As I drove my son home from school the other day, I said, “Guess who’s going to be at our house when we get there?”
“Who?” he asked.
“But where’s the baby Jesus?”
“The baby who?” I asked.
“The baby Jesus. Where is he?”
Being a Jew, I’m not an expert on the whereabouts of the baby Jesus. We lost track of him somewhere between the crucifixion and resurrection.
“Um, the manger?” I said.
There actually is a manger not far from our house. We live near a little park that the local fire department decorates every Christmas with colored lights, a red sleigh and a big white star that hangs over a Nativity scene. It’s your run-of-the-mill creche, replete with Mary, Joseph, a baby Jesus, some wise men, a couple of sheep and a donkey.
I wasn’t shocked my son was inquiring about the baby Jesus’ whereabouts. We send him to daycare in a church. While I’d rather he be in a Jewish-run daycare, there isn’t one near my house. I actually like the daycare he attends. He learns good, solid values like sharing and getting along with others. It’s also two blocks from my house. I’ve learned to accept the fact that along with the pumpkins, candy corn and pilgrims they paint at school, they’re also painting pictures of Noah’s Ark, the tree of knowledge and the creation.
But I still wince when he talks about God and Jesus. Jews were persecuted for so long, many, like myself, have developed a bit of an ‘us and them’ view of the world. Jews like chicken fat and kneidelach, for instance, while Christians eat deviled eggs and brown bread out of a can.
“Jews don’t wear canary yellow,” I once told my husband, after returning from a trip to Nantucket.
But if I’m going to be standing on one side of this great divide, I want my son next to me, not on the other side of the chasm. So it’s hard when he comes home from school saying or doing things that are overtly Christian, like when he came home a few months ago with a big cross covered in purple paint, and his name, ”EDDIE,” emblazoned across the front of it in purple glitter. “That’s it. They’ve got ‘im,” I thought, feeling like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. While I usually pin all of the art work he brings home from school onto a wall in my kitchen, the cross remained on the passenger seat of my car for two weeks, until my neighbor shamed me into bringing it inside.
“That’s a part of him, too, you know,” she said.
And it is. Whether we sent Eddie to daycare in a church or not, he’s only half Jewish. My husband, Bruce, is Christian and so by default, half of Eddie is Christian – not because of any agreement I reached with my husband about how we would raise our child but because intentionally or not, parents impart to their children what they, themselves, learned as kids, and kids absorb it, the way someone standing near a fire will start to smell like smoke.
When Eddie began daycare at the church, he wasn’t yet two. I took it for granted that he wouldn’t take the program’s religious content on board, sort of like walking a blind child past an ice cream store without worrying that they’re going to scream for a cone. But this year, he’s nearly three and can hear what they’re saying. I know this because he regurgitates it at home.
Some nights before dinner, he says, “Thank you, God, for this good meal, and thank you for our lunch.”
And lately, he’s been singing “Happy birthday, Baby Jesus, Happy Birthday to you.” After they lit the Christmas tree in our town, he yelled out, “Je-sus!” And the other day, when I asked him, “Who’s your favorite super hero now?” he said, “Mary and Joseph.”
“Mary and Joseph?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“How about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What about the Maccabees? Are they your heroes, too?” I asked.
“They’re soldiers,” he said.
“Yeah, the Maccabees are soldiers. That’s pretty heroic,” I said.
“They don’t have capes,” he said.
“Well, Mary and Joseph don’t have capes, either,” I muttered.
The other day, my son and I were walking through the park by our house and stopped by the Nativity scene.
“Where are the bad guys?” my son said, pointing to the crèche.
“Bad guys? I don’t know that there are any in there,” I said.
“That guy’s the bad guy,” my son said, pointing to one of the three kings.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The red one,” my son said.
“The one with the red coat?” I asked.
“He’s a bad guy?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Well, you’re probably right. You see that box he has in his hand?” I asked. I paused for a moment and then uttered, “He stole that box. Those two in the manger, there, they were talking to him, and as soon as they turned around, he grabbed that gold box that was lying on the ground in front of them, and he stuck it under his coat.”
I couldn’t help myself. This Jesus thing has been growing slowly and steadily in our house over the last few months like an inflating balloon. I needed to let some of the air out before he turned into a full-fledged Christian.
It’s hard to compete with Christianity, particularly at Christmas time. For Jews, it’s like going to a carnival and watching all your friends go on the rides. I tried to make Chanukah enticing, making a big deal out of lighting the candles, showing my son how to play dreidel – a game that needs high-stakes wagers to make it interesting – and giving him gifts on almost every night. But no matter how many Batmen I bought him, he still came home singing about the baby Jesus.
It’s no mystery why. My son is in his daycare’s Nativity play, and they’ve been practicing their songs almost daily since before Thanksgiving. It would probably bother me more if the whole thing weren’t so damned cute. He sings, “No room at the inn,” with his little index finger wagging, like he’s saying, “No.” He sings, “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” and then after one verse shouts, “Cha, cha, cha, cha!” and throws his hands in the air – because in his play, that’s when they shout, “Joy to the World!”
But it’s the way my son says “Baby Jesus,” that keeps me from wincing. Eddie has a slight lisp that makes “Baby Jesus” sound like ‘Baby Jethuth.” It sounds so cute, I smile every time he says it. It reminds me of Linus and his soliloquy in the movie, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” where he tells everyone the true meaning of Christmas but in a voice that’s so nasal, he surely must have a back drip or deviated septum. I once lived in London and used to ride the subway at night without fear because even the most menacing characters had that perky little English accent and looked like at any moment, they could burst into a verse of “Consider Yourself,” from “Oliver.”
On the morning of Eddie’s Nativity play, my husband and I took seats along the center aisle. As the play started, the children began to file down the aisle toward the stage, starting with the youngest class. Throughout the room, when a parent would spot their child, they’d shout out their name, wave wildly and take photos. Christians and their Nativity plays, I thought.
After the youngest class went by, I began to see faces I recognized from my Eddie’s class: his friend Lana, dressed as a leopard, his friend, John, dressed as a cow. And then I spotted my son. He was wearing a pelt of fur that looked like a headband, but it had two little flaps of fur coming down the sides to simulate ears. There was another piece of fur draped around his shoulders like a cape. As soon as I saw him, my heart leaped up. Soon, I was shouting his name, waving my hands wildly and taking photos, just like all the other parents, and for one beautiful moment, the chasm between us disappeared.