When my children were small, it wasn’t easy to stop by my mother’s house for Hanukkah.
Instead of menorahs and dreidels, my Holocaust survivor mother filled her house with Christmas tchotchkes. A small tree. Some type of light up garland painstakingly strung around the family room, certainly a fire hazard. A dusty stuffed Santa Claus pulled out every year, in a sleigh intended to hold Christmas cards and, indeed, filled with Christmas cards from her old real estate clients, all of whom thought she was Christian. I wondered how she had explained her accent to all of them. Was she French?
She was so proud of this stuff, so eager to share it with my children, both of whom I was just as painstakingly raising Jewish. She wanted to take them on a tour of Christmas in her family room. Did they notice the Santa with the full sleigh of Christmas cards? The pretty light up garland? The tree? And this – something I hadn’t even noticed – a reindeer with red tapered candles for antlers?
My kids and I stood there like triplet biblical Patriarchs, our mouths hanging open, appalled. I had always explained to them that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, and as the celebration of the birthday of a deity in whom we don’t believe, we don’t celebrate this in any way.
So why was Bubbe?
My mother explained it away in many ways. Sometimes she said that she had all the decorations up for Grandpa Bob, my Ohio-born Methodist stepfather. Sometimes she went on the offensive, saying that, having been raised an Orthodox Jew in the Old Country, she knew what it meant to be Jewish and I didn’t. Sometimes she said that she just liked it – all those pretty lights.
Growing up, one winter my sister and I found a tiny, white, plug-in Christmas tree in the alley behind our house. We snuck it inside our laundry room. We were raised on Christmas specials – and horror stories from the Holocaust – and not much else and so I remember thinking, “How on earth could someone throw this treasure away?” We were terrified that our tree would be discovered – like it was a load of heroin we’d stashed in the basement. Riddled with guilt, we finally told my mother.
She said, “You can keep it if you hide it down here. Just don’t let your grandmother see it.”
And we sat there for a couple weeks, my mother sewing, the little tree blinking on and off, off and on, my sister and I playing Barbies.
That is until the day my dad burst in and found it, snapped it in half, and hid it in a non-Jewish neighbor’s garbage can. Even our garbage had to be Jewish.
Now that my father is long gone, my mother is remarried and finally gets to have her blinking tree. Though now that I’m a grown-up, I no longer want one.
Confused by my children’s lack of enthusiasm, my mother looked at me and said, simply “What?”
“Ma, look at your house! You’re their Jewish Bubbe! And a Holocaust Survivor!”
She said, “Wait a minute. I know I have something for Hanukah.” And she dug and dug through a drawer filled with junk and odds and ends – because every drawer in my mother’s house was a junk drawer – and grabbed something with a triumphant cry.
“Here it is!”
It was the shabby, broken, dusty hanukkiah I grew up with in Skokie, Illinois, the one she’d pull out at the last second when family were coming over, the one that she’d only light if it was full, even if it was just the first or second night of Hanukkah. There were no awkward, half-filled menorahs for my mother.
I said encouragingly, “That’s good! Do you have any candles?”
She says, “You’ll bring me some.” Yes, mom, I’ll bring you some and I will raise you to be Jewish, just like my kids.
And this is how I knew I’d crossed some line and that I was raising my mother, and badly. I couldn’t make her a more practicing Jew. I didn’t even know how I made myself one.
My kids and I leave the house.
My son asks on the way home, “Is Bubbe Jewish?”
I know there’s a complicated way to answer that, telling him about how some survivors are never able to be comfortable with Judaism after the war, but he was too young to understand this at the time.
Instead I say, “Yes, Bubbe is Jewish.”