A Christmas story for us Jews

A world of free will and profound unfairness, not of miracles and deus ex machina

2812-freedman (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
As the sun slid down toward the horizon on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I was walking along the bluffs above the Mississippi River. Four inches of feathery snow had fallen the previous night, and in the storm's wake the sky was a crystal dome. I could hear the crunch of my every step, watch the white plume left by each breath. The stillness around me on this day, even in the midst of a Midwestern city, made me think for a moment of Jerusalem just before Shabbat, when all the wheels have stopped turning. Yet the silence also conveyed a sense of isolation, the isolation one inevitably feels as a Jew at Christmastime. Everybody else, or so it seemed, was home for a holiday that is not ours. I say so as a matter of fact rather than complaint. I have no time for those American Jews who would play the yuletide victim. In its civic religion of diversity, the United States pays plenty of attention to Hanukka, too. Over the past few years, I have seen schoolchildren on an army base in North Carolina and a Mennonite town in rural Iowa learning about it. Still, both popular culture and fine art serve as pointed reminders of our Jewish alienation from America's Christian origins. Every holiday performance of The Nutcracker, every ritual screening of It's A Wonderful Life, every public-radio broadcast of The Messiah, every neighborhood round of caroling attests, at its foundation, to a religious narrative we do not share, no matter how the ecumenical mash-up known as "Chrismukkah" tries to elide the irreconcilable differences. ALL OF which brings me to the Christmas story that we American Jews can wholly embrace, because it is one rooted in our sacred texts. I am referring to Oscar Hijuelos's magnificent novel from 1995, Mr. Ives' Christmas. There is indeed plenty of Christmas in the book, and plenty of Catholicism, for Hijuelos is a sympathetic and knowledgeable writer about his own faith. The novel, however, is not an adaptation of the nativity story or even the more general, contemporary tales of Christian gratitude. Hijuelos has written, or I should say rewritten, the Book of Job. His protagonist, known only as Ives, is a modestly successful advertising man in Manhattan in the 1960s, a commercial artist whose deep faith and temperate tastes have nothing in common with the Madison Avenue sharpies recently reincarnated on the cable show Mad Men. Ives reserves his greatest pride for his son Robert, a 17-year-old who is about to enter a Catholic seminary. Just a few pages into the novel, and with devastating matter-of-factness, Hijuelos mentions that a few days before Christmas 1967, while leaving his parish church after a choir rehearsal, Robert was shot dead by the sort of young sociopath known back then as a "juvenile delinquent." "In his retirement and much slowed down," Hijuelos writes, "Ives still had days when he blamed his son's death on God's 'will.' God had timed things so that his murderer, his face scowling, came walking down the street just as his son and a friend were standing around talking - A kid, now a man, whom Ives should have forgiven, but couldn't, even when he tried to - Lord, that was impossible - so filled was his heart with a bitterness and confusion of spirit that had never gone completely away." Again transmuting Job, Hijuelos goes on to describe Ives in his afflictions: "There had been his bad dreams and his bad skin, tormenting maladies that had come about after the death of his son and had gotten gradually worse, not better, with time, Ives keeping [his wife] Annie up on many a night with his twisting about and endless scratching. There had been his daylong silences and his overwhelming solemnity toward the most ordinary things, like going to a movie, and the way he would sometimes stand by the window at night for hours, as if waiting for someone." Ives does ultimately have a moment of rapture in the book, and such rapture is resolutely Christian. But his struggle with God, indeed his anger and doubt, strike me as profoundly Jewish theological concepts. Ives lives in a world of free will and profound unfairness, not of miracles and deus ex machina. IT DOES not surprise me that, of all American writers, Hijuelos would be the one to produce this kind of artistry. One of his subsequent novels, A Simple Habana Melody, was inspired by the experience of a Cuban musician in Paris, Moises Simon, who was sent to a concentration camp because the Nazis assumed (incorrectly) he was a Jew. In creating a fictional version, whom he named Israel Levis, Hijuelos offered a somber meditation on the Shoah, an act of gentile humility in the face of Jewish tragedy. Mr. Ives' Christmas is a reckoning with smaller, more personal calamity, and yet it echoes with the same ontological questions. In the way of a great book, it haunts me, calls me to locate and linger over its tough and poignant words, this time of year especially. Oscar Hijuelos's gift to us is a Christian novel with a Yiddishe neshama, a Jewish soul.