The December Dilemma – Part 2

Note:  As a reminder before picking up my story where I left off, Santa Claus had come to the daycare center. I attended and gave Leah and Dan gifts instead of allowing Santa to deliver them and the daycare center agreed to form a committee of parents and staff to look at the holiday celebration for the future.

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Photo from the ADL

As Amy promised, a committee was formed. The committee decided that a survey of parents would be helpful in determining what steps to take.  Since I had a master’s degree in public administration and was on leave from a doctoral program in public policy, I had taken several classes on social science research methods, so I volunteered to help with the survey design and collate the results.

It’s funny but I remember very little about the survey itself – I don’t recall what questions we asked. I do remember, quite clearly, that several parents used the open-ended question to explain that this was a Christian country and if others didn’t like it, they could go back where they came from. For Gary and I that would mean going back to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively – which were (and are) still part of this country, though some might like to deny it.

I was shocked and hurt. While it was only a small number who expressed their view in such an extreme way, I hadn’t expected it. I was especially distressed that this represented views of people employed by the medical center, a group that I thought would be more enlightened.

Despite my dismay, I collated the results and prepared a summary. Frankly, I don’t recall what the survey said in terms of Santa Claus visiting, but I think it must have been inconclusive. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the information the survey did provide and give the daycare center administrators feedback on what to do for the coming year.

Once again, I left work and got on the bus to go to the center. A stop after mine another woman got on the bus and I recognized her as a parent from the center. I believe all parents were invited to attend the meeting, even if they had not participated in the committee. We smiled at each other and she sat down near me.

“Are you going to the meeting?” I asked. She nodded and we introduced ourselves and started chatting. I explained how Santa’s visit the year before had affected my family and that I was hoping that the center would consider changing how they celebrated Christmas. She nodded sympathetically. “I can see how that would be difficult,” she said.

We continued chatting as we got off the bus and found our way to the conference room. The meeting had quite a turnout – all the seats were taken. Extra chairs were brought in, not everyone could fit at the table.

The room felt tense to me. I don’t recall why I felt that way, but I know, even before a word was spoken, that I felt defensive. I told myself to breathe and relax.

The director and assistant director led the discussion. I reported the results of the survey, including sharing some of the disagreeable (to me) comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation devolved. I made my case: Santa Claus may be considered an American symbol to many, but not to non-Christians. Also, Santa can be seen at malls, community centers, churches, on television, etc., so if a parent wanted their child to experience a visit with Santa Claus, it wasn’t difficult to arrange.

The assistant director was outraged by my comments. If looks could kill, I would be dead. “Why should the children be deprived of Santa’s visit?” she asked, leaning across the table, accusation in her eyes. This was clearly a very personal thing to her, as it was to me.

“I was there when Santa came,” I reminded her, “and several kids were crying and others didn’t seem to care.” I was thinking that this should actually be the central point.

“I saw children having fun!” she retorted.

This wasn’t going well. I was getting angrier and angrier. At that point, I stopped participating.

The meeting continued for a bit longer. The director, to sum things up, said that they (the staff) would make a final decision about Santa and inform parents within a week. I left thinking they were going to keep things as they were, given that the staff seemed so invested in it and there weren’t very many parents objecting.

As I walked out of the meeting and headed back to the bus stop to go back to work, the woman I came in with stopped me. “It would’ve been much better if you could have explained it the way you did to me on the bus. You were too strident.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry. I told her I would’ve like to have done that, too. I kept walking.

I sat on the bus thinking about what she said. Was it me? Did I present my case poorly? I know I was wound up, and I probably did come across too strong. But, I couldn’t help myself. I felt under attack.

The daycare center kept its policy of having Santa visit. We went through the same process as the year before.

One day, as we approached Christmas, one of Dan’s teachers, who had been Leah’s the year before, asked us if we had gotten our Christmas tree yet. I said no and left it at that. What was the point of explaining it yet again? Was it willful ignorance?

Leah was to start Kindergarten the following fall. She would be attending School 16, the public elementary school a few blocks from our house. The Albany Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered an aftercare program with transportation from School 16. We looked at whether it made sense to move Dan at that point, too, so that they would continue to be in the same place.

The JCC daycare program was more expensive (Dan was three when we were considering this) – plus the medical center took the cost of day out of the Gary’s pre-tax salary. We had to considered whether we could afford to make the move.

It wasn’t much of a decision to make. We moved to Dan and Leah to the JCC that summer so they would be settled in before Leah began Kindergarten in the fall. In many ways, it was a relief. While Gary and I weren’t interested in putting our children in a Jewish setting for their education or care, it did make things easier for the time being.

It wasn’t the end of our battles over Christmas celebrations, we had a few in the public schools, but none so painful and fruitless as that first one.

The December Dilemma

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Celebrating Leah’s birthday at Kidskeller (daycare center). Dan is to her right.

It was late fall of 1990. I went through the revolving door of my office building to leave for the day, as I did five days a week. By the time I emerged on the sidewalk, every thought about work evaporated. It was like crossing into another world, one totally focused on Leah and Daniel (my children, aged 3 years and 18 months). If I offered to bring something from home to a colleague at work, let’s say a book, by the time I got to the street, the thought was gone. No chance I’d remember to bring it. The next day I’d arrive back at the office, realize I had forgotten and apologize to my colleague. It was hopeless. My brain was on overload.

In the fall of 1990 Gary was in his second year of his endocrine fellowship, his fifth year of post-medical school training. I was working full time for the New York State Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review. Leah and Daniel attended a daycare center, Kidskeller, that was part of Albany Medical Center, where Gary was in training.

Each day I’d leave work, take a bus to VA hospital where our car was parked. I would take the car to the daycare center and pick up the kids and drive home. Sometime later in the evening, Gary would call and I would put the kids in the car and pick him up. Honestly, I don’t know how our marriage survived those years– at times we were hanging on by our fingernails.

On one particular day, I got to Kidskeller and was getting stuff from Leah’s cubby. As was often the case, there was a note from the head of the program with information about upcoming events. I quickly read it and saw that Santa Claus would be visiting the center in a few weeks. I took a deep breath, folded the note and put it in the bag with Leah’s other stuff. The same note was in Dan’s cubby. I would read it more carefully later that night.

After Gary got home and had dinner, I showed him the note, which asked parents to bring a small wrapped gift for their child so that Santa could distribute it when he visited.  We were not happy. I resented being required, in effect, to get gifts when money was so crazy tight. I also resented having Santa Claus imposed on us – he was ubiquitous already! While some Jews may partake of Christmas rituals, we didn’t. I enjoyed the lights and decorations that brighten the season, but we didn’t exchange gifts or acknowledge Santa Claus and we didn’t want that for our children.

We were surprised that a daycare associated with a medical center would approach the holiday without recognizing the awkward position in which it would put non-Christian parents and children. After discussing it, Gary and I decided that it was likely too late to ask them to change the plan, but we would talk to the director so that maybe other plans could be considered in the years to follow. In the meantime, I would come to the center at the appointed hour with a gift for Leah and Dan and give it to them myself.

The next day I stopped by the day care director’s office and asked if I could schedule a time to meet with her. I told her it was about the center’s plans for Christmas. She readily agreed and we set aside some time the following week.

I arrived at the meeting as relaxed as possible. I knew there was nothing to be gained by going in loaded for bear.

“Amy, I wanted to explain how the plan to have Santa Claus come to the center, and give gifts to the kids, put Gary and I in a difficult position,” I began.

I went on to explain that we didn’t view Santa Claus as a secular figure and that we didn’t observe Christmas. She listened. I think it came as a surprise to her that we were troubled by Santa Claus, as she didn’t see him as a religious symbol at all.

We agreed that there wouldn’t be any change to that year’s plan. She understood that I would come with my own gifts for Leah and Daniel. We also agreed that the center would form a committee of parents and staff to discuss holiday observances and make recommendations for the future. I was pleased that she was willing to do that.

The day of Santa’s visit arrived. I left work, taking my lunch hour, to go over to the center. Santa was scheduled to visit Dan’s room first. The children, who were between 18 months and two years old, were sitting on the floor in a circle. Their care givers and a couple of other parents were spread throughout the room. Dan climbed into my lap. Santa was led in by the assistant director. Santa sat in a chair and read off each child’s name, inviting each to come up and get their present. After some cajoling by an adult, most of the kids toddled up to Santa. Only one or two cried. The adults were smiling and laughing. I gave Dan his small gift. Santa left and moved on to the next age group.

I left Dan and went to Leah’s room. She was with the 3-4 year olds. While some of the kids were still reticent, more of them shared the excitement of the adults. I gave Leah her present. She seemed a bit perplexed, but was always excited to get a gift.

I went back to work, struck by the feeling that Santa’s visit meant more to the adults than the children.

When I went back to pick up Leah and Dan at the end of the day, one of Leah’s teachers asked Leah if she would hang the ornament they had made on her Christmas tree. Leah turned to look at me, not sure how to answer. I smiled and said, ”We don’t have a Christmas tree, but we’ll give it to someone who does.”  Cathy said, “Oh, you don’t? Hmmm.” I took Leah’s hand and we went to get Dan.

Driving home, Leah asked, “Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?” I explained that we aren’t Christian and we don’t celebrate the holiday. We celebrate other holidays. “I wish we celebrated Christmas,” Leah said wistfully. “I understand, Leah. We can still enjoy the lights and stuff. We just won’t be observing it in our house.” I changed the subject, “What should we have for dinner?”

I hadn’t expected to confront this so soon. She was three and a half.

That wasn’t close to the end of it.

(My next blog post will relate what happened with the day care center committee and the following year’s holiday season.)

 

On Turning 58

Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.

On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday.  Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it?  And, so what if it was a little stale?  It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.

There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.

My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!

For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come.  As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.

The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!

I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.

Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.

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Shana tova.

An Unexpected Weekend in Erie, PA

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Gary had a break for the Christmas holiday during his second year of medical school and I had off from work at the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department, so we planned a trip to Buffalo. Where else would one go during Christmas week?

Why Buffalo? In a remarkable turn of events, my two brothers married two sisters who were from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo. Consequently, though my brothers and their wives lived in New Jersey and Albany respectively, they frequently spent the holidays with their mutual in-laws. In addition, my closest friend, Merle, was getting her PhD in psychology at the University of Buffalo. So we decided to make the trip for the long weekend. It promised to be fun, especially since I would also get to see my totally adorable almost two year old nephew.

We had a car – barely. I had purchased my uncle’s 1972 Toyota Celica for $100. It had a manual transmission. It rarely started when I turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately Pittsburgh is quite hilly so we would most often push the car to the nearest hill, get it rolling and pop it into gear. Renting a car seemed much more sensible than risking the trip with the Celica, so we did.

December 24 was a cold, partly sunny day in Pittsburgh in 1983. We picked up the rental and started north on route 79. We were enjoying the ride, listening to music and munching on some snacks. About 90 miles out of Pittsburgh some snow started to fall – we were approaching Meadville. We weren’t too concerned and continued on our way.

The snow grew heavier and heavier as we proceeded north. This was the definition of lake effect snow. By the time we got to the turnoff for route 90 East, just outside of Erie, we were in whiteout conditions. I opened my window and leaned my head out and tried to help Gary to stay on the road. We literally could barely see a foot in front of us.

We saw a sign for an upcoming exit and decided we had to get off the road. At the end of the ramp was a Holiday Inn, we pulled into its parking lot and debated what to do. It was still barely past noon. We listened to the weather forecast on the radio. They were reporting blizzard conditions in Erie. No kidding!!! It didn’t sound promising.

Other cars were following us off the road and into the parking lot and we realized that if we didn’t register soon, we might not get a room. Gary parked, we took our suitcases and, as it turned out, got the last room available.

We settled in, turned on the tv, read the newspaper that we brought from Pittsburgh and relaxed. We called Merle and then we called my brothers’ in-laws. While conditions weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo, the New York State Thruway was closed. We agreed that we would wait and see if we could continue the trip the next morning. Meanwhile conditions worsened outside. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted.

We thought we would venture out for dinner, since there was a restaurant just down the road. We bundled up and left our room to find cots in the hallway and in the conference room near by. We were quite lucky that we got that room. I felt bad for the families that were celebrating their Christmas on cots in the hallway.

We made our way to the car with difficulty, the wind had caused impressive snow drifts. Looking at the accumulated snow, it was still snowing hard, the wind was howling, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. In the short time that we had been outside, my feet were nearly frozen. We hurried back into the Holiday Inn.

The staff set up tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone. That was dinner and we were grateful for it.

We went back to our room and went to sleep.

The next day, Christmas day, was brilliantly sunny. We had gotten over two feet of snow, the wind was still blowing and the temperature, without windchill, was barely above zero. We went out to clear the car off and see if we could go get some breakfast. The car wouldn’t start! I called AAA. It was going to be a while until they could get to the car. We went back to the room.

The day before we had exhausted most of the resources we had with us to entertain ourselves. We got pretty creative (perhaps not the way some people would get creative). Using the chart in the newspaper, we quizzed each other on the high and low temperatures in cities across the United States and world. It was amazing how long we amused ourselves with that! Our room had sliding glass doors that had thick frost on them and we played hangman in the ice. The window would refrost fast so we were able to play multiple rounds!

Now it was Christmas day and since the car wouldn’t start, we flipped through the channels on the television. The options were quite limited. In that day and age, I don’t think the motel had cable, there were only three stations available in a place like Erie. The Yule log was on one channel. Another was off the air for the holiday. The last one featured the local middle school choir singing Christmas carols. While that was on, we saw a commercial advertising an NCAA basketball game coming up at noon. We couldn’t believe our luck, we love college basketball! At least we’d have something to watch for a couple hours.

The appointed time came and the local station announced that they were going to replay the middle school Christmas concert! Gary and I were beside ourselves. I pulled out the telephone book and found the number for the tv station. Gary called and surprisingly someone answered. Gary asked why they were replaying the concert when the network was broadcasting a basketball game. The person on the phone was none too pleased to be bothered and explained, as if Gary was an idiot, that it was Christmas and this is what people would want to watch. Gary responded, “It’s Christmas in Pittsburgh, too, but they’re getting to watch basketball! Why can’t we?!!” Not surprisingly, the guy from the station wasn’t moved by Gary’s argument. Gary slammed the phone down in frustration.

By the time the car got jumped, it was dinner time, too late to leave. We realized that it didn’t make sense to continue on to Buffalo. We decided we would stay another night in the Holiday Inn and go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Fortunately, we were able to drive to the Ground Round for dinner! We enjoyed a cocktail and took our time eating. At least we were out of the hotel!

To our great relief, the next morning the car started. It was still brutally cold. We got back on route 79 and headed south. We were disappointed in how the weekend turned out, to say the least. Not to mention the money we spent for our trouble. Just to put a cherry on top, a bird dive bombed into the middle of the front windshield as we were driving. I don’t know why the suicidal bird picked our car, but now it was splattered across the windshield. Gary tried using the wipers, but the fluid was frozen and the wipers just smeared the bird’s remains. I had a brilliant idea. I had a cup of diet soda that I thought I could rinse the feathers and blood off. I leaned out the window and poured it on the mess. It froze instantly! Now the bird remains were coated with diet coke – at least if I had been drinking 7up it wouldn’t have looked so awful. We pulled over to clean it enough to see, and then continued on our way, shaking our heads in disbelief.

We made it back to Pittsburgh without further incident. We returned the car and said nothing to the agent about the mess on the window. As we walked away we started laughing. The whole weekend had been so preposterous. We laughed so hard there were tears rolling down our cheeks. At least we survived and had a story to tell.

A Godfather Seder

Jewish holidays were associated with certain traditions when I was growing up. Horrific traffic was often part of it.

Rosh Hashana was celebrated by going to Aunt Simma’s house in Port Washington for a family dinner. We battled the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. My father never learned to cope with it despite being a life-long resident of Brooklyn – he may have invented road rage. All of us in the car tried to become invisible, silently shrinking into our seats so as not to increase his wrath. We tried to ignore his steady stream of invective. My mother would make excuses for the poor choices of the other drivers. After someone cut us off, she might suggest, ”Maybe his child has a stomach ache and he’s just trying to get home faster.” Somehow this didn’t help.

Traveling ever so slowly to Long Island, I would look out as the houses changed to single family, larger homes with lovely landscaping. Arriving in Port Washington it seemed a different world from my own with its dirty sidewalks, postage stamp-sized lawns and multifamily, attached homes.

Although Rosh Hashana is a high holiday on the Jewish calendar that for many meant hours in synagogue, our celebration was an excuse to gather as a family and have traditional foods like chicken soup, brisket and noodle kugel.

Passover meant dealing with the traffic on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Aunt Diane’s apartment was on West 104th street between Broadway and West End Avenue. In those days, when New York City was the murder capital of the world, each block was a different neighborhood. 104th west of Broadway was safe, 103rd east of Broadway wasn’t. Gentrification wasn’t even a concept yet. One thing remains the same – looking for parking was, and is, a nightmare.

Their apartment, on the 16th floor, was overheated so the windows were open. I would stand in front of the window in the bathroom and look out at the city – listening to the traffic and sirens, feeling the cool air, looking at the lights, imagining the lives in the apartment buildings across the way – I relished the feeling of being both removed from and in the midst of the energy of the city.

One Passover seder in particular was memorable – not really for the seder itself, but for what my family did afterwards.

The seder was a long, involved affair, filled with ritual and song. Uncle Paul came from a long line of rabbis and his family knew many traditional melodies. It was their custom to discuss the story of the Exodus and its various interpretations. It took a very long time to get to the matzoh ball soup.

This particular year the movie The Godfather had just come out, it had opened a few days earlier and was playing to sold out theaters in the city. My Dad was dying to see the movie. He was not a religious man, dubious about the existence of God and not one to enthusiastically partake of Jewish rituals. Attending the seder at his sister’s house evoked many conflicting emotions for him: his relationship with his sisters and parents was strained at best, he hated the traffic, he didn’t exactly get along with his brother-in-law and though the lesson of Passover, remembering our oppression and valuing freedom, was a core value, he probably could have done without the lengthy service.

Finally, the seder concluded at about 11:00 p.m. When we got to the car, Dad asked my mom, “Feige, what do you think? Can we get in to see ‘The Godfather’ now?”

The movie was playing around the clock in certain Manhattan theaters.

My mother, always ready for a movie, said, “Why not? Let’s try.”

“You kids okay with that,” Dad asked. Mark and I shrugged, okay. (Steven was away working at a hotel in the Poconos.)

We drove to the east side (getting crosstown through Central Park without traffic!) and were relieved to find that there were seats available. We got tickets for the midnight showing. I was 12 years old. My father, who had grown up in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, was fascinated by the mob. I teased him about reading “The Don is Dead” multiple times. He read every book that came out about the Mafia. His parents, who owned a small grocery, had personal experience with mobsters who provided protection in the neighborhood.

I vividly recall certain scenes from the movie – one involving a horse’s head and another Sonny Corleone’s demise. I’m thinking it probably wasn’t a great choice for me at that age and at that hour of the night. But it was memorable.

The movie ended at about 3 in the morning. As he drove us back to Canarsie, Dad expounded on why he thought it was such a great movie. We hit no traffic. A perfect ending to our seder night.