it is my favorite holiday memory.