Hanukkah gelt, for the uninitiated, is the chocolate, foil-covered coins given to children at Hannukkah. If you’ve ever played the Dreidle game, you might have used gelt to make bets on the fall of the dreidl. Growing up as an excellent goyishe boy ( a gentile rather than a Jew) in New York City, I spun many a dreidle with my Jewish friends and cousins. At my parent’s home, it was the angel over the nativity, and at my friend’s homes, it was the Menorah.
Meanwhile, at uncle Joe and aunt Lee’s, I’d better know how to thank you and enough in Italian when I visited during the holidays.
To add to this polytheistic, multi-ethnic atmosphere, my grandmother took orders for shopping from her observant neighbors before the sabbath. Grandma knew English, Spanish, native German and Hungarian, and Yiddish. Grandma’s Hungarian Poppyseed bread made the rounds of all the family and friends of all traditions at Christmas time.
It was years before I realized that these experiences were neither universal nor appreciated by all.
If love is not blind, it certainly has severe vision problems. One year my affections drifted to a woman whose family found these traditions reprehensible. My lover asked me to “tone it down” when around her relatives. Like most New Yorkers of my generation, my speech is peppered with Yiddish, Italian and Spanish bits. If someone behaves crazily, I’ll say he’s meshugana. It’s not something I think about consciously. My lover ground her teeth at this.
When asked to go home to meet her family that Christmas, I got told to be careful what I said. Her family holiday traditions admitted no polluting trends from elsewhere. Instead, they insisted on their “purity,” ignoring the fact that “American” Christmas was itself a patchwork of borrowed traditions.
Before dinner, things grew tense when grandpa asked me,” who are your people?”, ” What do you mean?” “Well, you’ve got a funny name.”
In reply, I began to lay out the family’s genealogy, including the pirates, Catalan, Hungarian, Caribean British, Scots, and other gory details. Grandpa blanched. I was a mongrel!
Eventually, this abraded my built-in anthropological sense of cultural relativism. Over dinner, I started by singing Hava Negila. Then I began liberally salting my speech with Spanish and Yiddish. To top it off I began to recite a bit of the Enuma Elish – the Babylonian creation myth. Who says anthropologists can’t be the life of the party?
All this proved to be a bit too much for my hosts. My love asked me how I could do this to her? I replied that her family had a right to know what they would get for a son-in-law. This caused grandpa to clutch his chest and fall forward into a plate of cranberry sauce. To cap this off, I leered suggestively at her sister. As a collective, the family recoiled. ” So, the engagement is off?”
Yes, the engagement was off, and I was on the road from Vermont home to my tiny apartment in Eastie for Christmas with my terror of a cat who left me a mouse under the Christmas tree.
Sincerity is to be valued.