As a general matter, my parents fully supported the “us versus them” tenet of Judaism. Paranoia, perhaps, but not altogether irrational paranoia. As many marginalized populations can attest — gays, African-Americans, fans of David Hasselhoff — centuries of persecution can be frustrating. Personally, I think people were more likely to persecute my parents for their fashion taste than for their religion (mirrors belong on walls, not on clothing), but who am I to begrudge anyone their bitterness?
In homogenous communities, this isolationist mentality often does not pose an obstacle to a child’s social development; a Martian is only weird to non-Martians. I spent the better part of my adolescence in Long Island, where Jews rule with an iron fist. Of course, more of them spend their Friday nights in the Roosevelt Field mall than in temple, but a Jew at the Gap is still a Jew.
But until I was six, we lived in Kinderhook, New York, a small upstate hamlet of about 20,000 people, 19,996 of whom were gentiles. We might as well have been Martians.
“Mom, where are my horns?” I asked my mother upon returning home from my first day of kindergarten.
“Horns? What are you talking about?”
“I told the other kids that I’m Jewish, and they asked me why I didn’t have horns,” I said, despondently. It didn’t bother me that the other kids thought I had horns. It bothered me that after just one day in school I was already a disappointment. When my mother told me Jews don’t actually have horns, I was even more distraught. What if the teacher expected me to have horns also? It’s one thing to disappoint your colleagues; it’s a whole other thing to disappoint authority figures. I tried pasting carrots to the top of my head, but they kept falling off. Besides, it’s difficult to play hide-and-go-seek with vegetables stuck to your hair.
Thanks to my tactless classmates — and yes, even toddlers can have tact, if trained properly — I learned much about what a Jewish person is supposed to be during that fateful year. In between pick-up sticks and nap time, I discovered that Jewish people are cheap, greedy, overly ambitious, and have big noses. My parents had great difficulty dissuading me from these stereotypes, primarily because, by the age of four, I already fit most of them. When my kindergarten teacher asked us to write about our hero, I was torn between Miss Piggy and Gordon Gekko. My piggy bank had a pad lock on it. And when my grandmother showed up empty handed at my sixth birthday party, I kicked her out of the house and demanded she return “with check, plus interest.”
By far, the most difficult time of year was Christmas. The rest of the year, I skillfully managed to hide my religion, mostly through selective silence and vigorous head-nodding during religious conversations, of which there were more than a few. There’s a stray loop of the Bible Belt lurking in upstate New York. But when Christmas came around, silence and head-nodding were insufficient covers.
“So where is everyone going for Christmas?,” the teacher asked, never questioning whether everyone in the room celebrated Christmas. Although she couldn’t really be blamed for that. The odds were on her side. Indeed, with all the Christmas-themed television shows, songs, and movies, along with the extensive and somewhat over-the-top decorations on all of our neighbors homes — I maintain to this day that singing plastic reindeer are not the most appropriate way to commemorate the birth of the Lord — I wondered whether my parents had lied to me, and we were actually the only Jews on the planet. Perhaps it was just a cult of four.
As she went around the room, every student’s answer seemed to be followed by an exclamation point, to accentuate their excitement.
“I’m going to my grandma’s house! She makes the best egg nog!”
“I’m going to my uncle’s! We sing carols by the fire and eat candy canes!”
“I’m going to my godparents’ home! They don’t have any of their own kids, so they give the best gifts!”
But as it got closer to my turn, I realized my answer — “I’m going to the closest Chinese restaurant” — neither called for nor deserved an exclamation point. Instead, that answer would probably get the same response as the stunning confession that I did not eat bacon.
“Excuse me, can I go to the bathroom?,” I asked. This was not an uncommon request coming from me. The bathroom was — still is — my refuge. It’s the only place I feel I can truly be myself.
Huddled in the bathroom stall, I realized that if I was going to survive this Christmas, I needed to actually experience the holiday first-hand. The problem was, I didn’t know how to do that. I still wasn’t quite sure who this Jesus guy was. All I could gather from the bits and pieces I overheard in class was that he was a good swimmer. There was a church down the block, and I could try to sneak away and take in a show or two, but I still didn’t fully trust the gentiles. I didn’t trust anyone who could make a meal out of Miss Piggy.
Then it hit me. Of course! I’d go directly to the source. The reason that the holiday existed. The object of everyone’s worship. The focal point for Christmas, and indeed, for Christians themselves.
Santa Clause. I had to meet Santa Clause.
The following Saturday, my mother took me to her nail salon for her weekly manicure. (Note to parents: if you really want to prevent your son from being a homosexual, don’t expose him to nail polish remover at a young age. The smell of acetone still gives me a tingle.) Fortunately, the salon was in the mall, which also housed a makeshift “Christmas Village.” The entire presentation consisted of a large inflatable candy cane, some fake snow, and a folding chair for Santa, painted red. Although I didn’t have much experience with Christmas, I suspected that this was a pretty lame attempt at Christmas spirit. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.
“Mom, can I sit on Santa’s lap?,” I asked her as we left the salon, fully expecting an outright rejection. I was prepared for a prolonged debate, for which I had mentally compiled several reasons for allowing me to converse with Santa.
“I was thinking of getting you something velvet for your birthday.”
“I want to ask him if his beard is naturally curly or perm’ed.”
“It’s a secret mission to spy on the gentiles. I think they’re up to something, and Santa is their leader.”
But my mother must have been feeling generous that day, because she didn’t put up a fight. Either that, or she had to wait a few minutes for her nails to dry before driving home.
“Ok. But only for a minute.” Apparently limiting my exposure to Santa to a minute would prevent my foreskin from growing back.
We waited on line for what felt like an interminable amount of time. I was intensely afraid that someone would realize I was not Christian and rat me out. There was a two-year-old in a baby carriage behind us who looked awfully shifty. What was the punishment for a Jewish child sitting on Santa’s lap? Surely I’d be required to at least reimburse him for his time. Even though I saved every penny I found in the couch cushions, I wasn’t sure it would be enough.
Finally, we made it to the front of the line. It was my turn, the moment I’d been waiting for, but I hesitated. He was quite imposing, sitting on what appeared from afar to be a red folding chair but now seemed more like a throne, with his enormous stuffed belly jutting out from an understuffed chest. I felt his eyes bore into my soul — I know you’re not a gentile, Jonah, and I’m going to expose you as the fraud you are! He was my judge, jury, and, in the worst case scenario, executioner.
But I was not giving up without a fight. Thanks to repeated viewings of Bambi, I had already learned at a young age that authority figures thrive on fear. I let go of my mother’s hand, shuffled up to him, and gently placed myself on his lap. His legs were much thinner than the thick velvet pants let on. They shifted under the weight. I wondered briefly whether Santa was on a diet, but decided against asking him. I was already skating on thin ice.
“What’s your name, young man?” Despite my anxiety, I liked him already. He didn’t call me “little boy.” Children should be treated like adults at all possible times. Except when it comes to politicians. Then adults should be treated like children.
“Jonah,” I said, meekly. I lightly felt his coat with my fingers. I liked the texture. It was soft, like our dog’s fur, but it didn’t make me sneeze. I wondered whether we could shave the dog and replace his fur with the Santa suit. That would at least make him easier to find if he ever ran away. Then again, it was probably better to keep the dog the way he was, before red dogs were added to the list of Jewish stereotypes.
“Nice to meet you, Jonah,” he said. At this point in the encounter, most children are bouncing on Santa’s knee, rattling off a list of undeserved gifts they wanted in return for not smothering their baby sisters in their sleep the previous year. But I didn’t say anything. I felt every word could be used against me later. Better to keep silent and be thought a fraud than to speak and remove all doubt.
Santa must have suspected something was amiss, though.
“What’s wrong, Jonah?”
I considered lying, and telling him that I had some bad clams for dinner, or that English was my second language. I knew a few words of Yiddish, and could probably wing it well enough. But I have no patience, either now or then, for insincerity. A virtue for most people, although a vice for attorneys.
“I’m not supposed to believe in you,” I replied, never looking him in the eye, afraid he could read my mind. I wasn’t sure what Santa’s powers actually were, but I knew he could tell good children from bad children, which made me suspect that he had some kind of telepathic abilities. Which was much cooler than anything I thought Jesus could do.
“Oh? Why not?,” he asked.
“Because I’m Jewish,” I replied. His forehead crinkled, and his eyes lost their trademark twinkle. I realized then that Santa was not going to expose me, or hand me over to the authorities. No, Santa wasn’t angry at me. Instead, he felt sorry for me. And his pity was worse than his condemnation.
I stifled a tear, and started to remove my distasteful self from his glorious presence. But before I could go, he stopped me, and pulled me closer to him.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Ok,” I said, curious about where this was going. Ordinarily, when a grown man asks a five-year-old child sitting on his lap if he can tell him a secret, there is cause for concern. But different rules apply to Santa. He leaned in and cupped his hand over my ear. His breath smelled vaguely like sour cream and onion potato chips — my favorite kind — which made me like him even more.
“I’m Jewish,” he whispered in my ear, with a smile.
I was astounded. Santa was Jewish? Could this be? I was convinced he was pulling my leg. It was a trick. Maybe playing practical jokes on Jews was just another Christmas tradition.
“What, you don’t believe me?,” he asked. “Ok, take a look at this.”
Santa tilted his head down and lifted up his hat. There, under his pointed Santa cap with a pom pom on the end of it, stood a yamulka.
It was true. Santa was Jewish. Beard, velvet suit, ho ho ho and all.
Driving home, I pondered what Santa’s confession meant, both for me and for the world. Suddenly, the house of cards that my classmates — indeed, that every gentile — had created folded in on itself. Now I pitied them, not vice versa. The man they all worshiped, who exercised ultimate control over their fate each Christmas, was one of us. He was a kindred spirit. He was Bar Mitzvah’ed, just like I would be. He had a taste for ketchup on pasta, just like me. And growing up with a Jewish mother like mine, it’s no wonder he was so empathetic.
I briefly considered outing Santa to the world. I would reveal the truth to everyone, and be an international celebrity, or villain, as the case may be. There would be a big investigation, with teams of FBI agents storming the North Pole and searching for evidence of Santa’s religion. The toy factory would be shut down in the interim, forcing the elves out of work and creating mass hysteria in the Arctic. Then, when nothing else could be found, Mrs. Clause would be questioned on Santa’s nether-regions. Eventually, Santa would be forced to de-pants on national television.
But I decided against it. I didn’t want Santa humiliated like that, and I didn’t think I could handle the paparazzi and first grade at the same time. So I never shared Santa’s true religion with my classmates, my family, or anyone else. It was just our secret, our shared bond. And even though he never brought me a Christmas gift, I didn’t mind. He had already given me more than he knew.
Of course, I don’t believe in Santa Clause anymore. I’m far too jaded to think that there’s an omniscient man living in the North Pole who spends 364 days a year overseeing an elf toy factory, and one day a year hauled through the sky by a group of flying reindeer. Besides the fact that he would have a serious union problem on his hands with those elves, reindeer are notoriously stupid animals. I doubt they could find their way from Newark to Hoboken with a map and a flashlight.
Still, every Christmas eve I leave a plate of rugaleh and a glass of borscht by the fireplace. Just in case Santa ever stops by, and needs a nosh.