Arts & Culture
Why I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus, Part 2
Matt Rothschild, former Lit Klatsch blogger, has allowed Jewcy to post the first chapter of his book, Dumbfounded. This is the second of three installments. My grandfather’s preoccupation with the rules of our elitist surroundings was probably why our apartment was … Read More
My grandfather’s preoccupation with the rules of our elitist surroundings was probably why our apartment was bare of the usual symbolism with which most Jewish people decorate their homes. There was no mezuzah to kiss upon entering the apartment, no "shana tova" cards on the fridge, no menorah to remind us of a miraculous history. All this makes me wonder now, if our neighbors didn’t want us there, why was it so important for us to stay? Why did he care so much? My grandfather was something of a martyr in this way, which is great-in theory-but who wants to fight a cultural war in the elevator of an apartment building? Certainly not my grandmother. She stayed all those years on Fifth Avenue because of one proud Jewish characteristic: spite. For her, living on Museum Mile and raising hell was a constant reminder that she could not be ignored.
"Isn’t my money just as good as theirs?" she’d ask whenever my grandfather would ask her to please behave in front of our neighbors.
"Sophie, it’s my money," my grandfather would answer.
"What is this, the old country? What’s yours is mine, and isn’t my money good enough?"
It’s strange to think my grandparents really believed that religion was the only thing separating us from our neighbors, because I wasn’t told we were Jewish until I was in the second grade. And even then my grandparents only told me because I wanted to know why Santa never visited me but regularly made pilgrimages to all the other kids at school.
"Because you were bad," my grandmother explained. "Santa only visits good children."
Sarcasm was not something I understood. I was also more gullible than Hansel and Gretel then, and since I was often in trouble, I just nodded and took her word for it.
But my grandfather cleared his throat behind the NewYork Times.
"The cough drops are in the other room," my grandmother said, not looking up from her crossword puzzle.
He dropped the newspaper and glared at his wife.
My grandmother rolled her eyes and turned back to me. She sighed. "Matthew, Santa doesn’t visit because we don’t celebrate Christmas."
From what I heard, Christmas was an entire day devoted to presents, so why wouldn’t we celebrate it? My friends said Santa brought them horses and toy cars and cashmere pea coats. I really wanted a horse like the one I saw on Mister Ed,and I thought this Santa might be just the man to provide it.
"We have Hanukkah," she said. "Don’t be greedy."
Hanukkah? I thought. I never get anything good on Hanukkah.
"But why can’t I have both?" I asked.
My grandmother was a woman who had an answer for every question. She looked at me and said, "Goddamn it, Matthew, ask your grandfather."
So I did. He put aside his newspaper, took off his glasses, and began explaining religion in a way that might appeal to a second grader.
"Christmas is the time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. We don’t celebrate Christmas because we’re not Christian. We’re Jewish." He studied my face for a reaction.
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I nodded in agreement. He patted me on the head and returned to his newspaper. My grandmother, understanding that nothing had been accomplished, shook her head, and I walked back to my room, thinking, Who was Jesus? How was he related to Santa? Most important, where were my presents?
"This is all America’s fault," I heard my grandfather say from the living room. "In France there is no Sandy Clause."
"In France," said my grandmother, "there are no Jews."
. . . .
I never knew any Jewish people in school, at least none who advertised it. My grandparents wanted me to have a well-rounded education, so they sent me to a school without religious affiliation. That was my grandmother’s decision-my grandfather’s only stipulation was that it be a school where the best families in New York sent their children. Since it was New York City in the 1980s, this basically meant I was a Jewish student receiving a Christian education from a secular school.
My first school was calledthe Briar Patch. Or the School of Happy Thoughts. Or something equally ridiculous. Like other schools on the Upper East Side, it created meaningless honors for the benefit of overeager parents who were petrified their kids wouldn’t get accepted into the Ivy League universities. At my school the most prestigious of these honors was the much-coveted Student of the Month Award. It was supposed to go to one deserving student each month, but after the parents’ organization threatened to cut their annual contribution to the endowment, Mr. Dennis ("Dennis the Menace" I heard some teachers call him), the headmaster, changed the rules. Now, instead of to one deserving student, the Student of the Month Award went to at least a dozen. This way all the students in the school got a shot, at least once a year, and all honorees were already on their way to the Ivies.
When my second-grade teacher placed my name on the long easel on December 1, it meant that it was finally my turn. This was big news. I was an only child, spoiled but craving more attention, and I was thrilled. Afterall, the lucky honoree got to wear a hat! And he or she was photographed! Sure the hat was made of construction paper-it looked more like a dunce cap than the Indian chief’s hat it was intended to-but it would be my dunce cap. I would be the chief! Meanwhile, it goes without saying that if there were no obvious Jews at my school, there were certainly no Native Americans.
Student of the Month honorees were always announced on the first day of each month. Even so, I was surprised, ungroomed, and that day my unruly Jewfro was in rare form. My hair had a personality of its own, and after an exhaustive effort to fit the hat on, the teacher sighed. "Here," she said, handing me the cap. "Just hold it." Then I went down to Mr. Dennis’s office to have my picture taken.
December was a particularly crowded time to be Student of the Month; there were at least twenty honorees in line for the photographs.
Like sarcasm, standing in line was a concept I did not understand: My grandparents encouraged me to fight for my place at the movies and the ice-skating rink, so why was it any different at school? I once told my kindergarten teacher, "My grandfather says it’s okay to arm wrestle for a place in line. He said it’s better than pushing people out of the way like my grandmother does in department stores." When the teacher’sface contorted in horror, I reassured her, "My grandmother says you have to muscle your way in because people on the UpperEast Side will screw you however they can."
But that morning I was too excited to push in line, so I stood and fidgeted, anxiously awaiting my turn. I thought about how I would look in my picture and wondered if I would receive wallet-size prints for friends and family.
The other kids didn’t seem as interested in their pictures, and their conversation focused on holiday plans.
"I hope Santa brings me a new horse this year. That last one hasn’t won any competitions," said Colby Johnson, a girl from the third grade.
"Where are you spending Christmas this year, anyway?" asked her friend Margaret Vanderburg, who was always rubbing the fact that her father owned three planes in everybody’s face.
"Barbados," said Colby with a tinge of pride. "We have a house there."
"Barbados?" Margaret pursed her lips and lifted her nose. "My mother says nobody’s going to Barbados this year. That was so last year. We’re taking one of our planes to Mustique."
Colby began to hyperventilate. "I hope we can still change our plans! Come over later and help me convince my mom."
Margaret placed her stubby, sausagelike fingers on Colby’s arm. "You are so lucky you have me as your friend."
I kept my mouth shut and avoided eye contact. I worried that if the kids found out I didn’t celebrate Christmas, they’d think I wasn’t as good as they were. Not that anyone from the third grade would be caught dead talking to a second-grader. But what if someone did ask about my Christmas plans? I had none! What was I going to do-tell them about Hanukkah? I had done some asking around and already concluded that Hanukkah’s piddly eight nights didn’t matter when everyone else had one giant night, with eight reindeer pulling a fat man who brought them anything they wanted.
Not that any of this Santa business made any real sense. Could deer even fly? Why would people have a tree in their house in the first place? Still, it was the principle of the matter, and, like my grandfather, I wanted to be liked.
Then, inside Mr. Dennis’soffice, I saw I would be photographed in front of a Christmas tree with lots of presents, and my heart sank.
Reprinted from Dumbfounded by Matt Rothschild. Copyright © 2008 Matt Rothschild. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.