Hanukkhristmas approaches

I come bearing a shocking secret and more cat pix

Hello, dearest reader. It’s so good to be in your inbox again. Welcome to the second installment of my silly little newsletter. It has all the classic sections you’ve come to know and love, fresh and popping. I promised you that this ongoing publication would mix it up from edition to edition, and I have kept that promise: where the first issue had an interview for the Main Course, this one has an essay by yours truly. I hope you don’t find it too self-indulgent — but then again, this is a personal newsletter, so you probably knew what you were getting into. Onward!

Cat update

I’m out of town right now and thus away from my kitties because I’m putting off ever having to travel with them. However, a good friend is checking in on them for me and sent some photos. Here’s Tim, shortly after he ripped a paper towel to shreds all over my nice clean floor, rapscallion that he is:

And here’s dear, sweet Barb at the watering hole, her piercing green eyes ever watchful:

Perusal

A Hidden Life — The new Terrence Malick movie enraptured me. I kinda don’t want to tell you anything about it in advance, though. Just go see it. And pee beforehand, as it’s three hours long. But it flies by, I promise!

K. Austin Collins on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the mess we’re in — I saw the new Star Wars picture on opening night and absolutely loathed it. It was an incoherent, cloying, braindead, morally bankrupt piece of corporate garbage. In fact (and this is a topic I may write an essay about at some point), it was something of a landmark for me, in that I realized I don’t want to write anything that acts as free advertising for Disney movies again. I’ve done it so many times, as so many arts/culture/entertainment writers have in recent years, but I think I’m finished with all that. In addition to dumbing down the populace with their films’ generally atrocious messaging, Disney is also, as my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz has pointed out, vandalizing the entertainment economy by withholding movies in its vaults and charging theaters exorbitant rates to show its products. I’m lucky enough to have been granted a career that’s sturdy enough these days to withstand the absence of Disney-movie promotion, but I hate the fact that so many of my colleagues are in more precarious professional situations and must crank out piece after stupid piece about the House of Mouse’s cinematic output. Modernity is the worst. I’ve seen a lot of written complaints about Rise of Skywalker, but the above piece was the one that resonated most with me. Sorry to harsh your buzz.

SI Rosenbaum (who is, full disclosure, my romantic partner) on a small geek convention in Framingham, MA — This article dates back to 2011, when SI was working for the late, great Boston Phoenix, but there’s nothing dated about it. She sent it my way the other day and I was blown away by how good it is. If you need a palate-cleanser after the previous recommendation on this list to remind you why being a nerd isn’t terrible, look no further.

Pavement, “Pueblo” — Since I first heard their music in the summer before the beginning of my eighth-grade year, I have often referred to Pavement as my favorite band. I’ve listened to every song they ever recorded so many times that, in the past decade or so, I haven’t even bothered to listen to them anymore. They’re playing in my head at all times, so why bother? A few weeks ago, I realized we were coming up on the 20th anniversary of my purchase of their debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, and decided to give it a whirl. Folks, it holds up. But the real treat came when I revisited their divisive third LP, Wowee Zowee, and got to the last few songs. Maybe it’s because I was very stoned, but it felt like I was really hearing them for the first time. “Pueblo” was a particular standout — eerie, expansive, idiosyncratic. I kinda wish I’d gotten into this band later in my life, so I could’ve recognized how unlike most rock music they were.

Me, me, me

As you already gathered, I really disliked Rise of Skywalker. However, my rabbi adored it. So we had a conversation about Star Wars, the Talmud, the Prophets, and the spiritual ecstasy of changing one’s name. I still kind of can’t believe Vulture published it!

Main course

As I type this missive to you, I am sitting in a condo on an island off the coast of southwestern Florida. Dubbed Sanibel by Spanish colonizers (though the exact origins of the name remain shrouded in mystery), it only consists of about 16 square miles of terrain and bears a permanent population of roughly 7,000. South Florida is traditionally known as a popular spot for folks of the Jewish persuasion, so when I tell my fellow Members of the Tribe that I’m in this region, no one bats an eyelash. But Sanibel is very much not a Jewish locale. My mother is a Jew by choice, having not been born into the faith, which means half of my bloodline consists of Episcopalians of distantly Scots-Irish extraction. It was my maternal grandparents who first bought this condo in the 1990s, and I came here regularly when I was a child and teenager, though I hadn’t visited since the spring of 2005. Since my grandparents’ deaths in the past few years, the condo has been used alternatingly by the various members of the clan, and I was lucky enough to snag a spot here for 11 days, ostensibly to finish writing the first draft of my book. However, to my surprise, I finished the draft on day two of my trip and have been largely just wasting time ever since. It’s heavenly.

One thing I haven’t done, I’m sorry to say, is go to synagogue. I’m not the most observant Yid you’ll find, but I do go to traditional prayer services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings nearly every week. In Brooklyn, I don’t lack for options, of course, but the closest shul to Sanibel — a Chabad center, of course — is an hour’s drive away. It’s 98% white people here on the island, and, in all my years of visiting, I don’t think I’ve encountered even one who wasn’t a Gentile. Last night, I took a cab back from the island’s grocery store and, when the driver asked me how I was going to celebrate Christmas, I told him I was Jewish. “Ah,” he said in an accent I couldn’t quite place. “So you’re doing the celebration of the lights, right?” I told him it’s called Hanukkah and that I would be celebrating it. “It’s because of the miracle of the oil, right?” I responded that, yes, the story goes that there was oil that God made to last eight nights. I chose not to get into the other aspect of the holiday, which is commemorating the Hasmoneans’ bloody jihad against Hellenist assimilation, but there was nevertheless a little dip into the topic of Middle Eastern ethnonationalism. “So, have you been?” the driver asked as I was getting out of the vehicle. I knew exactly what he meant, but he clarified, nonetheless: “The Holy Land,” he said. I told him that I have, indeed, been to Eretz Yisrael (he didn’t register the semi-ironic usage of that grandiose Hebrew name, which is fine, as I was kind of a prick for using it) on a number of occasions. I asked if he had, too. His tone grew hushed and reverent as he said, “No, no. But I’d love to, someday.” It didn’t seem like the time was ripe for a nuanced discussion of Christian Zionism, and his radio had been tuned to Fox News, so I presumed he wouldn’t cotton to me urging him to go on an Arab-led tour of the West Bank while he’s there. So I simply said, “You should go. It’s beautiful.”

When I visit Israel — as I will again in a few weeks to report a story — it is always from a twofold remove. I am not an Israeli, nor have I ever been in the country for longer than a couple of weeks at a time, so I am an outsider to the Jewish State in that obvious regard. But I also live apart from it due to the fact that I am, by the definitions of Israel’s rabbinate, not even Jewish. Per Jewish law, true Jewishness is passed matrilineally. My mother converted, but it was long after I came into the world, meaning I missed the boat by accident of birth and timing. For most of my life, this wasn’t much of a problem, as we were non-orthodox Reform Jews, and the Reform movement took the quietly revolutionary step of embracing patrilineal Jewishness just a few months prior to my conception. That meant I wasn’t even aware of Jewish matrilineality while I was growing up. I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, matrilineality has been a foundation stone for nearly two millennia of Jewish law, thought, and practice, and the choice to omit any discussion of it was just one of many ways in which the Reform movement bowdlerized Judaism and obscured bedrock concepts. On the other hand, I thank the Reform movement for their change of heart because it meant I never felt rejected by my fellow Reform Jews and thus was comfortable enough to embrace a Jewish identity from a young age.

Well, maybe “embrace” is too strong a strong word. How about just “have some semblance of”? I had many of the trappings of Judaism in my life, but they were all half-measures. I was circumcised, but not by a mohel. I went to religious school once a week, but retained little of what I learned. I became bar mitzvah, but I had memorized all the Hebrew phonetically and understood none of what I was saying at the ceremony. I fasted on Yom Kippur, but only some years. I went to Jewish sleepaway camp, but I hated it and left after one summer. I had Jewish friends, but we never talked about Jewish topics. There were lots of Jews in my community, but I had no sense of belonging to a Jewish community. What’s more — and here’s why I’m writing this essay — I did something shameful quite regularly. It’s something I haven’t admitted to anyone since I had my Jewish awakening a few years ago. Just thinking about it makes me feel like a man living under a false identity who’s been found out by a sleuth. I reel at the memory.

I celebrated Christmas.

Like, every year. I wish I could say it was just because we liked to spend time with my mother’s clan and that we did it to appease them. But no, we even did it on years when it was just my nuclear family at home in Illinois. We exchanged presents, we hung stockings, we waited for Santa Claus, we watched Christmas movies, the whole bit. It’s so strange, the things we take for granted as children — I had no sense that this was odd or that it invalidated my Jewishness. To be clear: I certainly never thought of myself as Christian. It never crossed my mind. Although we were an intermarried family, we were never an interfaith one. I suppose Christmas was a purely secular celebration, in my eyes. We did Hanukkah, too, but around age 12, I had that moment so many Jewish youngsters experience, when I learned that Hanukkah isn’t actually that big a deal in the Jewish calendar, relatively speaking, and certainly not on par with what Christmas means to the Christian faiths. Subsequently, I refused to observe Hanukkah because I had decided that it was a bullshit ersatz Christmas and because I was a budding lefty who felt that it was unfair for me to have eight nights of presents on top of the morning of December 25th. Which meant that, by the end of my time as a ward of my parents, Bill O’Reilly’s dream had come true for me: “happy holidays” just meant “merry Christmas.”

As I got older and went off into the world, I still thought of myself as a Jew, but I had zero clue what that meant to me. I went on my first trip to Israel in college (not Birthright, but not dissimilar) and, although I found the place fascinating and had a few moments of emotional connection to other Jews there, I am not one of those Jews who found that Zionism was an acceptable substitute for Judaism. I ate in the campus Hillel’s dining hall, but only because the food was better. I graduated and had a couple of years where I went to High Holiday services, but those were isolated incidents. My Jewishness further eroded due to the fact that I was very seriously dating a Gentile for many years. She’s great, I’m not dissing her, but having the most important person in my daily life be a non-Jew made me even more lapsed. We would go to her family’s house every December for Christmas, even. When it came to practice, I was, in essence — to paraphrase Seinfeld — Jewish for the jokes.

Then, something happened. I’m not quite prepared to talk about the details, but the latter months of my 31st year were very hard for me. I found myself in need of guidance and consolation. I had a bizarre thought: What if I went to shul? So I did. And then I continued to do so. To make a long story short, I’ve become something of a born-again Jew, in my own strange way. I began years of learning and worship, and even “converted” with a Modern Orthodox rabbi so I could turn a new page (and get my paperwork in order so no one can question my place in Jewish settings). I’m still, shamefully, not a strict adherent of Jewish law, but that’s largely because I have absolutely no practice doing things like observing Shabbat, eating kosher, or praying three times a day. I simply wasn’t raised that way, and I deeply envy my newfound Jewish friends who had more traditionally Jewish upbringings. They have knowledge and practice that I lack, and I find myself constantly trying to rise to their level. As such, I never talk about the Christmases of my not-so-distant past. I want to fit in and seem like I’ve been doing Jew stuff since forever. I’m already nervous enough about fellow Yids downgrading my Jewishness because of my patrilineality; better not to give them reason to doubt me, has usually been my line of thought.

So why am I admitting the existence of Christmases past now? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia. Many of my childhood Yuletides were spent right here at this very condo in Sanibel, so images are rushing back to me. But when they do so, I feel disgust. I start to think that I betrayed the Jewish people, that I violated the sanctity of my Jewish bloodline, that I should have rebelled like the Hasmoneans we celebrate this week and demanded that my family raise me more strictly as a Jew. But maybe I’m writing this because I know that line of thought is preposterous and disingenuous. History cannot be rewritten, and those Christmases happened. Maybe I’m writing to point out that my quasi-Gentile upbringing, rather than being a handicap, is its own kind of boon: I see the Jewish world from both the interior and the exterior at once, a perspective that my friends with more strictly Jewish upbringings — for all their virtues — do not possess. But no, I think the main reason I’m writing about Christmas today is that it is folly to run from one’s heritage.

I have spent the past few years thinking that thought in regards to Judaism and Jewishness and deciding that I, like Jonah, cannot outrun the voice of HaShem, which echoes through the hallways of my familial history. That is well and good. However, maybe it’s time for me to do some thinking about the equal and opposite half of my chromosomal bundle. My mother’s is a branch of the human family tree that never knew the embrace of halacha or the joys of the chaggim, but Judaism is not an evangelical faith and we do not believe that means my mother’s side were damned for their unbelief. I would not be who I am without the woman who birthed and raised me, nor without the mother who birthed and raised her, and the mother before that one. There is no use in denying what has made you. It must be explored. I do not see myself ever becoming a Christian, but that does not mean there’s any use in pretending I never enjoyed Christmas or that my maternal forebears didn’t revel in the celebration of their religion. My partner is coming to Sanibel to join me soon. She’s Jewish — indeed, the first Jew I’ve ever seriously dated. Perhaps it’s divine will that our first Hanukkah together is one that falls during Christmas. We won’t be celebrating the latter holiday, but I expect to feel a little tingle on the morning of the 25th here. If my partner and I someday have children, we won’t be wrapping gifts from Santa or singing “Silent Night.” But it will be my responsibility to teach those children about their paternal grandmother’s lineage and help them understand that they must learn from all of their ancestors. And in the dead of winter, when the days are at their nadir, you can hear them speaking to you.