Monthly Archives: December 2013

Letter from Santa

Santa hat

Lena wanted me to send this photo to Santa to let him know that she received his letter and was honored to fulfill his request. Also, she would be happy to help him again in the future.

Below you will find Santa′s letter, which Lena discovered on a box in her room when we returned from a couple of days away. Clearly, access to a computer has unleashed Santa′s natural verbosity. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Christmas Day 2013
42.6525° N, 73.7572° W

Dear Lena,

I know that, due to your rather strange upbringing, you do not believe in me. I’m not offended or anything—I mean, it’s not your fault—but it does create a small problem regarding gift delivery: Since I do not exist, I can’t very well go around distributing toys to you and your brothers, can I?

Fortunately, you can. In fact, you seem like the perfect person for the job. No one at your house loves to give presents as much as you. Drawings, paintings, bracelets, baked goods. Even a rhyming dictionary! (I know because I see you when you’re sleeping, I know when you’re awake. Etc.) You give and you give and you don’t seem to expect any return. We have a lot in common.

Could you please get these presents to your brothers? You don’t have to go down any chimneys, but it would be nice if you’d wear this hat and boots to make it official. The jump rope’s for you, too. I find that for a hard physical job like gift delivering, it helps to stay in shape. (I know what you are thinking, but as far as you know, my belly doesn’t exist either, does it?)

Santa signature

Rites of Passage

Noah baby

A little over thirteen years ago, my first child was born. We named him Noah Cohen-Greenberg, which maybe could have sounded more Jewish if we’d tried harder (middle name “Moses”?), but maybe not.

Shortly thereafter, he was circumcised in the hospital by a sardonic Korean obstetrician. If you are Jewish, you may have already read the subtext of that sentence: Noah wasn’t circumcised in a bris, a religious ceremony characterized by assembled witnesses wincing, a defenseless newborn wailing, and bagels.

My husband and I were Jewish by upbringing and heritage. We were also nonbelievers who had never exactly said “no” to religion. Although we had more or less cut God out of our Jewish wedding, we hadn’t been brave enough to cut the “Jewish” out. But from the safety of Albany Medical Center, after a quick conversation with Dr. Lee, we circumvented the ritual circumcision. No bris, no matter the repercussions.

To wit: Adam’s father, a self-described “traditional Jew,” was furious, and refused to touch Noah for the first eight days of his life. I think that’s because the bris is supposed occur on the eighth day, but, in any case, it was horrible. I should still resent him for that. But I can’t. My father-in-law’s childlike dependence on rules is heart-breaking. Also heart-breaking: his self-defeating attempts to control his grown children’s religious life; and his inability to discuss his beliefs using reason, reflection, or a socially acceptable decibel level.

So I felt sorry for him. And I could tell—after those eight days elapsed—how much he loved his new grandson. More to the point: I’m a get-along kind of girl, especially with male authority figures. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. So we got along. Went to holidays up at the in-laws’, bearing challahs or Passover desserts—contributing food where we could not contribute religious feeling. We side-stepped questions about Jewish education for the kids. On High Holidays, we didn’t go to synagogue, but we didn’t flaunt it: in fact, we hid the fact that we were working when we “should” have been praying; and we told our children not to mention their Yom Kippur play dates when Grandpa inquired about their day.

Steadily approaching all that time was the magic number: thirteen. Would Noah want to have a bar mitzvah when he came of age? Despite the fact that we’d been raising our children as atheists, it wasn’t out of the question. Although Noah is not a believer, he is a belonger. When Grandpa suggested Noah take Hebrew lessons up at their house—a kindly Jewish educator did the tutoring—Noah said, “sure,” and even made sure to wear a yarmulke. When aunts and uncles and family friends asked about his expected upcoming bar mitzvah, he played along. I started to worry. I had been bat mitzvah myself. And I have good memories of the whole process. The effort of studying, practicing, and writing, of being a gracious host and a worthy center of attention, makes for an excellent rite of passage, as well as rich fodder for future stand-up routines and therapy sessions. If Noah wanted all that, could we really refuse?

I didn’t know. But I knew I had to get him to tell me the truth—his truth—which is not easy with an adolescent who aims to please. I asked him in private if he really wanted to have a bar mitzvah ceremony (“I guess so”) and why. He answered “because I’m Jewish.” Doubtless the unspoken impetus behind all kinds of rituals, but does it constitute sincere desire? Noah, I said. You know that your dad and I don’t believe in any of this other than the bagels. And you know that having a bar mitzvah would be a lot of work. We would consider doing it. But first I need you to write a paragraph explaining why you want to.

Just a paragraph. To see if he was serious. To understand his thinking. To show him I would expect effort from him, that his desire would be animating this adventure, not mine. Rather than wait for him to opt out, I gave him the chance to opt in.

Noah never opted in. In fact, after a spate of bar mitzvah parties last spring, he seemed to lose interest, leaving the whole question behind him as he ran happily into his first season on the cross country team. “I guess so” became “I guess not.” His thirteenth birthday passed. My father-in-law made no comment. So when I took Noah to his grandparents’ the other night for a Hebrew lesson—recently restarted after a long hiatus—I didn’t think anything of it. A bit of Hebrew can’t hurt his brain; well-educated people should be familiar with the Old Testament; an hour a week doesn’t seem too much to please an old man. This was my reasoning in the face of my husband’s this-can’t-end-well head shaking.

Note to official scorekeeper: Adam was right. When I went to pick up Noah, I was informed by my father-in-law that they had chosen his Torah portion and set a date. “He’s not having a bar mitzvah,” I said. “Yes I am,” said Noah. “We’ll talk about this at home,” I said. But by the time we got to the car, I had already squeezed out of him his reason. Which was simple: “It would make Grandpa happy.”

He means it. Noah is sweet to his core and attached to his Grandpa in a way that his brother and sister are not. Noah also hates conflict, craves approval, and wants to fit in. Does he really want to have a bar mitzvah ceremony? Does he want to study Torah? Would he ever choose to go to synagogue? Does he intend to participate in a Jewish community? No, no, no, and no. But the idea of aiming that “no” at Grandpa—risking his disappointment, his disapproval, and possibly his disfavor—is unthinkable to him. Fair enough. Saying “no” to authority figures, saying no to other people’s expectations on behalf of your own true beliefs and desires: that’s a dividing line between childhood and adulthood that I still find difficult to cross. I’m forty-three. How could I  expect him to cross it at age thirteen?

I had said “no” just once, right after Noah was born, when I first felt both the terrible responsibility of parenthood and—on the threshold of teaching a brand new person all I knew about the world—a new clarity about my beliefs. Noah is thirteen now, but he’s still my baby. I asked him if he wanted me to tell Grandpa that there would be no bar mitzvah. And he said yes, if I promised not to say the decision was coming from him. I can do that. I can try to protect him from the repercussions. And maybe if Noah sees me do it, my get-along boy will learn to say “no” for himself one of these days. That’s a rite of passage I will be proud to witness.

Missing the Magic

1208131417She asked again yesterday, when we came home from “The Magic of Christmas,” the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s annual spectacle of red, white, and sparkly.

“Why can’t we do Christmas?”

Lena’s my third child, but strangely the first to ask. My eldest accepted our Santa-lessness as a given, the way eldest children do; he wanted to please, not delve. My middle child isn’t bothered by being different, and relishes questions of a more philosophical nature (e.g. how do we know we’re not all in someone else’s dream?).

But Lena wants to understand everything about how this world works, is embarrassed by nothing, and never pretends to know stuff she doesn’t. A few days ago she asked my husband and me if we still had sex, and if so how often and when was the last time.

So “Why can’t we do Christmas?” should be easy, right?

It’s not. “Because we’re Jewish” would be the easy answer. Because we are Jewish, sort of. My husband and I were raised Jewish and we celebrate Hanukkah in a desultory fashion: a night here or there, a song and some candles, one good present for each child and a few that rate, “Um . . . thanks.”

But really, we’re atheists. We don’t believe in the Hanukkah myth or in Adonai any more than we believe in Jesus. Lena knows that.

She also knows that I celebrated Christmas as a child, and that even my parents—both Jews with Jewish parents—celebrated Christmas when they were little. Plus we just got home from watching her big brother carol his little heart out in a Santa hat, following the baton of a fellow latke eater, Maestro David Alan Miller of the ASO.

So why can’t we do Christmas?

Since its roots are equally fictional, why not choose the holiday with the great songs, the blinged-out tree, and the cute little baby? For that matter, you could do a lot worse than Jesus for mytho-historical figures to honor (Christopher Columbus, anyone?).

For me it has to do with propriety: I’m not going to the cast party if I didn’t work on the show. Or to a break-the-fast if I didn’t starve myself on Yom Kippur. In other words, I don’t go to church; I don’t believe Jesus is the son of God; in fact, I believe God is made up. Do I really deserve eggnog?

Lena, distracted by dinner, is still waiting for an answer. She had gotten dolled up for the concert in a white sweater dress with a pink snowflake pattern and matching scarf, pale pink tights, dark pink shoes. She needs at least four teeth for Christmas, and although I swear I gave her a brush for Hanukkah last year (“um . . . thanks”), she needs a good hair-brushing. But she is, in a word, irresistible.

“Well, maybe we could do it in our own way,” I said. “Have our own tradition.”

“But Grandpa”—my husband’s father—“would get mad.” Let’s just say Adam’s family definitely didn’t celebrate Christmas when he was growing up. Their living right up the road is largely why Hanukkah happens at our house at all.

“We wouldn’t have to tell Grandpa.”

“Mom”—she said, in the key of duh—“I think he would find out.”


“All the decorations!”

I see. This was the child who celebrates a new hobby with a fresh folder and an explosion of glitter glue; who insists on glamming up the wrapping on every present she gives; who made a giant International Pizza Day sign to bedazzle our one sincere family holiday. Of course she wants to deck the halls.

“I keep thinking,” she remarked wistfully, “about Granddaddy’s daddy and the footprints.” Apparently my father’s father, an exuberant Sephardic Jew, used to spread fake snow around their house in Montgomery, Alabama, into which he pressed “Santa’s” footprints.

This deeply impressed Lena, who is fascinated with Santa, and fixated on her position as one of the few kids in her third-grade class who know the truth. Later, as I was putting her to bed, she asked me one more question. “If I believed in Santa, would I have figured it out by now?”

You’ve probably figured out by now that she would. But I said, “Honey, even if we did do Christmas I couldn’t pretend there really was a Santa. You know I can’t stand to lie to you. That’s why we don’t do the Tooth Fairy. Santa would have to be more like a game we played together as a family.”

Then it hit me: that’s the magic she was missing: the shared activity, complete with over-the-top decorations and fake footprints. The feeling of a family working in concert.

This is one of the great gifts of holidays. When I realized I would be raising my kids as atheists, I imagined I could replace all that we would be missing. Find other ways to celebrate life, deal with death, express gratitude. It’s not easy, though. Religions have this stuff worked out, marked on the calendar, wrapped up in a bow. That’s why even nonbelievers often come back to church and synagogue when they have kids.

Since I can’t even lie to my kids about the Tooth Fairy, let alone matters of great import, I chose the hard way instead, the homemade way. And I had let things slide. Sure, we celebrate International Pizza Day in February (don’t you?). But it’s universally acknowledged that the darkest days of December cry out for a holiday. Heck, that’s why they picked it for Jesus’s birthday.

So I resolved that this Christmas, we would indeed start a new family tradition. Something—I don’t know what yet—with no lying, but with a little magic.

Obviously, we’re going to need some glitter glue.