Mar 2010 Journal

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Surviving Christnukah

It’s nearly spring, and spring cleaning has produced a Chanukah card from the back of a drawer. I have no idea who sent it, but then the thought of Chanukah always gives me a bad conscience because I have ignored it all my life. I suppose I started off on the wrong foot by being put in the Catholic stream in my primary school. The error was soon discovered, but the priest was reluctant to let me go - I made such a bright little Catholic. But my father wouldn’t even let him borrow me pour encourager les autres: he was a godless Jew, an ardent Zionist, who annulled his baptism when he was old enough to realise what his well-meaning parents had considered a smart career move in imperial Austria.

My father was a militant atheist. In the 45 years or so that I lived with him or he lived with me, I had never known him to visit a synagogue. We celebrated Christmas, of course, like so many bourgeois Jews, but the angel at the top of the tree was a decoration, not a declaration, just as our Turkish rugs didn’t make us Muslims. Christmas was a festival of light - everybody’s light - with the nightly glow from the windows in our street painting the snow red and gold, live carp sold from barrels full of icy water, and hot chestnuts and music on every corner.

My father took music seriously and, when we children were at last allowed into the drawing room, into the presence of the huge, silver-spangled tree and the pervasive odour of hot candle wax and fir, he was seated at the harmonium to play my very favourite carol: ‘Es ist ein Reis entsprungen’. We all sang, my mother’s clear voice soaring above ours, and even the servants, standing shyly to one side, joined in when it came to ‘O Tannenbaum’ and, inevitably, ‘Silent Night’.

A moment of stillness would follow, but then there was no holding back as we looked for our presents under the sheltering branches of the tree. High above us, my father stood ready to douse the occasional flare-up when the flames got too close to the needles, or the sparklers, suspended by their copper spines, caused small conflagrations.

There were two or three presents for each of us children: one big, two smaller – nothing like today’s hideous overload of parcels and packets whose wrapping gets ripped off in an unseemly frenzy, making a pile of waste bigger than that of the presents. Year in year out, I could count on one gift for certain: the latest volume of Dr. Doolittle, which I started on then and there and had usually finished by midday on Christmas Day.

Years went by, tectonic shifts of language, culture, geography, and I still hadn’t looked a menorah in the eye, until I watched Benno Elkan at work on the great seven-branched candelabrum that stands in front of the Knesset, symbolising the seven days of the creation and, incidentally, my immortality. The more important symbolism can be read up in Exodus; my contribution came about like this: Elkan, on the strength of two candelabra he had wrought for Westminster Abbey, was commissioned to sculpt the Great Menorah at a time when I shared a house with him in north London. Each branch was alive with figures from Jewish history and one day he needed a model to hold a certain position while he captured it quickly in plasticine. Would I mind taking my clothes off and oblige? I thought I was reasonably good looking, so why not?

‘The Jews enslaved,’ said Elkan. ‘I must make it a really scrawny figure. Your head I don’t need.’ Still, immortality of sorts, since a bit of me is there, on one of the arms, for ever I hope, and Elkan has not done badly either, with his each-way bet: Abbey and Knesset.

That was many years after ‘O Tannenbaum’, when I had children of my own, born in a country that celebrated Christmas in broad daylight and believed that carp tasted muddy. One year I had a really bright idea for celebrating Christmas. I had just got my commission as a second lieutenant and was hanging around Catterick Camp waiting for a posting. Why not round up enough Jewish private soldiers and NCOs to take over guard duties during Christmas? I put the idea to the senior sergeant major, an archetypal warrant officer, who, like all his ilk, thought newly-commissioned officers a threat to good order and military discipline. ‘You mean to have nothing but Jews running the camp?’

I explained that it was not so much a take-over - more a matter of letting the Christmas faction get on with their dinner. The idea was put to the camp commandant and approved. I found it easy to round up enough volunteers by going through the nominal roll, looking at the names. At 6 pm on Christmas Eve, my little band paraded and was very thoroughly looked over by the sergeant major. He couldn’t find the words to express his misgivings. All he came out with was ‘No gambling, mind. And this is live ammunition you’ve got.’

Two hours on, four hours off, is not the most entertaining way to spend 24 hours, but we had a constant stream of visitors during the night to marvel at the all-Jewish guard and offer mostly good-natured encouragement. The sergeant major spent a restless Christmas, looking in every two hours in case we had absconded with the stores or sold the camp to a property developer.

‘Did you run out of Jews?,’ he asked when it was all over. ‘Becker missed his Christmas dinner.’

‘I thought Becker was Jewish. He never said a word.’

‘He tells me he’s baptised,’ the sergeant major said. ‘Anyway, your lot can have next Christmas off,’ he added, still not in full possession of the point.

I found Christmas crackers, mottoes and paper hats hard to stomach, but cards presented a real culture shock. They kept coming - from absent friends, people next door, the plumber wishing me more blocked drains, arch-enemies from the office, and in-laws who saw my wife every day. Each card set a problem of taste, text and retaliation. Was it fair to recycle a Chanukah card, received as a freebie from a Jewish charity, to go with a tip to the dustman? Should I show up my neighbour’s appalling taste with an exquisite card of my own or outdo him in kitsch? And how could I keep religion out of it without appearing ridiculously bland? In the end, I relied on the usual reproductions of old masters, charity cards painted by mouth, winter landscapes that anticipated climate change. Sometimes, when I felt really aggressive, I just wrote the figures 3761 on a plain card to show how much longer we have been going than they.

Victor Ross

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