A Jewish Child’s Christmas in Brooklyn by Steve Slavin

First snowflake,
Chaim come quick,
Let’s trim the Hanukkah bush!

Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas? Not even close! Ask any Jewish kid living in a Christian neighborhood. Or any Christian kid living in a Jewish neighborhood. Or any rabbi, priest, or minister, for that matter.

Growing up Jewish and poor in my Brooklyn neighborhood meant you had two strikes against you every Christmas. Even if your parents could afford to buy you presents, they weren’t supposed to.

We lived just off Avenue U in a predominately Italian neighborhood. Most of the food stores sold pork and other tref (Yiddish for not kosher). Which was OK, because there were plenty of kosher alternatives. In short, none of us were starving.
But Christmastime, it was an entirely different story. Walking around the neighborhood in the evening, we could peek into the windows of many homes and see beautiful Christmas trees all lit up. These families seemed to be having a good time, while we were standing out in the cold.

There was a big apartment house down the block from us that had a Christmas tree in the lobby. The building’s superintendent had decked it out with lights and ornaments, but what interested me and my friends the most were the red and white candy canes that hung from the branches.

The super kept a close eye on the tree. A few times every day, he would come running out of the building in hot pursuit of some kid who had grabbed a cane. Because I was so afraid of getting caught, I never got to taste a candy cane until I was a teenager. It actually didn’t taste all that great.

A few weeks before Christmas, we would get a catalogue in the mail from Master’s Mart, a prominent Manhattan appliance and toy store. Every year, I would carefully go through it, looking for the perfect set of electric trains. But, ever mindful that we were poor, I always chose a set I thought we could afford. I’d have even offered to take a big cut in my allowance to help pay for it. The only problem was that I didn’t get an allowance.

So, I never even asked. I knew that if I had, my parents would have told me that we couldn’t afford to buy such an expensive toy.

Were we really poor? No, we were what is now called “working class.” But since most of our neighbors were middle class, we actually were relatively poor.

To this day, my sister rolls her eyes when I talk about our childhood of poverty. When someone asks, “Just how poor were you?” I have a ready reply.

“We were so poor, that on Christmas day, my sister and I would watch videos of other children opening their presents.”

Did you ever wonder how Santa delivered presents to children who lived in apartment houses? Where could they hang their stockings? In my building, there was a vertical cabinet in each bathroom that stored about six or eight wooden rods, on which clothes could be hung to dry. When I was four or five, I hung one of my socks on a rod before I went to bed on Christmas Eve.

The next morning my mother asked me why I had hung up my sock in the bathroom. I was too embarrassed to answer.

There was a girl I knew whose family was much poorer than mine. Her mother was a widow who supported her three children by working long hours in a women’s clothing store on Avenue U. The four of them lived in a three-room apartment.

Each Christmas morning her children found their presents on the living room floor, next to the radiator. Why there? I’ll let you think about it.

OK, if you haven’t guessed, it’s because apartment houses don’t have fireplaces, so next to the radiator was the warmest spot. Oh, and one more thing: the family was Jewish.

Hanukkah can never be the Jewish Christmas, but some people are still trying. David Bader, the author of Haikus for Jews, provides the proof:

Look, Muffy! I’ve found
the most splendid tchotchke for
our Hanukkah bush.

© Copyright 2017 Steve Slavin . All rights reserved.


A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. His short story collection, To the City, with Love, was published in 2016.

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