No, it’s not a yoga asana. Or the name of a jewelry store.
Or the name of a stop on the Tokyo subway.
It’s a holiday. And I don’t pretend that we pioneered it,
but my college roommate and I certainly reveled in it.
At the time, neither one of us was observant religiously.
But we were deeply attuned to the power of ritual. And we
had developed some of our own, some of them pretty kooky,
Such as when we lived in a duplex apartment in Binghamton
whose address was actually “42-and-a 1/2 Chestnut Street”
where the bathtub was so short that even I couldn’t lie down
in it and I’m pretty short. But you could be recumbent in
it. (I like that word, “recumbent.”)
Still, I would wedge myself into a bath and Diana would come
in and read me poetry. T.S. Eliot—no, not “The Love-song of
J. Alfred Prufrock.” The cats stuff. And A.A. Milne. I can
still hear her reading me “King John’s Christmas”:
King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon . . .
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.
When we graduated and moved to New York, we found a spot for
our regular Sunday brunches. We got a family membership at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And we actually left the apartment
together each morning in a mad dash to catch the Third Avenue
bus (and it was always so damn cold) that took us somewhat
close to our jobs near Rockefeller Center.
But when the holiday season drew near, we made a bold decision.
Since we had slightly more discretionary money than in our
Binghamton days, we decided to splurge and buy a Christmas
tree. I’d only ever had family Christmas trees. I’m pretty
sure Diana had never had one at all.
So it was an exotic hike up to 86th Street to buy a tree we
could afford and to haul it back to 79th Street and our postage-stamp-size
I don’t remember buying the lights for it. But I remember
that it did have lights. Diana remembers Christmas carols.
I remember her teaching me the dreidel song.
More than that, I remember her making the latkes.
I’d never had a latke. I’d had knishes and kugels and blintzes
and bialys, all of which seemed marvelously fattening, tasty
and unhealthy (don’t tell me a kugel is good for you just
because there’s a little cottage cheese in it). But I’d never
had the likes of a latke—the shredded potatoes bound together
with eggs, then fried to a golden crispness and topped with
sour cream (forget the applesauce).
So we sat in front of our tree and ate our latkes and had
what was, for each of us, our first Hanumas, as well as our
first Hanukah and Christmas observance that was distinct from
our families—and truly our own.
Life moves on. Within a year or so Diana left New York. I
left New York. We kept in contact, but sporadically. Eventually
she moved to Seattle and became a columnist for JTNews, a
newsweekly that reports on religious and cultural aspects
of the Jewish community. And I became a Lutheran pastor, who
still makes latkes (most years) when putting up the Christmas
This sounds like a sentimental story—and it is. But it’s also
a case of heart and hope trumping dogmatic differences (though
for Diana and me, that Hanumas wasn’t about differences of
any kind at all, but rather the shared faith in ritual to
bind people together).
I don’t like Facebook so much. I don’t really get it. As my
sister put it, most of the people she’s “friends” with are
the people she sees every day. So why bother posting when
you’re going to see them at the deli for dinner that night?
But it was through Facebook that I reconnected with some friends
I’d lost touch with—and lost touch with mostly because we
move and morph and change. We stop sending holiday cards.
And then we lose each others’ e-mail addresses.
Diana and I have picked up a conversation that never stopped,
but just went silent for a while. And it’s been through our
recent exchanges that I’ve fully remembered the power of that
first Hanumas to filter down through the intervening years:
Like how, when my daughter Linnea was four and totally revved
from putting up the Christmas tree, she sat down to eat her
first-ever latkes. Then raised her head from her plate to
say, a transfixed glow on her face, “Latkes are my future!”
Like how, on Christmas Eve, the last song I listen to is a
Hebrew song about Hanukkah, with a trumpet descant that always
makes me cry.
Like how I’ve never been sure if the nine lights of Hanukkah
and the star of Bethlehem are really any different at all—illumination
being both their hope and aim.
Light in darkness let us sing,
Brightness now returning,
House of prayer once dark and cold
Now with candles burning.
When the lamp seemed empty,
And its fire forever spent,
Then the flame sprang up anew,
For our hearts deep yearning.