“It's not fair,” Zoey said to me that December when she popped in and saw a tree we were festooning with tannenbaumania. “You get to celebrate Christmas and that other — that Hanky-kah.”
“It's Hanukkah,” I said, pronouncing it with the new theatricality that came with my pre-confirmation Hebrew lessons. Zoey was the youngest daughter of our very observant Greek Orthodox neighbors. I was not sophisticated enough to realize how assimilated we had become.
It was not always thus in my family of immigrant Russian Jews. I was not a witness to their earnest desire for assimilation. There were name changes at Ellis Island. My parents were not Yankee Doodle Dandies, but now free of pogroms and the chance to emerge from grinding poverty, they wanted to embrace it all.
Tucson had a Reform temple, one of the oldest west of the Mississippi. There were no kosher delis in the desert, so maintaining stringent Orthodox Judaism was impossible. I do recall a tinge of alienation when we sang the American adaptation of “God Save the Queen.” The words “Land where my fathers died” always troubled me. My grandmother “Bubby” assured me that in the fullness of time that line would be true for me.
When do children really remember an event? I think that family lore repeated often enough creates a sort of retrieved memory. Yes, we were there, and when the story is repeated again and again we are there — and in 3D!
My parents became homeowners when I was 4. A white stucco adobe with a tile roof, all materials readily at hand in the surrounding desert. This environmentally correct sensibility ended with the house. My mother insisted on lawns: a summer lawn and a winter lawn to accommodate the desert's temperature extremes. The upside was that the neighborhood kids played in our yard sans fear of a cruel bite from a prickly pear cactus.
As a housewarming gift, Officer Faustman, the bachelor policeman who lived across the street and was entranced by our pretty mother, brought over a small, perfect Douglas fir in a container. It was my mother's first Christmas tree. She must have been entranced and befuddled by this gift of “forbidden fruit.” I rely on family accounts as to what happened next. Mother threw herself into a tree-decorating frenzy.
Hanukkah was almost coincident with Christmas that year, so our menorah was already positioned in front of the mirror on the dining room buffet. Energized by her new exotic project, Mother bought lights, tinsel, beaded chains, etc., etc. for starters until the bedizened tree all but disappeared. If this be blasphemy, she might as well go full bore. The menorah was relegated to the dining room table, and the tree went beside the mirror near a convenient electric socket.
But when my father came home from work and announced that his father was coming from Los Angeles the next day to light the first Hanukkah candle with us — panic! We would sequester the tree wrapped in a sheet in the basement and restore the menorah to its place of honor.
"Girls, this is a secret and Grandpa Victor does not want to know about it. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" I knew what a secret was. It was for telling in a whisper in someone's ear, so that though her message be loud, it was not the least inhibiting.
Now the family version of the denouement of this story: my parents and sister went grocery shopping, leaving me with my beloved Grandpa Victor. The neighborhood kids flocked when they saw his car. Per his custom, he had a polished 50 cent coin for each one, a king's ransom for a Depression-era child. I was of course anxious to share THE SECRET, which I whispered in his ear after securing his solemn promise that he in turn would keep it. We descended to the basement. I know this good man was hugely amused by the theater of it all. After putting the menorah on the dining room table, he returned the tree to its place in front of the mirror and plugged it in.
I believe my grandfather indulged in a bit of schadenfreude at the chance to one-up his daughter-in-law. He was laughing heartily when they returned, and picking me up said, “Look what Marilyn and I found. Isn't it lovely? Now let's light the menorah.”