The Christmas Jew

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 

Every Christmas morning of my childhood, I’d wake up, turn on my clock radio, and secretly listen to carols. Then I’d run downstairs to the family room, squeeze my tiny body behind the TV, and stare out through the one narrow window in our Brady Bunch-era house that allowed for an oblique view of our neighbors’ Christmas tree. The Judge family was Catholic. They had a lot of children around that tree. Unreliable memory tells me twelve, but I bet it was more like five or eight.

I’d watch all of those blonde-haired, long-limbed teenagers peel off the wrapping from packages containing Neil Young albums, Fair Isle sweaters, Earth shoes, puka bead necklaces, rainbow socks, black light posters, and tennis rackets, and I’d wonder, with no shortage of self-loathing and self-pity, what kind of god would sentence me to a lifetime of treeless Christmases. Then I’d answer my own question: duh, the same god who told Abraham to bind and murder his only son.

As I got older—around 8 or 9, I suppose—I’d take it a step further, placing my winter jacket over my pajamas, sneaking outside, and brazenly standing in the narrow passage between the Judges’ house and ours. Or as brazenly as a young Jew in her pajamas can stand on a steep hill when she’s hiding behind a shrub so as not to be spotted desperately pining for the archetypal American experience she will never have.

Sheila and Janet Judge, the youngest of the Judge siblings, were—there’s no other way of saying this—cool. Some part of me, even today, must still be trying to wear my Levi’s with half the panache of Sheila, our favorite babysitter. Janet, as soon as she was old enough to babysit, taught us all the words to the Coconut song. To this day, I can’t hear that song without picturing her on the concrete floor of our basement, teaching my three sisters and me the lyrics while racing Hot Wheels through the loop-de-loop.

One year, Sheila caught me staring into her family’s window on Christmas morning and motioned for me to come inside. At first, I pretended I was invisible and couldn’t see her, but I’d already reached the age at which maintaining the fantasy of superpowers was no longer possible. I was visible. Painfully so. So I walked around to the back of the Judges’ house and stepped into yet another fantasy I’d assumed was unobtainable: Christmas.

It was better and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Christmas carols played in the background. Mrs. Judge had covered the tree in candy canes, and she allowed me not only to take one but to eat it before breakfast. I got to watch the present-opening up close. One of the Judge boys received a football. Suddenly, we were all running outside to play a game on their lawn. The only way I can describe my joy at being included in this merriment is to compare it to a Giants fan suddenly being asked to fill in as starting quarterback against the Cowboys. But better.

You’ve heard of the Shabbos goy? I was the Christmas Jew. And I was lapping up every second of it.

Years passed. I grew up, moved to Paris. At first, being the only Jewish photographer in my photo agency, I would work every Christmas so that the other photographers could sit around their trees with their kids. Then, at 24, I met and soon thereafter married a Yeshiva boy who would no sooner have considered indulging my fantasy of having a tree in the house than he would have tattooed a cross on his chest. Forget it, he said. He couldn’t do it. And I didn’t really want the tree badly enough to offer a compelling counterargument.

Twenty-three more treeless Christmases came and went. Then last year, after my husband and I split, I took in two boarders to help with childcare and rent. Brittany was a Christmas maniac. She carried giant boxes of decorations from home to home. George, who’d grown up with a big southern Christmas, suddenly got a bee in his bonnet, while mourning his husband’s death, to have a Christmas tree with all-black ornaments.

Yes, I said. Let’s do that. Finally: an excuse to get a tree!

I thought it would feel subversive heading down to the corner, where the tree man sold his wares, but in the end, once we’d carried that beast into the living room, it was just a tree. It smelled nice. It wore its decorations well, no better or worse than a transvestite in pearls. I loved seeing it aglow at night after I turned off all the other lights, but it had none of the magic of the Judges’ tree, and my children had no associations with it that would have allowed it to transcend its basic treeness. A tree has to mean something beyond serving as a symbol of all that you were denied as a child. It has to evoke magic, tradition, family, history, the way our Shabbos candles do on the Friday nights when we remember to light them. Or even the way the carols I’d subversively played as a child in the wee hours of Christmas still have the power to move me.

We did put some candy canes on our tree, just like the Judges, and we opened a few presents on Christmas morning, but it felt unnatural, as if we were impostors to the endeavor rather than worthy celebrants. So after tossing the wrapping paper in the recycling, I invited my Christian roommates to join us for our typical Jewish Christmas: dim sum in Chinatown followed by as many movies as you can squeeze into a dark afternoon.

I’m still contemplating whether or not to get a tree this year. We’ve moved to cheaper digs, so we no longer have boarders, but my eight-year-old has been begging for one, so I might bite the bullet and get one, if only for the sake of living room aesthetics and him. Then again, I might not. I really have no strong feelings either way.

On the other hand, I would never miss hearing Suzzy Roche sing Christmas carols at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in New York, where she holds an annual charity concert every December. This year she sang with her daughter Lucy and her ex, Loudon, among others. I brought an old friend, both of us newly broken by love. Christmas, Suzzy said, halfway through her so-called “Holiday-ish Show,” is supposed to be such a joyous time, but for many it can be filled with the pain of loneliness and loss.

My friend, at the sound of these words, grabbed my hand. He’s like that, thank god, plus he knew I’d also just lost my 39-year-old cousin days earlier to, well, we don’t know. Orthodox Judaism doesn’t allow for autopsies. Suzzy, a guitar player and singer at heart, sat down at the piano, an instrument as foreign to her as the holiday of Christmas is to me, but the piano was the proper way to perform it, she said, so she would give it her all. The music began. Not a carol, exactly, but a cover of Rob Morsberger’s “Everyone Wants to Be Loved.” Rob, a Jew, had just died of cancer a year earlier. Suzzy was paying tribute to him. In a church. At her Holiday-ish concert.

The song and the story of the composer’s recent death moved most of us in the church that night to tears. As mine silently slid down my cheeks, and I gripped my poor friend’s hand until I made it go numb, I was immediately transported back to the Judges’ living room, the one place on earth this pining Jew had ever been moved by the spirit of Christmas.

The tree, I realized, was beside the point. It had always been beside the point. It was the love of the people around that tree—or around that menorah or newborn king or gravesite or piano—that mattered. “Everyone wants to be loved,” sang Suzzy, over and over, like a mantra, and it didn’t matter which holiday any of us in that church had grown up celebrating. We all knew what both the singer and her late friend’s simple words meant, and that this, above all, was the real message of Christmas.

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