We were sure we were the only Jewish family in the neighborhood until the Steinbergs moved in last year. (Their real name isn’t Steinberg, but it equally marks them as members of the Tribe. Besides, they said they used to send their children to a Hebrew day school. It doesn’t take much Jewdar to figure out that one.)
Not that my husband and I are particularly Jewish. We don’t attend services or observe the Jewish holidays. I describe myself in Incomplete Passes as a Jew-turned-atheist. Maybe Scott believes in some Higher Power, but I really don’t know if he does.
So now we have the Steinbergs, right across the street. We met them at a holiday party and realized we had Jewish neighbors. We assume they realized the same. Hebrew day school … ooh, they must be observant. What would they say when we put up our Christmas lights?
About those lights … Scott and I were married for almost thirty years before we ever put up outdoor lights at Christmastime. We had a Christmas tree—or Hanukkah bush if you insist—because I had one growing up. “The lights on the Christmas tree derive from the Hanukkah lights,” my father told me. I guess that’s how he rationalized having a tree.
As I grow old, I am putting less credence in a lot of things my father told me. But I loved having a sparkling, fragrant tree in the house. My folks dressed it with the original Noma bubble lights—the loveliest Christmas decorations ever. And they put it in the window where passers-by could see it and not mark us as outsiders. As an adult, I followed their example.
Scott’s mom put up mistletoe, holly, everything but a tree. He doesn’t see the need for a tree, so he pretty much ignores mine. He’ll help me set it straight in the stand, but he won’t hang ornaments. And no one in the family ever, ever put up outdoor lights until …
We moved to our present neighborhood in 1998. The neighbors were friendly, handsome, successful—and “goyish.” They invited us to parties in their large, lavishly decorated homes. We came in from one of those parties and Scott said, “We’ve got to get some lights. Now that we live here, we have to have Christmas lights.”
I thought we could fit in just fine without lights, but I had my tree. If Scott thought we needed lights, why not have them? And so there were lights. His lights, of course.
Now I was worried about the Steinbergs’ reaction. But as I drove past their house a few days after the party, I was sure I could see a telltale glow coming from inside. It seemed too large for a Menorah. Did the Steinbergs have a tree?
After all his insistence on Christmas lights, Scott’s been backing off these past few years. He’s in his sixties, he has some arthritis, and it’s been getting harder for him to climb up on a ladder and hang those lights. “I don’t think I can do lights this year,” he finally confessed.
“You are an alter kaker,” I declared. “Alter kakers don’t need to put up Christmas lights.” For the uninitiated, alter kaker means “old geezer” in Yiddish. (It’s not usually said with the same tone or feeling as “revered grandfather.”)
But the alter kaker couldn’t get along with no lights at all. Here’s what he came up with as a substitute. The whole thing is made out of foil. He put it up in a few minutes, and he seems very happy with it. I’m not sure it makes the statement he’s seeking. But at least it makes a statement.
By the way, I looked over at the Steinbergs’ house and spotted a neat, green wreath on their front door. No lights, but I think there’s a tree in there again this year.
But you know, and I know, I shouldn’t be concerned about how the Steinbergs celebrate, or what they and the other neighbors might think about how I celebrate. I am grateful to live in America, where people have a constitutional right to celebrate and worship as they please. And for most of us—even in the face of last week’s tragedies—December is a time of lights, laughter, and love. It’s a time to come together and care about each other instead of frowning at someone’s holiday practices.
At the same time, it’s kind of nice to know there’s someone in the neighborhood who’s sort of like me.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa—or none of the above—I wish you the very happiest of holidays.