Thursday, December 26, 2013

800 Words: Other People's Christmases

Oddly enough, the most connected I ever felt to Christmas was in Israel, in Jerusalem’s Old City, going to midnight mass, seeing the Christian pilgrims on their ways to church, taking in congregation after congregation, running into my cousin on the same journey, hearing various conversations and homilies in languages I’d rarely ever heard, talking at length with a cute and rather distractible German volunteer outside of a Lutheran church, hearing the various bells ring, getting harassed by Arabs in the Muslim quarter when I turned the wrong corner, hearing an eternity of gunfire in East Jerusalem. It was, without a doubt, the Christmas of a lifetime. Otherwise, Christmas always seems to happen apart from me, like some big secret to which I was the only person not in on. What the hell’s everybody celebrating?

I’ve spent Christmases at friends’ houses, I’ve trimmed trees, I’ve gone to Midnight Mass, but I doubt that there are many Jews, at least not many as unobservant as I, whose lives were so blithely unaffected by Christmas. Christmas is that parallel holiday when the rest of the world seems to go berserk while the world of my childhood stood perfectly still.

Pikesville, MD. A place more Jewish than Israel itself, has got to be the least Christian place in Christendom. There is nary a house with lights, nary a store with decorations, nary a Mall Santa at the department stores and nary a Salvation Army Santa on the street. I think it was after winter term of my senior year of college that my friend Il Giovine dropped me at my house on the way back to New Jersey. Before he left, I took him to the old Suburban House so he could do what we all did at the Suburban House, eat pastrami and watch old Jews yell at each other. Neither was disappointing, but on the way there he was aghast: “Where the hell are all the Christmas decorations? It’s like it’s any other time of year!”

I didn’t really know any non-Jews until I went to boarding school. So it was always a bit of a shock to see that there was this huge deal that the whole world seemed to care about except for everybody I knew. My world didn’t change at all during December, and yet the radios played Christmas music all December, the TV commercials were all about Christmas day sales, every TV show had a Christmas episode, every music teacher would host a ‘Christmas concert,’ and every adult got off work. I remember a couple of years when we used to go over to some Orthodox cousins of ours during Christmas, and thinking how odd it was that I was basically going to a Christmas party hosted by Orthodox Jews. Once we arrived, we would inevitably sit down to that most Christian of spreads, bagels and smoked fish, followed by giant, barely sweetened pastries.

I never felt particularly left out from all this commotion. How could I, being barely acquainted with the wider world of ‘Der Goyim’ which all the adults assured me was a bit scary and unhealthy? I knew stories about older Jews feeling isolated and scared because they had to sing Christian hymns in school and didn’t get any presents, or even occasionally get beaten up by Catholic kids (like my Dad, more on that story later…) and I suppose I felt vaguely jealous that these Christian kids whom I didn’t know and was vaguely intimidated by apparently got a holiday in which the very purpose seemed to be to spoil them rotten. But I wasn’t much like many other kids I knew, and not much like many other kids anywhere. The usual Christmas toys wouldn’t have provoked much excitement in me, and if anything, it would have been just one more source of anxiety in which I’d have to figure out yet another way of fitting in with other kids I had nothing in common with. There’s probably nothing that would have made 10-year-old Evan happier than a complete set of Bruno Walter recordings, and if I’d ever gotten them, I’d have only felt ashamed and depressed for wanting something so bizarre and having hardly anybody to share my eccentric interests with.

Christmas, Christians, Christianity in general, is so divorced from everything in my childhood that it took on a fascination in adulthood that I can’t help having. When Pope John-Paul II died, I glued myself to the television - watching the first Papal conclave of my lifetime with more interest than I ever exhibited in any of the dozens of Jewish studies classes I had. My roommate of the time worried that it became an unhealthy obsession. He once went on my computer to discover that I had ten pictures of the old Pope open on my desktop (don’t ask...), and told me he felt as though he’d stumbled upon a person’s bizarre pornographic fetish.

The only contact I’d had as a child with Christians was through music. For a number of years, my violin teacher’s base of operations was St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, which I think was the one on Loch Raven Blvd near Good Samaritan Hospital. It was a very weird transition to go from Pikesville, where there was a Synagogue on every corner, to the world of the music I loved, which then more than ever seemed intimately bound up with the extremely forbidden rites of the Church. One sabbath, I was supposed to sleep at my Day School’s synagogue for an event which we Day School Jews call a ‘Shabbaton.’ I had a rehearsal in the middle of the Shabbaton on Saturday afternoon, and my father made the mistake of telling the Rabbi in charge that it was at a church. It might have been a ‘conservative’ synagogue, but Rabbi was so scandalized that he nearly banned me from the Shabbaton altogether, telling my father that he was disgusted that my father couldn’t let his children ‘be Jewish for even one day.’

The first time I fell in love was with a fundamentalist Christian girl. Amy S_____. I was seventeen, and I met her on a cruise boat on the Black Sea. She was my first kiss - yes, it was quite late, but if you have to have a late first kiss, then experiencing it under a meteor shower off the Greek coast is probably the way to go. She was a Californian, a red-head like me, but 5’11 to my 5’4 ½. She claimed she was solicited to become a model, and it was not at all hard to believe. I was too shy to go up to her for nearly a week, but the day before I left, I finally worked up the nerve when I saw her on the deck, and told her that if I didn’t speak to her before I left, I think I was going to regret it. We were inseparable until five-o’clock the next morning. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. We were both too smart for the situations we’d found ourselves in. We were both clearly itching to get out from underneath backgrounds we found too repressive, or at least that was my impression of her. I’d met her mother earlier that week, and her mother was a holy terror, bragging to anyone who would listen about how terrified her children were of her. And during those years at a rather draconian boarding school, my very mind was being warped from mere depression to outright delusion. For a year or two afterward, we kept in touch via phone and IM, and would occasionally swear our mutual love to one another. On New Year’s Eve 2000 we spent the night talking on the phone to one another about eloping. When I found out she wasn’t serious, it began (for many more reasons than that...) the worst month of my life. In retrospect, I wasn’t particularly serious either, but having fallen into a place as I did which literally caused me to experience manic delusions and hallucinations, I was looking for any way out, and desperate enough to think that underage marriage to a fundamentalist Christian was a legitimate option. Nevertheless, as I was (perhaps) still a potential marriage prospect down the road, or at least one to whom she kept declaring her love, she kept trying to ‘save me’, and getting me to see the rightness of Jesus Christ. The emotional disasters that followed were rather inevitable...

As the term ‘self-hating Jew’ is often thrown around, I often like to protest that my self-hatred and my Jewishness have nothing to do with one another. But the truth is rather the opposite. They have everything to do with one another. The tension between growing up rather Jewish and rather secular has defined just about everything in my life, for good and ill, and made me feel as though I don’t quite fit with either world, even if I (as so many people in my position do) often think I understand both worlds better than those who belong to either world much more neatly.

It’s one thing to be a Jew in the ghetto; whether it’s the nominally secular ghetto of Pikesville, MD, or the religious ghettos of Crown Heights and Meyah She’arim, you are among people who think and believe exactly as you think and believe. You don’t have to explain or justify yourself to anyone, and you automatically have the same feeling of belonging as any ‘goy’ would in their wider world. It’s another entirely to maintain a somewhat Jewish identity when nobody shares it. I often feel as though I’m the appointed Ambassador from Jewish Baltimore to Hipster Baltimore. Even if I’m entirely self-appointed and play the part to the hilt, I’m the man everybody seems to come to with questions about Judaism and Israel, the one who everybody has to tell the latest Jewish joke. I often feel as though my life is one long conversation about Judaism in which I spend half my life explaining Jews to goyim, and the other half explaining goyim to Jews. I find this role infinitely preferable to remaining in the ‘ghetto’ of my youth, but I still find it exhausting. I am a Synagogue of One, who finds no comfort in the traditional environs of last generation’s Pikesville, nor in the Tikkun Olam environs of Judaism’s Social Justice crusaders from my generation. I can’t help it if I wish there were more people around me who shared my views, but my Judaism doesn’t seem to exist for anyone else, it never existed for anyone but me, and I’m not even sure from moment to moment what the beliefs are. Like all good Jews, I can’t even call myself a Synagogue of One, I’m two synagogues of halves. I can’t even decide for myself whether traditions should be kept in spite of the fact that God clearly doesn’t care whether or not we keep them, or whether the State of Israel will in the long run do our ‘people’ more good than harm, or even whether being Jewish is not a burden too great to ever bring a child into this world. In lieu of definite answers, I’m sure I’ll do what I’ve always done, which is whatever is most convenient at any given moment. As I’ve said so often on this site, my religion is the religion of doubt and skepticism. There are no traits more Jewish than those, but no religion can be built on doubt alone. No wonder we Jews have such talents for suffering.

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