Every December, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of Jewish celebrations taking place across the United States. This is a continuing testimony to what I document and espouse in my recently published book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish. We Jews can rejoice in Jewish ways beyond the Hanukkah festival and embrace the goodwill generated by Christmas to find Jewish meaning in the December holiday season.
Saturday night marked the first night of Hanukkah. Menorah lightings will abound in homes and in public places. I presided over the menorah lighting at East 35th and Park Avenue in New York City at 5:00PM. We were crammed onto the median with cars whizzing by! Exciting but a bit on the dangerous side. I had never officiated at the lighting of a menorah in a public space!
Just overhead was the ethereal spire of the Empire State Building glowingly lit in blue and white and wrapped in mist! As with everything of import, there is a story surrounding the Hanukkah lighting of the Empire State Building. In 1997, nine-year-old Mallory Blair Greitzer wrote a letter to the management of the Empire State Building in Manhattan requesting that the color of the building’s tower lights be changed in honor of Hanukkah. This request was steadfastly rejected on the basis that the management’s policy limited the lights to honor each religion on one day per year. (The landmark’s lights are blue and white for Israel Independence Day.) Upon receiving this answer, Mallory asked her parents if she was Israeli. They explained that she was not, which prompted Mallory to write a second letter to Leona Helmsley, the management company’s owner. Mallory explained that she was not Israeli and therefore wondered what this policy meant for her and the other Jews in the country who were not Israeli. Against the advice of her staff, Helmsley granted Mallory’s request. In celebration of Hanukkah in 1997, the Empire State Building was (and each year thereafter) set alight with the colors blue and white. Grass roots campaigning at its best!
So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomena of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!
In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!
Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an Orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.
Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn—it’s a living.”
The underpinnings for playing Santa Claus are myriad. Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians, or whether from a yearning to be a participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.
If there is one consistent theme in the ongoing discoveries of my family history it is meaningful coincidence. Some people call this synchronicity. Our sages call it hasgacha pratit, Divine providence.
In 2009, I received an email from David Abitbol, whom I had met the year before when I presented at the Jewlicious Festival he co-founded in Los Angeles. David had made aliyah and spotted a vintage photograph of a Jerusalem couple named Alcalay displayed near his apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot. He asked if they were my relatives. I didn’t know. My mother didn’t know. My grandparents were no longer living so I couldn’t ask them. Months passed and the question lingered. If I could find more details about the image, I might discover how we are related.
If hobbies can be Jewish, genealogy certainly is. It’s a way of reclaiming our past despite centuries of persecution and loss. It’s also popular among “Holocaust families” like mine who dream of discovering a lost relative. Before the proliferation of genealogical sites on the Net, I consulted an Israeli professor of Sefardi history, Yom Tov Assis at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, about my mother’s family. Yom Tov told me all Alcalays are part of a large clan that left Spain at the time of the Inquisition and dispersed across the Mediterranean. While he was still alive, my grandfather, the son of a Jerusalem rabbi, told me we are direct descendants of an early Zionist thinker, Rabbi Yehuda Alcalay, the chief rabbi of Sarajevo. In his writings, Herzl credits Alcalay with many of the ideas for a future Jewish state. To honor that history, I inserted the montage of delegates at the first Zionist Congress held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland into my first book, Cool Jew. Two delegates were both descendants of Rabbi Alcalay, a granddaughter and a great nephew, who were married. Their names are David and Judith Alcalay; she was one of the relatively few women in attendance.
Months after David Abitbol sent me the image of the unknown Alcalays, I was invited to present at Limmud UK. Since I was traveling all the way from California, I added on a visit to Israel and recruited another friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, for help unraveling the mystery of the photo. I had met Yitzchak years earlier when we both taught in a Jewish spirituality retreat in Maui. Nachlaot’s labyrinthian streets easily swallow up newcomers but Yitzchak, who studies kabbalah in Nachlaot each night—all night—was happy to help. David had told me the image is one among many historic portraits embedded in Nachlaot’s walls; these displays honor early residents of one of the first neighborhoods outside the Old City with weather-protected photographs that represent a Jewish twist on “Lincoln slept here.” On one wall, there might be the image of Tevyeh the Milkman. On another, Rachel the seamstress.
We wandered the neighborhood in an impromptu tour, carefully reading every caption, enjoying the charming stories, but there was not one Alcalay among them. The sun began to set and soon, Yitzchak had to leave for his evening routine. I asked if we could quickly try just one more street before we gave up. We picked up our pace and turned another corner. There, we discovered a series of about 20 images, the largest yet, but one drew me directly to it and I began to cry. The photo features a family, including one young woman I immediately recognized as my grandmother. She had a stroke early in life and I barely knew her, but I “happened” to have visited her a week before she died and attended her funeral in the same cemetery as the Israelis martyred at the Munich Olympics.
My aunt had given me a copy of her family portrait soon after my grandmother passed away. I love it so much that I keep it on display in my home. By the time I discovered it in Nachlaot, I had already published it in Cool Jew. It accompanies a section on Jewish blood ties.
My grandmother, Yehudit Levy, z’l is shown seated in the far right corner, with her parents, siblings, niece and nephew.
It was only because I was searching that I found what I wasn’t seeking, a bond to Nachlaot I didn’t even know existed. This amazing series of meetings and friendships had led me to an unexpected gift came during Chanukah, when my grandmother was born. Her parents had named her Judith, in honor of one of the heroines of Chanukah, who slew the enemy ruler, Holofernes.
I was due in England soon but hoped to return to Nachlaot for the next major festival, Passover. I dreamt of commemorating our redemption and walking the streets my grandmother had, and where my great grandparents had before her.
I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.
On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.
The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.
Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.
The idea for Too Many Latkes! came from one of my fondest childhood memories. My mother was the office manager of our synagogue and in charge of organizing the annual “Latke Fundraiser.” She would always say, “This year we’re going to make a mountain of latkes!” Every year, all the latke cooks would gather at the temple on Hanukkah and fried huge amounts of latkes. They never quite made enough latkes for a mountain but the image stuck in my head.
When I had my own kids and we began a tradition of making elaborate holiday parties with ceremonies, music and song. I looked around for something entertaining that I could do. The first thing that came to mind was that latke mountain. Taking bits and pieces from the many stories I illustrated and animated for children?s programming in Israel and the US, I came up with the outline of Too Many Latkes! At the time I was a storyboard artist for Doug, the animated TV show and daily I would make little Post-It flip books to work out scripted action. It seemed natural to make Latkes into a big newsprint flip book that I could act out in front my guests, the way I would a storyboard pitch.
It became a big hit at Hanukkah and every year inevitably some body would ask when is it going to be a book. By the time I got around to seriously making it into book form, the nature of publishing and even drawing had changed. I no longer worked on paper. My drawings were done with a stylus in programs on computer screen. To keep the feeling of the large original black and white marker drawings on newsprint, I had to reduce, scan, color and touch up the drawings in PhotoShop. A lengthy process but well worth it since, the digital images loose little when published in paper or Ibook form.
Now I can do book readings using a computer slideshow, drawing tablet, speakers, projector and HD screen. However, there are places that are just too intimate for all those gadgets. So from the digital files, I’ve printed out again black and white images and made a new flipbook.
Some things never change.
The memory of my cousin handing me my first copy of MAD Magazine when I was 12 is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my hands tremble as I looked down at the cover painting of Alfred E. Neuman as a scarecrow. My cousin said this magazine was going to change my life and he was right. From that moment on I was hooked. I was a cartoonist. As I turned the pages I knew all I wanted to do was to make drawings that everybody would laugh at, just like that group of talented idiots.
This was also the time when I was obsessed with the Marx Brothers movies. There was no Netflix, Internet, VCRs, or 24/7 TV. There were just three channels on our black and white set and they usually went off the air before midnight. I’d scour the TV listings for weeks looking for one of their films. If one did appear it was usually scheduled beyond my bedtime. That night, when everyone was asleep, I’d sneak downstairs, turn on the TV with the volume just above a whisper and watch, my eyes as big as saucers, the incredible comic anarchy of the Marxes. The next morning, I’d trudge to school where I’d spend the better part of homeroom, Latin, and Geometry classes filling the margins of my notebooks with super heroes, goofy weirdoes and slimy monsters, inspired by my real mentors.
My first brush with notoriety came about from one of those doodles in Hebrew School. Sitting in the back of class, as the teacher pounded away at the blackboard on the pronunciation of Hebrew verbs, I drew a small little sketch of her dancing a hora, naked. Under it, I wrote “Mrs. K…. Blows!” I passed it to the kid next to me. He stifled a delighted guffaw. I thought he would pass it back but instead I saw it make its way around the class with the sound of suppressed giggles. The teacher, sensing something was up, grabbed the offending scrap. She went on a tirade, which consisted of what an offensive drawing it was and wanting to know what she had to “blow” about since she felt she was a very modest person. The poor lady didn’t get it.
My popularity went way up. From being just a face in the crowd, I was established as The Cartoonist for the rest of my school career. However, the teacher got her revenge when years later I lived and worked in Israel and sorely missed not having a better grasp of the pronunciation of those Hebrew verbs.
My obsession with cartoon drawing has enabled me to make a living from illustrations, editorial cartooning, storyboarding for commercials, TV animation and feature films. Now, with the publication of my own books, like Too Many Latkes!, I’ve returned to the seat at the back of the class. I still want to make people laugh when I draw.