By GWEN OREL
Program Notes: In the theater, program notes provide further background on the show at hand.
Last Sunday night, my mother and I went to Montclair Early Music’s Christmas in Renaissance Italy concert. We dropped a friend off in Maplewood, marveling at the light displays on so many houses.
How do they do that, we wondered. No, really.
How do they?
We’re Jewish so we really have no idea.
Trees had spirals of lights going around them.
Some homes had fences all lit up.
As we arrived back in our neighborhood, the streets began to look very dark.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, but Jewish houses sure look dark right now.
Yes, I understand, putting up lights sends a message of assimilation. I mean, I understand that now. When I was a kid, every year I campaigned for a Christmas tree. Every year I lost, though when I was very little we had Santa, because mid-century American Jews had this idea that Santa Claus is an American thing. That was… confusing. At age 7, my letter to Santa Claus (written in public school!) made the front page of the Millburn Item.
Because I’d wished Santa a Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukkah in case he was Jewish.
We hung up stockings, but if you went into the kitchen you could see the bag of oranges and peppermint patties right there. I think I always knew it was a little game played with parents. Still, tiptoeing down on Christmas morning for toys was exciting. Nobody appreciates secular Christmas like a Jewish girl (or boy). Or Christmas music. After all, it was Irving Berlin, a nice Jewish boy born Israel Isidore Beilin in Russia, who wrote “White Christmas.” All that yearning… he came by honestly.
I did say we were coming back from Montclair Early Music’s Christmas in Renaissance Italy, right?
The year I was an intern at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it was I who pushed for a tree in the Intern house. It was I who made apricot pie from scratch (note: boiling fresh apricots and adding a little sugar for the filling produces… Smucker’s). It was I who strung popcorn.
A couple of years later I directed the medieval pageant play “The Second Shepherd’s Play” in a church basement called The Shaker Playhouse in New Hampshire. We had angels move the audience around, and a mischievous boy in a sheep suit who appears at the manger wearing a bow. The Boston Globe, excited to see something that wasn’t The Nutcracker or “A Christmas Carol,” gave us a rave.
Later, when I worked at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and owned my own house, I put a string of colored dreidel lights (yep) spiraling around a tree in my front yard one year. I left the door open a bit and had a long extension cord go into my hall where there was an outlet
I don’t know how they do it, but I somehow don’t think that’s it. It was really pretty. It was festive.
It was somehow… all wrong.
Hanukkah is just a minor holiday, really, with a little chocolate gelt, latkes (potato pancake, pass the apple sauce and sour cream), a menorah and some candles. But, it’s haimishe (homey). It’s low-stress. Nobody expects too much of it. Which, as an adult, is something I can appreciate.
But thank you, Christian (and Pagan) neighbors, for your pretty lights, lovely music, and this most wonderful time of the year.
See you at the Messiah Sing.