My sister’s room and memories of Christmas
I write one column per month, twelve each year. But, just like when you buy a dozen bagels, you’re getting an extra one this year at no additional cost. Unlike the bagels, it isn’t completely fresh. This is a revised version of a piece that has appeared before.
Earlier this month I wrote about my father’s father, born Pollak but newly minted as Steinfield upon arrival from the Old Country. When the Steinfields emigrated from Massachusetts to New Hampshire around 1900, they were the second Jewish family in Claremont, but the town had neither synagogue nor rabbi. So, when it came time to observe a Jewish holiday, they went to Springfield, Mass., where our Marshall relatives lived. I think that is where my father had his bar mitzvah, in 1904, and it is where my parents married in 1933.
I wouldn’t say that my family was especially observant, but my father grew up with a strong sense of his Jewish identity. After I turned 13, he took me to the synagogue every year when he would recite the mourner’s kaddish on the anniversary of his parents’ deaths (known in Yiddish as yahrzeit). And he spoke a pretty good Yiddish, which I imagine was the language of his childhood home.
By the late 1940s, Claremont had 50 or so Jewish families, and we had a rabbi and a synagogue starting in 1948. Before that, services and Sunday School were held at the home of Mr. Bloomberg, who was a shochet (kosher butcher). I remember learning about Hanukkah, the holiday nobody knows how to spell, and we lit the candles for eight nights.
But mostly we looked forward to Christmas. We understood it wasn’t our holiday, but we all sang carols, and if any of the Jewish kids felt uneasy about praising Jesus, we could just mouth the words. Everyone knew we were not celebrating the religious holiday, but no one told us we couldn’t enjoy the spirit of the season along with everyone else.
Here, a brief digression. I played junior league basketball and named my team the “Brown Bombers” after my hero, heavyweight champ Joe Louis. I saw the other kids go to the foul line and cross themselves before shooting, which seemed to work for them. So I started doing the same thing, thinking that was how you made foul shots. Eventually, the coach took me aside and explained that particular fact of life to me. So, I stopped crossing myself, which really hadn’t done me much good anyway.
Back to Christmas. My sister wanted a tree, and our indulgent father said she could have one, but not in the living room. That was OK, since she happened to have a fireplace in her bedroom. So we had the tree and the lights, stockings, candy canes, and Santa, hidden away upstairs so no one knew.
Eventually, my sister changed her mind, and we stopped having a Christmas tree. I remember thinking it was the right thing to do – it’s not our holiday. But I missed it for a long time. Being with my parents and sister, opening our presents – it was special and memorable.
Christmas at the Steinfields, second floor, my sister’s bedroom.
I’m glad we had those Christmases together. My father died in 1957 … on Christmas Day.
Earlier versions of this column appeared in December 2007, 2010 and 2012. Joseph D. Steinfield is a partner in the Boston law firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. He lives in Boston and Jaffrey.