(I first published this story several years ago in the Sacramento News & Review and it eventually ran in dozens of free weeklies and even in a few daily newspapers. I present the story here for your enjoyment as we officially enter the so-called holiday season. My reading of the story, with appropriate accents, is on my story CD I Steal My Bicycle and other stories available from Underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes.)
The Dreidel in Rudolph’s Manger
Israel Jacobs, born a Jew, and Margaret O’Hara, born and baptized a Catholic, were married in the spring of 1999. And despite their mothers, they lived quite happily until their only child, Felix, turned five. Then Christmas and Hanukkah loomed simultaneously as they always do, and the whole kettle of fish, gefilte and snapper, was set to boiling once more.
Israel’s mother, Rachel, a small, fiery woman with little tolerance for what she called those “gentile pagan idiocies” insisted that Israel give his son a real Jewish Hanukkah, not some watered down compromise. Margaret’s mother, Colleen, a tall, cheerful soul, didn’t mind a menorah on the mantel so long as it was appropriately dwarfed by a well-flocked Christmas tree, candy canes, and a “high quality manger scene,” preferably on the front lawn.
But the truth was, Israel and Margaret didn’t believe in celebrating either Hanukkah or Christmas. They belonged to a group called Beyond Dysfunctional Religions, and they wanted nothing to do with the rituals of their progenitors, whom they believed to be responsible for much of the world’s woes. However, they had never actually told their mothers of their conversion to this new spiritual course, and now, in the face of their child’s coming of age, as it were, the you-know-what was about to hit the fan.
Felix, an intelligent child caught in the cross-fire of adult madness, had invented his own holiday season mythology. Hanukkah and Christmas were obviously words for the same thing. Grandma Rachel said Hanukkah, Grandma Colleen said Christmas. This was not so unusual. After all, Grandma Rachel said “Oy vey” in situations where Grandma Colleen would say “Goodness me.” And they had slightly different accents. So what?
In any case, when the calendar said December, Felix knew that he would be getting presents, that there would be a sudden super-abundance of chocolate in the house, and that people would speak incessantly about spinning the dreidel, a fat man named Santa, a reindeer with a red nose, a temple in Jerusalem, and a baby in a manger, whatever a manger was. Grandma Rachel said things lasted eight days, Grandma Colleen sang twelve. Mom and Dad became tense and irritable, and life went on.
But this year was different. This year Felix was no longer even remotely a baby. He was a child, a boy racing toward adulthood. And since Rachel and Colleen had long ago lost whatever power they had once possessed over Margaret and Israel, they were determined to exert their influence on Felix, their one and only grandchild.
On December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Israel arrived home from his job at the Institute for Drip Agriculture, and found Margaret home early from her job at the Department of Water Resources, her sweet Irish eyes brimming with tears.
“What is it?” asked Israel, rushing to his wife’s side. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong is your mother,” said Margaret, looking at her dark and slender husband as if she’d never seen him before. “She’s kidnapped Felix and taken him Hanukkah shopping.”
“Without asking our permission?” said Israel, truly shocked. “She usually screams and rages first.”
“Not this time,” said Margaret, daubing her eyes with a red tartan handkerchief. “I went to pick him up at school and they said Rachel had already gotten him.”
“But how do you know she took him shopping?” asked Israel, pronouncing the ‘g’ at the end of ‘shopping’ as only the child of Yiddish speaking parents can.
“Just listen to the answering machine.”
Rachel’s message ran thusly. “Hello Israel. I could stand by no longer and watch you deprive Felix of his birthright. I am taking him shopping. And as we buy our Hanukkah gifts I will explain to him the truth, that Hanukkah is a celebration of the purification of the temple after the Romans…” Here her voice grew louder and more passionate, “…after those horrible Romans, who have all become Catholics as you know, forced us to profane our temple, just as you are profaning the temple of this poor child’s mind by allowing him to celebrate the birth of a fraud!”
“Unfortunately,” said Israel, shrugging, “she didn’t say where she was going shopping, or I’d go get him.”
“You know she only shops at places that sound Jewish,” said Margaret, glowering at Israel. “We never should have stayed so close to our mothers. We should have moved to St. Paul.”
“A good Catholic town,” quipped Israel.
“Very funny,” said Margaret, grabbing her purse. “You go to Weinstock’s, I’ll go to Loehman’s Plaza.”
Even as they dashed to their vehicles, Margaret to her electric car, Israel to his bicycle, Grandma Rachel was plying Felix with french fries and a milkshake at Max’s Opera Cafe. Felix paused thoughtfully between fries and said, “So then if Jesus was Jewish, why don’t you like him?”
“Like schmike,” said Rachel, shrugging. “It’s nothing personal. He may have been a very nice boy for all I know. Then again he may not even have existed. The point is, he wasn’t the messiah. Look at the mess he left behind. Would a messiah do that?”
Felix found it interesting that mess and messiah sounded quite similar, but he was more interested in his milkshake. Rachel went on about the miraculous cruse of oil that burned for eight days, and Felix was about to request another shake, when who should appear in her green and red Christmas finery, laden with red and green bags full of Christmas presents, but Grandma Colleen.
“Well what a coincidence,” said Colleen, bowing politely to Rachel before kissing Felix hello.
Rachel fixed Colleen with an icy stare. “Don’t tell me you eat here.”
“I’m a fool for their mini-reuben,” said Colleen, growing excited just thinking about the hot pastrami, the sauerkraut, the horseradish mustard burning the back of her tongue, bringing tears of joy to…
“We were just going,” said Rachel, standing up suddenly. “Come on, Felix.”
“We’re Hanukkah shopping,” said Felix, beaming at Grandma Colleen. “Because Jesus left a mess.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Colleen, her smile disappearing, her eyes narrowing. “He what?”
“But he wasn’t a messy guy,” explained Felix. “He was just…” Felix frowned. “…something.”
“Jesus is the son of God,” said Colleen, taking Felix’s hand.
“And I’m the Pope,” said Rachel, grabbing Felix’s other hand and yanking him away from Colleen.
Outside Max’s, Colleen pulled Felix away from Rachel and ran with him through the parking lot toward her Mercedes. “You see, Felix,” she explained breathlessly, “your grandmother Rachel is confused. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“But why are we running?” asked Felix. “Grandma Rachel can’t keep up.”
“Because she…she could hurt you,” said Colleen, feeling herself about to cry. “She could…”
Felix put on the brakes. He was strong for a five year old. “Grandma Rachel would never in a million years hurt me,” he proclaimed with great certainty.
“Not intentionally,” said Colleen, “but…”
“But nothing,” said Rachel, catching up to them. “How dare you steal my grandson from me.”
“Because you’re ruining Christmas for him,” shouted Colleen, who was not usually a shouter.
“Christmas is a lie!” shrieked Rachel.
“Don’t fight. Please don’t fight,” said Felix, his little jaw trembling, his eyes filling with tears.
“Sweetie,” said Colleen, her heart breaking with compassion for the little lad.
“Bubalah,” said Rachel, her anger washed away by the plaintive voice of her grandson.
Israel arrived a moment later, pedalling hard. As he drew near, his son appeared to be granting absolution to each of his kneeling grandmothers.
In the living room that night, after they’d finished watching The Simpsons, Margaret and Israel asked Felix to recount the day’s adventure. Felix began, “Grandma Rachel came and got me and said I was a good Jewish boy, and then at Max’s Grandma Colleen said Grandma Rachel was confused and might hurt me because…because I was the son of God.” And then Felix began to weep.
Israel and Margaret called their Beyond Dysfunctional Religions support group leaders, Phil and Susan, and told them what was going on. Phil suggested that they come clean with their mothers, suffer the immediate turmoil, and proceed from there. Susan suggested they might want to think about moving far-away.
Israel stayed awake all that night, listening to old Bob Dylan albums and reading Buckminster Fuller. He checked on Felix every hour or so to make sure he wasn’t being troubled by nightmares. Margaret slept fitfully, dreaming that she was wearing a slinky black negligee and was about to make love on a huge bed in a cathedral with her husband dressed as a nun.
In the morning, after a brief strategy session, Israel called his mother, and Margaret called hers. An hour later, the four adults convened in Israel and Margaret’s living room. Colleen sat in a chair by the fireplace, her hands folded in her lap. Rachel stalked the room, refusing to sit. Margaret revealed, with great passion, that she felt her mother had never approved of Israel because he was born a Jew. Israel then made a similar revelation concerning his mother and her feelings about Margaret.
Colleen said this was nonsense and that she had great respect for the Jewish people, particularly Rogers and Hammerstein. Rachel admitted that Margaret was not her ideal daughter-in-law, but that if she would convert to Judaism, all would be forgiven. And then Israel and Margaret revealed their association with Beyond Dysfunctional Religions.
“You are lost to me,” said Rachel, looking at her son and slowly shaking her head. “To think that your father was a cantor, and his father a rabbi.”
“May the lord have mercy on your soul,” said Colleen, looking at her daughter and crossing herself.
“And what will you do with poor Felix?” asked Rachel. “Raise him with no God?”
“He is not poor, mother,” said Israel. “He is rich with our love.”
“Illusion,” said Rachel, bowing her head. “A child without tradition is a boat without a rudder.”
“Amen,” said Colleen, crossing herself again. “A child without God is a soul walking against a hurricane.”
“Well put,” said Rachel, smiling sadly at Colleen and sighing. “Those without faith shall wander unfulfilled forever.”
“Yes,” said Colleen, her eyes wet with tears. “And the unrepentant shall be a source of shame to the Almighty.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Rachel, putting a sympathetic hand on Colleen’s shoulder.
And so, at last, the days of Hanukkah and Christmas came, and Israel and Margaret and Felix spent a week with several other families planting trees in a ravaged forest. And on New Year’s Day, Felix got a new bicycle with training wheels. And Grandma Colleen brought him a stocking full of chocolate angels and a red tartan sweater she’d found in the bargain bin at Eddie Bauer’s. And Grandma Rachel brought him a basket of chocolate pretzels and a jacket she’d found on sale at Levinsons. And then they all went to Max’s for some good eats.
Who knows what the future will bring for Felix? Who knows what spiritual course he will choose for himself when that time comes? We only know that Grandma Rachel and Grandma Colleen are friends now, good friends, united in their belief that their children are wrong.