Monday, September 6, 2010

September: Season of Holy Days

When I was in college, I dated a Jewish boy. He was smart and funny, and after we graduated, we planned a trip to Europe. His parents were furious, as if their son were eloping with a gentile. His grandmother called me shiksa, an insulting term for a woman who tempts Jewish men from women of their own faith. I was impure. I was an abomination.

For the record, I should say that my mother was raised a Methodist and my father a Baptist and so, instead of going one way or the other after they were married, they elected to ignore religion altogether. When I was a teenager, I remarked that my friends were all going to church and were we atheists? So we began to attend the closest church, which was southern Baptist.

Mark and I had no plans except to have a good time in Paris and London, but we told his father that if we ever planned to marry, I’d convert to Judaism. Well, why not—it was the same God, was it not? His father unscrewed the cap on a bottle of Manischevitz wine, toasted his son’s good sense, and later drove us to the airport.

He needn’t have worried, though. We broke up in Paris. The first time I went to Paris, I fell in love with a student at the university—a Muslim boy—and we had a quick and passionate affair. Somehow being in Paris again—with Mark—dimmed the glow of that memory.

When I went to college, the religion classes I took convinced me that no one dogma is best and that everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs. Eventually I married a journalist who was a lapsed Catholic, and while he went to work on Sunday, I took our son to the Unitarian church.

When he was in high school, my son lost his heart to a Jewish girl named Jenne. They both went
to college in Washington, DC—he at Georgetown and she at George Washington—and continued to see each other. After college, they lived together for a year. She was the love of his life and he confided to me that he wanted to give her a ring. She was devout in her religion, and he vowed he’d convert if she’d consent to marry him. But first he wanted to bring her to our house for Christmas. She’d never experienced Christmas before and was curious to know what the fuss was about.

When you grow up in the south, as I did, Christmas is a big deal. We got a fat tree, lit it with colored lights and dangled hundreds of ornaments from it. We put red candles on the mantel with a ceramic Santa and a wooden nutcracker soldier. We wrapped dozens of presents and put them under the tree. We played Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” and Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” We drank eggnog with rum and nutmeg. Christmas, as always, was outrĂ©, and we liked it that way.

Things sailed along until Christmas morning. Jenne opened the sweater I’d bought her. It was expensive and I thought beautiful. But when she put it on, it was too small, and the beige color looked horrible on her. She thanked me, but I’m sure she gave it away as soon as she could. Finally my son brought out his gift for her—a huge TV—not the modern flat-screen TV, but a mammoth box of a thing he’d wrapped in festive paper. So big that he had to move the coffee table to fit it in the living room. He thought she’d be thrilled, but his generosity embarrassed her. I’d never looked at our Christmas morning ceremony through the eyes of someone outside my own culture, and suddenly I saw how ridiculous we must have seemed to her. Christmas should have been a religious celebration, not a material one.

The relationship lasted until summer, when Jenne broke up with my son and went off to medical school. Since then I’ve watched the calendar for Jewish holy days, thinking about Jenne fasting and observing the rituals. This month it’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And this month Limor and Ben came from Israel to stay a night in the treehouse.

Limor is a dark-haired sweetheart who grew up in a suburb of Boston. At home he spoke only Hebrew with her parents and after high school she left for Israel. After a year on a kibbutz, she joined the army. Israeli women as well as men are drafted into the army for two years, and, since the Israeli women her age were going into the service, Limor decided
she would as well.

In the Israeli army, women wear uniforms. They work alongside men. They carry weapons. And they know how to use those weapons.

When she finished her stint in the army, Limor was ready for college. But she was several years older than most college freshmen in the States. So she decided to attend university in Israel. Good decision. That’s where she met Ben.

Ben is movie-star handsome. When he smiles, his whole face scrunches up. He was born in Russia, where he lived until he was ten, and he still speaks Russian well. He also spent two years in Italy and speaks Italian. And, of course, he speaks Hebrew. And English. He’s studying bio-technology at the university in Israel. When I asked him how it was to live there, he said it’s wise to carry a gun near the border and to wear a bullet-proof vest. But inside Israel, there are malls and schools and it’s much like the U.S. Except that everyone goes through a metal detector before entering any public building. The school he and Limor attend is in the southern desert area, which is considered safe.

Limor is a student of linguistics and asked me for some poetry by an American writer. I had an extra copy of Jody Gladding’s book, Stone Crop, which won the Yale Younger Poets Award several years ago, and I gave it to her. She responded with a hug. I hugged back.

Ben has been spending the summer with Limor in Massachusetts, and the pair are about to return to Israel for another year of college, which begins the end of September.

“Why so late?” I asked naively.

“September is a big month for Jewish holidays,” Limor said.

Of course I knew that. School in Israel goes from late September, after the holidays, until early July with lots of time off for holidays.

Not Christmas, of course.

A couple days after that Christmas with Jenne, she and I went shopping in Burlington.

“Look,” I said, “Pier One is giving away Christmas ornaments. Free!” I was excited to get a few more baubles for next year’s tree.

“I’m Jewish,” Jenne said. “Remember?”

Yes, Jenne—I do remember.

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