“I’m a Jew Who Loves Christmas Songs” Club

I didn’t grow up in a religious home; I knew I was Jewish and knew it was important that I know that. Together with my parents, I came to America as a refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1979. The anti-semitism drove my parents out; they wanted to live in a country where their religion didn’t prevent them from going to college or getting a job or procuring an apartment.

In New York City, home to over one million Jews, my parents felt free to wear Star of David and Chai necklaces but never stepped foot inside a synagogue unless it was mandated for a Bar Mitzvah or wedding. When it came time for the December holidays at school and kids did the “Are you Christmas or Chanukah” survey, I was proudly “Team Chanukah.”

In junior high school, I was in the chorus for two years (got in by singing the theme to the Brady Bunch) and had the opportunity to perform at the Staten Island Mall for the holidays and at the iconic Pan Am Building (now the MetLife building) as well as Carnegie Hall. In those years, I learned dozens of Christmas songs and loved them all, excited to be able to sing along to a month’s worth of radio as I wiped down counters at the family donut shop.

Initially, I felt a sense of guilt for loving the Christmas songs so much; almost like I violated my religion. I didn’t keep kosher so eating BLT sandwiches never felt as much as a breach of religion as how much these Christmas carols could penetrate my soul; Ave Maria and Silent Night get me every single time.

Last week my daughter came home from her musical theater class telling me they were working on a Christmas song, “Don’t worry mom, it doesn’t have any Jesus or Santa in it, it’s just about winter.”

“Oh that’s OK,” I said, “I love Christmas songs!”

“You know,” my husband chimed in, “many Christmas songs were actually written by Jews. The song you’re doing, Winter Wonderland was, as well as Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, and the one of the most famous ones, White Christmas, which is the best selling single ever.” 

“You know, our teachers asked if there is anyone in the class who didn’t celebrate Christmas and I raised my hand,” my daughter explained. “Then she said, ‘Really? No one in your family celebrates Christmas? Not even your parents or grandparents?’ She was so shocked and I said, ‘No, no one at all.’”

I laughed. It’s funny in 2016, living in such an urban multicultural area, with plenty of Jews, there are still people shocked to learn Jesus’ birthday doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t feel nostalgic for three wise men or yearn to sing hymns or gather around the table, heads bowed for grace. It’s just a day off, no more sacred to us than Columbus Day or President’s Day.

The songs, though often deity specific, cross religions and cultures by creating a feeling of camaraderie, warmth, celebration, and joy. I say cheers to Christmas carols. 

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“My Son, The Theater Star” Club

When I first learned my son got a starring role in his first high school play, I was ecstatic. Not just because I was living vicariously through him, but because he had finally found something in which he felt not only did he excel, but he passionately enjoyed. After two months of intense rehearsal, I was an eager mama, armed with tickets for three of the four performances. I missed the penultimate performance (because my sister came to town from Maine to see Saturday night’s show), which OF COURSE (my son says) was the BEST one.

I knew I’d be washed over by a fog of pride; I wasn’t sure how objective I could be, but history dictates I could be a rather harsh judge.

Living in New York City most of my life equipped with an innate love of theater and drama, I’ve had the tremendous benefit of attending Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. After seeing hundreds of shows over the last 25 years, and having spent five years in the theater industry, I feel this cumulative theatrical viewership justifies my theoretical theater critic’s resume.

The lights went down and the cast, clad in their period costumes came on stage and my heart rate accelerated. My little boy is on stage playing a 26-year-old scientist who will seduce the servant girl character. I’m staring at him, hanging on his every line, watching his every mannerism. He’s so handsome, so talented; his presence on stage not only palpable but powerful.

The sense of joy and pride I felt was beyond him just doing a stellar job as an actor. I wanted to give him a hug which had snowballed from my heart for the last 14 years. Here he was on stage, a part of something grand, a performance which will be historically documented on the walls of his elite school. He stood as a fundamental, present member of the cast, who was supportive, encouraging and considerate of his peers and cast-mates. His strong work ethic was obvious from the day he brought home the script, highlighting his lines, memorizing them immediately. Mostly, I was brimming in a sea of warm euphoria as my son, more than anything, exhumed the passion he had stored up for all these years. Not only did he put his brain and heart into his role, he did what I think is the hardest part for an artist, he received and responded to the director’s criticism (“notes”) after each performance). I was proud of his commitment, his performance, and to see the illumination of his inner wick.

My son is fortunate to attend a prestigious private school, one of the best in the world, and he is blessed to have this tremendous institution with its dedicated dramatic arts programs and phenomenal educators guiding them to parallel A’s in physics, geometry, and calculus while playing sports, instruments, and programming robotics in their spare time.

The plot of the play (An Experiment with an Air Pump) focused on lofty discussion of morality and scientific ethics and took place over the course of two time zones: 1799 and 1999. The stage design was constructed entirely by students, primarily one genius who conceptualized the turntable-centered set inspired by Hamilton. The costumes were era-appropriate, worn by the teenagers as if they were seasoned actors who had honed their craft over years, not just two months of 3-hours of rehearsal, 3 times a week.

My son played the villain in the play and has several amorous, mature scenes opposite a girl, who was a senior. In one scene, he kisses her passionately and while it was the PG version, I felt on occasion it bordered on PG-13 because there was a succession of kisses and it seemed some extra credit groping. During the second performance I attended, which was filled predominantly with classmates and friends, the romance scene got the rowdiest reaction. Also, the scene where my son says the word, “erection” earned quite the uproar.

Can you imagine your first kiss on stage? I feel like I’m witnessing the live preamble to a famous actor’s memoir. (Will my son write me a dedication or will he let me pen a chapter? No pressure.)

After the show, the girl my son kissed, came over to introduce herself. She was quintessentially sweet; a senior who is kind, humble, and smart. “I had my first kiss on stage in 9th grade too,” she said and I held onto that precious nugget. I’m witnessing my son plant the seeds of his story.

“He’s going to remember you forever,” I tell her and imagine my son telling his kids a la Ted from How I Met Your Mother about how his first kiss (or 100) was to a senior on stage. Imagine those butterflies.

Last week after the final rehearsal, I asked my son if he feels truly cool. I mean, a freshman kissing a senior in the high school play?

“Yeah,” he said without looking up. “Totally.”

After the performance, the kids had a celebration where the seniors presented the cast with gag gifts based on the character. My son, who portrayed an immoral scientist pervert got a book called Always Jesus and a box of condoms.

“Bring Your Wife to Work” Club

There are several days a year when I ask my husband to play “Bring your wife to work day.” Some days I do it out of convenience and other days I do it because I need a reminder about what matters most. On these days, I go to work with him as a hospital clown, where I will suspend reality for an hour and jump head first into my husband’s clown world.

Coming to work with him allows me to peek into the lives of families experiencing the painful struggle of childhood illness. Here I witness the portrait of true heartbreak; when parents have to watch the children they brought into the world, children they love more than anything, endure pain and sometimes face death, before ever getting a chance at life.

I come to work with my husband and I am instantly reminded how if we have our health, we have EVERYTHING because without it, we have nothing and exist in a prison of our bodies. Health is the ultimate trump card.

An added bonus, when I go to work with my husband, I get to relive the moment I met him almost 12 years ago.

Just this morning, my daughter asked me, “Did you fall in love with daddy as soon as you saw him?”

I thought about it and how he and I have an ongoing joke of who flirted with who first (duh, he did). “While we really liked each other right away,” I said, “but it’s when we started talking that we realized we had so much in common.”

What I didn’t say was, as I sat Indian-style on the floor with the other children attending the 3-year-old’s birthday party, our eyes connected and locked and for the rest of the show, they would re-meet many times.

Whenever I get to relive the experience as an audience member of one of his shows, I’m equally in awe of his tremendous talent merging children’s humor with adult jokes in a stand-up comedy manner. Even when I look away, (to check my phone or scribble these notes), I feel his gaze pass over me and I know when I look up my eyes will meet with his and the magic light, directly powered by his heart will ignite, and the world, along with my heartbeat stops for a split second and I remember this is what it is all about it surpasses words. Love is the biggest cliché of all.

My immigrant upbringing made me pragmatic more than romantic. My parents perpetually preached, “that’s only in the movies”, and whenever I brought up “fairytale love,” “happily ever after,” or “dreams come true,” they would remind me “real life is not a Disney movie.”

They would say that and yet I’ve always been the type who wants the best of everything and I want to experience life with the saturation filter dialed way up. I couldn’t have envisioned my true love would wear a clown outfit with a vest and polka-dot tie rather than a suit and tie, yet here I sit, siphoning off the medicine of laughter he’s providing to the kids, and using that as fuel for myself.

“What Do We Tell the Children?” Club

This morning’s Election Day Hangover rhetoric included the omnipresent, “What do we tell the children?”

My daughter woke up 6 AM, walked into my room, tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Who won?”

“Trump,” I said. She grabbed her hand on top of her head and said “Oy vey! Now, what?”

“Don’t worry love, we will be OK,” I said. She stood there quietly, peering at me sadly, doubting my unconvincing words.

“You said yesterday I would remember this day forever. You said this will be the day we have our first woman president.”

“I know,” I said. “I was wrong. Sometimes our favorite candidate doesn’t win and a candidate we feel is less qualified wins and it makes us angry and frustrated because we feel it’s not fair. No one likes to lose, but there is a valuable lesson in this. We can’t always get what we want and it’s often hardest to accept this when it’s something so important and it feels like you have no control over it.”

It’s a life lesson which plays itself on repeat (aka history).

What do we do? We move forward because there is no other direction. We wake up in the morning, get dressed for pajama day at school, eat breakfast, go to a piano lesson, and tomorrow night my son will star and his first high school show. We will go as a family and we will support him and we will be proud and we will appreciate art and entertainment and celebrate diversity and education and family. On Friday my sister will visit from Maine for the weekend and we will rejoice in each other’s company and we will devour a newly discovered box filled with old letters and diaries from our childhood. My father will come and install my sink and refrigerator water line and we will go out to dinner and celebrate his 68th birthday and we will live and we will love and we will take one step in front of the other and advance. There will be changes and transition, sadness and disappointment. People will review this campaign forever and they will analyze every county in every state but it’s irrelevant; it’s illogical.

The American public voted with their hearts, rather than their heads.

My son woke up at 6:30 and walked into my bedroom. “Trump won,” I said. “RIP America” he muttered as he went into the shower. In the car on the way to school I mentioned I had a similar experience when George Bush beat Al Gore. On the contrary, I remember the feeling of euphoria, hope and pride after the 2008 election when we elected Barack Obama.

None of our leaders are perfect, starting with our founding fathers. Flaws are the only consistency to humanity. Some of us are mourning the death of America while the other half wait “to make America great again.” Ultimately we all have to take accountability for creating the life we want, and I want to believe America is still the greatest country in the world to do it.

“Wasn’t It Just Yesterday?” Club

I feel too young to hear myself say it, but as I drove to pick my son up from play rehearsal at 7:30pm (gasp!) from HIGH SCHOOL (double gasp!) I inhaled deeply as I pulled off the exit and exhaled loudly, as my mind, obviously plagued by too many Hallmark cards, commercials, and TV movies, thought, “Wasn’t it just yesterday that my father was picking ME up from high school? Wasn’t it just yesterday when I sat on the passenger side, craning my neck towards the back seat to gossip with my best friend?”

How did it happen that parenthood became a one-way ticket to every cliche? “It goes by so fast; in the blink of an eye. I wish I could hit pause, I wish I could slow it down.” I’m feeling the same thing every mother in the history of time has felt: shock, nostalgia, longing, impending mortality, and a clock which ticks louder with each day the children grow.

My brain queued Sunrise, Sunset, and I teared up as I pulled into the car line with other parents, idling with their hazards on, waiting for their extracurricular kids. He’s so grown up. He was born wise beyond his years, his large brown eyes born to peer back at me, challenge me, keep me honest, and keep me in perpetual awe of him. He’s always been mature, but his demeanor is evolving; he’s transitioning slowing into a man and I’m witnessing it in a slow motion, fast forward.

Wasn’t it just yesterday I brought him home from the hospital? Less than seven pounds of warm, soft human I didn’t understand. I didn’t comprehend the intensity of love my heart can squeeze until his first cry. Before he was born, I didn’t entertain false romantic fantasies of motherhood; I imagined, quite realistically, hard days and gritty days and days I’d want to speed up as much as slow down. While I contemplated the physicality of the human I would create, I never envisioned the journey, the life lessons sprinkled throughout the road, insightful bread crumbs your kids leave for you.

Wasn’t it just yesterday I worried about breastfeeding, about percentiles, about tummy time? Wasn’t it just yesterday he learned to crawl, to walk, to ride a bike, to swim, to ski, to surf? Wasn’t it just yesterday I carried him on the bus ride after a full day in Disney World? Wasn’t it just yesterday he wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning without asking? Wasn’t it just yesterday I sang John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy to him every night?

It wasn’t yesterday, it was 14 years of yesterdays. He comes into the car, donning his black leather jacket, backpack slung over his shoulder and smiles.

“How was the dress rehearsal?” I ask.

“That was the shitiest run through of all time,” he says, and I beam proudly because he sounds just like me, “But the good news is, I love my costume.”

“I Went to Ikea on a Saturday Night” Club

People in a life transition, buying transitional (nonpermanent) furniture. It doesn’t last forever because you don’t want it to. You go to Ikea when you need your first apartment after college furniture, or when you’re moving in with your boyfriend before you get married – or when you first get married and need to supplement the pieces you two had together, or most of all, when you’re having a baby – or a second baby.

Half of the people I saw wandering around the over-crowded Ikea were waddling pregnant women with toddlers in tow. They were hormonal and trying to validate why the “As is” $35 bookshelf will fit perfectly in THAT spot. Who cares if it has to be turned sideways and there is a hole in the middle – it’s ideal. The husband is measuring and clearly thinking this is the worst idea since the second pregnancy.

She smiles and pats her full-term baby and he pushes the Bugaboo single stroller with one hand and wrangles the toddler with the other. They can’t make a decision about the $35 bookshelf and the husband turns it on its side horizontally and they measure it again. Finally, they decide against it and pay for their linens and colorful straws, an impulse buy for their son.

I survey our cart, assessing our situation. We too are in a transition, remodeling after a flood surprised us with a mandatory renovation. We are buying height extenders for our bookshelves because our books are overflowing and new potholders and cutting boards for the kitchen. Our life isn’t getting a human addition, but we are freshening it all up, reorganizing, finishing things we never finished when we moved in five years ago.

Normally I wouldn’t get caught dead at Ikea on a Saturday, but the days are irrelevant and the overcrowded aisles and extra long lines won’t deter me. Every day we are going somewhere, knocking something off the seemingly endless to-do list for the renovation, which chugs on like the energizer bunny.

“I Miss My Sister” Club

I was convinced I wrote about this club dozens of times; so much so that I didn’t believe the search function on my own blog. I miss my sister every single day, thinking about her many times a day, what she could be doing right now – or how she would handle any situation I might be in.

I think of her especially as my father is grappling with his sister, dying of cancer. Sisters are forever; we cannot divorce them or break up with them. Sisters are magical witnesses to your fucked up (or blissful) childhood and only they know the unique history attached to the titles, “mom” and “dad.”

How many of us are desperately missing our sisters right now?

My sister and I have not lived in the same city for over five years and for better or worse I’ve gotten accustomed to our long distance relationship. Most of our communication is done electronically via text, phone, FaceTime and we see each other a couple of times a year for a day or two at a time – always because she makes the trip down to New York rather than I to Maine with my family of four.

For four years, my sister and I lived five blocks apart on Manhattan’s upper Eastside. Additionally, we worked in the same office, in the same department, with her cubicle directly outside my office. This was not just a memorable and fun period of our life, it was freaking cool. Life brought us together when we both desperately needed one another. We had a pulse on where either one of us was at any time of day and we were there to celebrate everyday victories or to mourn annoying disappointments. We watched American Idol and ate dinner and frozen yogurt on my couch. We knew it was special, we knew it wasn’t permanent, and we savored it as much as we could but life evolved. Men entered our picture and families grew and our branches separated; she liked it cold and rural and I could never break up from NYC. She happily sought refuge to Maine.

I am convinced there is divine enchantment in a sisterly bond, a genetic link that convenes way beyond molecules. Sisters understand this; we live it. My sister is more than a best friend and different than a husband. The love I have for my sister is unlike what I feel for my parents or for my children, but it comes from the same place, deep down from source of the strongest love I can produce.

I’m relatively certain our current circumstances aren’t permanent; life is nothing if not a constant transition. The miles which stretch between us is physical distance, but it’s not an inch farther from her forever home in my heart. She will always be on my side, I will always be on hers. Whenever I hear the word, “sister,” I’m flooded with a warm nostalgia mixed with longing and I thank my lucky stars I have one of those.

“I Look for the Reason for Things” Club

I am always looking for the reason why things happen [to me]. Occasionally this makes me feel better when things seem to happen beyond my control. If I can’t explain it, my default is to believe things happen “for the story; another chapter in my life.” Ultimately, though, the most mysterious things are the ones for which I can never find explanations, like why the kindest, most wonderful people are the ones struck with the vilest forms of torturous death. I can’t find a reason for this or the reason for thousands of children dying of cancer. Adding to that list, I’ve never been able to comprehend the meaning for any of the horrific diseases lurking on every page of the Internet or the reason for the Holocaust, or any war. 

Sometimes I get stuck in traffic or miss the train and rather than getting frustrated, I think of the movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow and feel reassured that I’m exactly where I need to be. Missing the train means I wasn’t meant to be on it, or if I’m late, it’s because life is delaying my arrival until the precise moment I’m supposed to be there. Having faith in mysterious forces isn’t natural for me; I wasn’t raised with a religion controlling our lives. We knew we were Jewish – and it was important – but it didn’t influence what we ate, when we used electricity, or what we wore. My religion was more of a club I was born into, like a last name, which identified my heritage or history, but it didn’t govern my life. 

Nowadays I think about the reason for things at every step, sometimes obsessively. We had a flood in our apartment and while I didn’t plan on renovations, I convince myself the reason it happened was so I get a new kitchen I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. Every step of the way, we have been following the rules, by the books and yet we still come upon struggles and conflicts. Contractors, electricians, plumbers, cabinet makers, counter installers; they’re all bad at business, have bad work ethic, bad customer service, and an overall lack of common sense or courtesy. Every roadblock we encounter, I begin to analyze WHY is this happening now? While I take deep breaths until I feel lightheaded, I wonder if this mundane minutia is going to strangle me.

It’s fruitless. There is no reason; a gazillion writers and philosophers before me have already concluded that, but I am like a teenager desperate to make my own mistakes, and see the big picture, connect the dots.

I try to cope the way I know best, with words. Sadly, these words don’t help the plumber come when he promised or the faucet delivery on time or the cabinet maker not screw up. 

“Forever Daddy’s Girl” Club

My father helped me tile my bathroom walls today. (Correction: I helped my father tile my bathroom walls.) We worked in harmony, united on the task at hand and when he said, “Give me that thing over there,” I knew which thing he meant because I would anticipate his moves. I can’t recall the last time my dad and I had one-on-one time – hours – just the two of us, music playing in the background, working on making something beautiful. He stood at the helm of the ship as Captain, and I was his sturdy, well-trained second mate.

I passed the tiles, the mastic, the spacers and he did the official and permanent work of placing them onto the wall. He operated the tile saw, proudly showing off his craftsmanship after ever piece. “Do you see how thin this machine can slice? Look at this precision!” I marveled at each sliver and made a neat pile of baby tiles for if they’d come in handy later.

I am 42 years old, my father is 67 and today I could have been 10 years old, him 35. Only he was a calmer, kinder, softer version and I was a more forgiving, grateful daughter.

“Of course you knew exactly what he wanted,” my husband said, after I bragged about our ability to work well together, “You are him!” 

It’s interesting to see so much of myself in my father – or I guess it’s more of how much of him I see in me. As I get older, my wrinkles mimic his and often my reflection startles me by the uncanny resemblance.

The father-daughter relationship is a complicated, intricately woven web formed over a lifetime of moments, experiences, interactions, and mistakes. Today I watched my dad in awe, the ever strong, can-do-everything man standing comfortably in the spotlight I’ve always reserved for him. Not only was he able to tile my wall, but also rip out a rusted toilet, rewire my electricity, and level a floor – all while dancing along to Diego’s Umbrella with me.

I have been critical and analytical of my father for years, especially in my writing this year. It doesn’t matter how strict my criteria is for fatherhood, I’ll forever be daddy’s girl.

“My Daughter is the Non-Immigrant at an Immigrant School” Club

Five months after I landed in New York City from the former Soviet Union, I had my first day at the public school across the streets from the projects in which we settled. It was an average school, (although I didn’t know the difference) and it was filled with kids just like me: fellow immigrants. We were Russian, Chinese, Korean, Indian; a quintessential New York City melting pot of culture. I wasn’t interested in the other cultures; I focused on the all-American kids: the Jennifers, Michelles, Matthews, and Davids; the ones I saw on Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss and Facts of Life. This was way before ABC saturated the market with a rainbow of sitcoms to accommodate many cultural demographic.

I was in awe of the “Amerikanskiye” kids, whereas my parents were often quick to point out all their flaws. I was jealous of their PTA-participating moms, their fashionable clothes, their modern lunchboxes, and their in vogue hairstyles. I was only in kindergarten and I already recognized my blatant differences. Aside from a name I would have to repeat a dozen times before they got it, I had toast with cream cheese and tea for breakfast rather than cereal with milk. I would drink my tea out of a “blyoodeechka” (saucer) so it would cool down faster.

Fast forward 35 years and my daughter is off to kindergarten and we live in a neighborhood which is also predominantly immigrants, only the difference is it is one-dimensional: 52% of our community is from Korea. We’ve enjoyed our emersion in their culture, eating Korean tofu soup, kimchi, spicy cucumbers weekly. 75% of my daughter’s class is Korean. She has Korean friends as well as Chinese, Indian, and Arabic friends but at one point, she confessed, “I wish there were more Jewish kids in my school.” While I felt a pang of guilt (not sure why), her comment actually validates my suspicion that most children will eventually go through the rite of passage of feeling like they don’t belong. Hopefully, it’s a transient learning experience.

This year she had a boy join the school who just came here from China. “He doesn’t speak any English,” she explained to me. “Not even one word. He doesn’t understand anything I say, especially ‘NO!’” I had to explain to her how hard and alienating it feels to be an outsider. Over time he’ll blend in and being an immigrant will just be one part of who he is – just like it is one part of who I am – and just another way in which humans connect, identify, and relate to one another. (Immigrant Club.)

I told my daughter about my first day of kindergarten. I didn’t speak any English and was terrified to be left alone without my parents. My grandmother, who at 87 still speaks broken English, was my translator for the day. I clenched the bottom of her dress for dear life, sobbing, begging her not to leave. My daughter laughed at the idea that “Baba Maya,” her great-grandmother, who needs a translator to communicate 98% of everything, would be MY translator. This notion that I was a scared, lonely child helped trigger an intense empathetic reaction.

I wonder how her experience will be different. I look at her and see her as the “cool and nice girl,” the one for whom reading and language and communicating is so easy, such an afterthought. Children have always been drawn to her; making friends comes easily and naturally to her. Her default is to love everybody and be inclusive. I was such a starkly different creature; born pragmatic realistic, full of doubt. My iron feet don’t lift from the ground while she floats on clouds gleefully.

Her exposure to the diverse cultures helps her understand differences and develop tolerance, which she will hopefully carry throughout her life in our global world. I imagine she is gaining an understanding of the idiosyncrasies in communicating with different cultures – with empathy and kindness rather than with ignorance and entitlement – and this will only serve her in life. I don’t want to raise a child who travels to France thinking they’ll speak to her in English.

Additionally, I have the parent perspective. Now I’m the “American” mom, which is baffling and makes me chuckle. At school pick up, I am the minority once again, a blonde in a sea of Koreans. They smile at my face of exclusion and giggle, but it feels polite and superficial and never quantified with anything beyond a smile and “hi.” In an ironic twist of fate, life has made me an outsider for the second generation, only, this time, I know better.