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I was the eldest of a US Army family that travelled all over the world. I lived in Japan, Hawaii, France and on stateside army bases before marrying Ari. Daddy was an old-fashioned man who, though a decorated soldier, was severely traumatized by the war and the Holocaust. He believed that the best thing for his children was to be secular. I was much older before I felt cheated by his decision.
I had heard the word "Jewish" but had no idea what it entailed. I didn't know if it was a race or a religion. When I asked my dad I was told I was an American. Period. Our relatives ran the gamut from secular to Orthodox and everything in between, but we were far from home most of my life. I cannot recall a single Jewish holiday that was spent with any of them.
When I was 13, I lived in France. Dad arranged for me to play the piano and organ for the army rabbi. That was my first real exposure to the faith of my fathers. It was little more than a nuisance assignment for me, dad's attempt to prevent me from noticing boys. How could I not notice all the men in uniform at Friday meeting? Excuse me? The rabbi was nice, but not particularly vigilant. He wasn't especially interested in whether a teenaged musician was going through the paces of her birthright. It was okay, I really didn't want to be there. It seemed more like a social club for adults only. I never saw any of my friends there, but I did see some of their parents. The first time I ever heard of Hanukka, or any of the Jewish holidays, was that year.
"Colonel Fernandez and his wife were at the Shabbos services," I reported to my dad, who didn't come, but picked me up when the meeting was over.
"Really," my dad said. "I had no idea he was one of us." I had no clue what my dad was talking about.
His daughter Caroline was in my class at school, a sometimes friend. I was the one she called on if she needed help with math, but we didn't run in the same circles. On a particularly cold day we found ourselves walking from the bus toward our houses, laughing and talking. "Oh hey," she said, "do you want to see our Christmas tree?" "Sure," I said.
It was a status symbol, after all. The nicer your Christmas tree, the higher up the food chain you were. If you had a particularly nice one, and especially if it was stocked high with presents, you could invite your friends in to see it. Like all of our friends, we had a tree, front and center, in the middle of our living-room window. I was a musician, playing in the school's Christmas pageant. I still shrug about it today. It was what you did in an army school.
I checked in with my mother, showed off our tree to Caroline, shook a present or two and then accompanied her to her house. She was a latchkey kid, so she opened up the door into the empty, chilly house. She had a routine and she kept to it, turning up the heat, putting away her things. I couldn't help but notice, immediately, that there was no tree in her window, or anywhere in the downstairs of her house.
Then, as now, I wouldn't ask an embarrassing question of a friend. I wondered what was up.
Caroline made us some hot chocolate, which I welcomed, as her house was as cold as a tomb. We gossiped for a few minutes, but then I had a time limitation, and I asked her what math problem she wanted to work on. We were taking algebra, and I knew my way around it well enough to explain a thing or two. I explained how it worked and we solved a few problems until I had finished her homework. I hadn't exactly planned it that way.
We talked a little more, and the subject of a Christmas tree never came up. I felt slightly embarrassed for her, because I knew her dad was an officer, and surely they could afford one. Young minds don't push much past their experiences.
I started pulling on my coat and gloves, talking incessantly. She started clearing the table.
I went into my good-byes when she stopped me. "Don't you want to see my Christmas tree?" she asked.
I wasn't sure if it was a trick question. "Sure," I said. Maybe it was one of those one-foot jobs like the people had next door. It sat in a crockery pot all year long on the back porch, and then went inside with five pieces of tinsel and a couple of candy canes at Christmas. "It's because our kids are grown," the neighbor said to my mother. Or like Sergeant Diamond's, on the other side of us - another "one of us" dad said - whose Christmas tree lights blinked on and off from a back bedroom, but couldn't be seen from the front sidewalk.
She walked straight to the front door. I tried to think of something clever, because obviously there was no tree, but she stopped by the hallway closet, opened it, then dropped to her knees, pulled out an electric cord and plugged it into the wall. The prettiest little tree lit up and started to twinkle. To heighten the effect, Caroline turned off the house lights. I watched it for a minute, took note of the presents underneath it and noted that there were presents on the shelf above the tree. It was perfectly formed, about three feet tall, and slender enough to fit easily inside the closet.
"But why is your tree inside the closet?" I blurted out.
"Because we're Jewish," she said, smiling.
At least I've got it right now.
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