Sunday, December 10, 2006

all i want for christmas...i mean, you

I do not despise Christmas music. There I said it. I do not, however, approve of the carols intruding on radio waves, TV commercials, and shopping mall sound systems before it's even time for Thanksgiving. Once December hits, though, my disapproval tends to vanish and in its place come the waves of welcomed nostalgia.

I'm not talking about mistletoe action (I don't think I've ever seen mistletoe in person--does it even exist?) or decorating Christmas trees (I've never had one, although I do remember helping a childhood friend, Sara, and her mom decorate theirs while singing "My Favorite Things")
I'm talking about the hilarity of being pretty much the only Jew in the 'hood during the Christmas [and a few other holidays thrown in there] season...

Of course I acted as seasonally-deprived as any solo Jewish kid growing up in the NW suburbs of Chicago would act--I begged my mom to hang stockings for "Hanukkah Harry" (there's a funny SNL skit, circa 1995/6? about this), to adorn the outside of our house with blue lights, or or to at least decorate a Hanukkah bush--I' wasn't even suggesting a full tree, here; any plant would do.
But my mom fought back and told me that just because you change the color/shape of things doesn't mean it's not still rooted in Christmas tradition. Therefore, I settled for removable window decals of dreidels and Jewish stars and an electric menorah, which I chose to display in the living room--the front room in our house--so that it all could be seen from outside. And every night I made sure I twisted another light bulb to help the neighbors keep track of the days.

Up until sixth grade I was an extremely shy kid. The only thing I remember bothering me enough that I spoke up was when my mom and I were at the local Jewel getting groceries one time and the checkout girl looked down at me and said, "Merry Christmas!" after she finished putting our bags in the cart. "We're Jewish," I said, defiantly. "We don't celebrate Christmas." My mom quickly ushered me out, and although I'm sure she found it funny, she told me not to waste my breath and that I'm going to be hearing that the rest of my life.

Then there was the time my little sister told the two little neighbor girls at the bus stop that Santa wasn't real, which sent them running home, hysterically crying to their mothers. My mom received many a pissed-off phone calls that night--how dare she say that/it's not her responsibility/we don't know what to do now--poor Katie is heartbroken.... you get the idea. Maybe they'll write a book someday called How the Jew Stole Christmas. I'm not sure how my mom responded...I mean I'm sure she apologized, but I hope she also mentioned that my sister was five and gave her proper credit for being a damn smart kindergartner.
Speaking of Santa, though, I still to this day believe that I saw him and his reindeer flying in the distant sky. One Christmas eve I snuck into Sheri's room while she was asleep because her window faced the front of the house. I opened her blinds and sat on the floor waiting. I saw him way out there (or a plane...) but never told a soul.

In December I wanted candy canes and poinsettias, but my mom force fed me the kitschy side of Judaism by giving me chocolate gelt and books with titles such as, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.
I wanted more than the one token Hanukkah song in the annual school Christmas concert--the one that kicked off Christmas break (at some point, the school district replaced both "Christmas" titles with the word "holiday" would not surprise me if my mom someday owned up to being the instigator of that one)
I will admit, though, that I did feel special during that one song...shout out to Peter Yarrow for remembering the Jewish children..."Light one candle for the Maccabee children, with thanks that their light didn't diiiieeeeee"...because who else on those choir risers, besides myself and my friend Abbey, even knew what a Maccabee was? I mean if you have no point of reference, it sounds like a kind of cookie, and to anyone else it might as well have been that because we sang about gingerbread cookies, so why not the Jewish kind too? (but, no, we don't have Hanukkah cookies...we have Hanukkah latkes [potato pancakes] even if my classmates didn't care when Hanukkah was, they'd know anyway because for over a week I'd come to school smelling like fried food)
I felt as though I was under a spotlight and the song was directed towards me and my proud parents sitting in the audience. And I sang that song with the amount of intensity that I felt those lyrics deserved--which was a lot. After all, this is a song about the destruction of a temple and about not failing "your people" and about keeping the light alive! This is not about snowmen that suddenly come to life or about catching your mom making out with a fat, bearded, old guy. People don't mess with Hanukkah songs, whereas Christmas songs turn into "Jingle bells Batman smells Robin laid an egg..." or "Sheri the red-nosed person..." Ok, well I made that one up (obviously to the tune about Rudolph the reindeer) to poke fun at my sister for always having a bright red nose whenever she came down with a cold. I still have all my made-up lyrics memorized and like to tease her with them whenever I think of it. She still doesn't think it's funny.

Ok, kidding aside, there is still something about the music of the season. Yesterday I took Max ice skating in Millenium Park. It was my day off, but I felt bad that both his parents were on call at the hospital, and he'd otherwise be stuck in the house all day. I won't lie--I was quite exhausted from going out to celebrate a friend's birthday (coincidentally, Abbey) the night before. But as soon as I heard "Jingle Bell Rock" as we approached the rink, something inside of me snapped and I became just another stupidly-grinning spectator. "Santa Baby" came on next, and I tried to embarrass Max by recreating a number I once performed in my dancing days.

A week ago I was at Target with my friend Lindsay. She was picking out a Christmas tree, so that she and her boyfriend could spend the night decorating it. I was in a playful mood anticipating the evening as well (although it involved plans falling through and going to bed some time before 10:00) and decided to walk past the panel of Christmas music buttons and slyly press the Mariah Carey one...three times in a row...and proceeded to shamelessly dance around the aisle to "All I want for Christmas is you." Sometimes you gotta just act on your feelings...

This past Friday, December 8, was a big day in music history. Jim Morrison was born, The Beach Boys released their debut album, Surfin', and John Lennon was assassinated by Mark Chapman. Lennon's song, "Happy Xmas/The War is Over," gets me every time. There is something about those first few notes, when he begins singing, "So this is Christmas..." I think it's that contrast of feelings...the song just makes me want to love someone, and at the same time makes me sad for the world we live in. "War is over/If you want it/War is over now." Peter Yarrow sends the same message in his Hanukkah classic...

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts

I know I'm jumping the gun on the holidays, as the Festival of Lights doesn't even begin till Friday, but let's make this upcoming year a lucky #(200)7 and hope for peace.

To finish off this (already long) post, I thought I'd share something I wrote a few years ago. It's a recollection of my time working at Zany Brainy in high school--it goes along with my "don't be an asshole posting" as well as this one--you'll see....enjoy.

“Thumper to treasure island! Thumper to treasure island!” Every time I hear my name being paged over the intercom I instinctively glance around to see if anyone has spied me not doing my assigned job for the day—cleaning Bright Start or flattening boxes in Never Never Land. Today I am watching Tarzan on one of four squishy benches in front of the big screen TV at the back of the store. I am supposed to be re-shelving the new volumes of the Harry Potter series. Rolling my eyes, I tear myself away from the gorilla/human love affair and head to the front counter.

“I need you to stay up here for the rest of the day,” Mufasa instructs me. “Buzz Lightyear called in sick and I have a conference call with district managers all afternoon….that is if Tigger ever gets here.”

I don’t mind this, as being behind the cash registers means I can hide a book under the counter and read while overly eager middle-aged women devour the new displays of Pokemon accessories—board games, stickers, plastic card protectors. The actual packs of cards are behind the counter with me, safe from the hands and shifty eyes of Captain Hooks.
Before Mufasa disappears into his lair at the back of the store, Tigger (aka: Kathy) enters the store frantically, late as usual. But she’s the other manager so it’s ok for her to show up when she pleases. She is an extremely small-framed woman, with a messy braid of hair that is dyed a different color every time I see her--one of those colors that’s meant to look natural but ends up looking faker than if she was to dye it true blue. Brian (ahem, excuse me, Mufasa) stands with his arms crossed over his chest, always looking like he’s going to snicker at something. They exchange muffled greetings. Kathy joins me behind the counter. I discreetly drop Freckle Juice by Judy Blume into the pile of Zany Brainy plastic bags in front of me. She looks over the clip-boarded schedule in a rush then turns to me and says, “Change of plans girlfriend. Call Carrie up here to take over for you, and I want you to climb over this wall into the window display and decorate the window for the upcoming annual train sale.” At first I think she’s kidding; our store is the only one that doesn’t actually have room for a window display—estimated size of one and a half feet from window to wall and a length of maybe six feet. But I can tell she’s not in a kidding mood as she’s already heading to the back with Brian while instructing Heimlich (Jason) to get me the bucket of window paints.

“Flower to Treasure Island! Flower to Treasure Island!” I suppress the urge to pronounce island, is-land. But I do laugh while making the store-wide page. Can’t help it. Carrie is my best friend. We’ve both been “certified kidsultants” here at Zany Brainy since the store’s grand opening over a year ago. My first day on the job I was instructed to dress up as Madeline, the girl from that children’s book series. Two of my co-workers, Buzz and Nala (John and Lori), helped me into the costume, and John stood with me on the corner of Golf Road for over 60 minutes waving at cars passing by during rush hour.

Carrie appears in front of me. “Nice giggling there Thumper.”
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I can’t lay my finger on it, but at some point while working here I brainwashed myself into thinking that I actually am an animated rabbit from Bambi.
I fill her in. “Yeah, so I’m going to go display myself in the window.” This window is located right behind the wall of Pokemon cards. I consider this lucky because usually they assign me and Carrie to completely different sections of the store—she in Good Sports, me in Let’s Pretend, or she in Young Builders and me in Our Planet. But now we get to be within feet of each other. Jason brings me the decorated bucket of window paints then returns to straightening Creativity.
I feel bad that he’s the only kidsultant on the floor, but I have to begin my masterpiece. I take off my shoes. First step to feeling free. The phone rings. Carrie’s busy ringing up someone’s purchase, so I reach over the wall, alarming her customer who just sees an arm. I try and remember the greeting but can’t even spit out my own name.

“Hi this is Thump…Alyse…thank you for calling Zany Brainy Schaumburg, starting the one week countdown to the annual Brio and Thomas train sale, how can I help you?”

The voice on the other end belongs to someone no older than seven. “Hi my mom told me to call you and ask if you have any of the new Beanie Babies?”

“No sorry tell her we haven’t gotten them in yet.”

“MOMMMMMMM!!! THE LADY SAID NOT YET!” I hold the phone away from my ear. When did I become a lady? The kid doesn’t say anything else to me and forgets he’s even on the phone so I cheerfully say, “Have a zany day!” and hang up. That was a lame thing to say, I think. Back to work.

First I use the black paint to draw a railroad track curving along the length of the glass, about even with my shoulders. As I add a few colored boxcars I notice that a man heading solo into EMS Sports, our next-door neighbor, has paused on the sidewalk watching my window with an impish grin. I forgot that people can see in windows and discover that “Never Had a Friend Like Me,” from Aladdin, which is playing in here, has infected my legs and without asking they’ve been recreating an old tap dance. This is not that kind of window display, buddy, keep walking.

“Hey Carrie?”


“Do you think if I stood in the window naked we would attract more or less customers?”


“I was just curious because this guy seems to think that I’m going to be doing more than just painting trains.”


“I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t actually take my clothes off in a window!” and wink at her.

Finally he leaves. I wave goodbye to his back. I’m beginning to grow fond of my small area and in big, celebratory cursive letters I write “ANNUAL TRAIN SALE!!!!” Then I realize that kids can’t read cursive so I ask Carrie to ask Jason to bring me Windex.

“Heimlich to Sherwood Forest please…I mean…wait…I meant Treasure Island…and bring Windex for Thumper.”

We both find this hysterically funny. He brings me the Windex and paper towels and I spray and erase my cursive. When I put the Windex bottle down I don’t notice that the cap isn’t on all the way….that is until about ten minutes later when my socks are suddenly wet and I realize I’ve only been inhaling cleaning solution fumes.

“Hey! If someone doesn’t bring me more paper towels, we are going to have one high bunny hopping around!”

There is an anonymous downpour of paper towels, and I spend a few minutes cleaning up the mess I made. I throw the soaked towels one by one over the wall, hoping to score a few baskets with the garbage can on the other side. Anything to stay amused.

Just for kicks I decide to add a smiling face to the sun and little tufts of grass with a waving conductor by the tracks. And instead of dancing along with the music in the store, I find myself singing to the new song that’s come on—Phil Colins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart” from Tarzan. “Why can’t they understand the way we feel/They just don’t trust what they can’t explain…” It shocks me that Disney can be so profound at times. I make a mental note on why this lyric directly applies to my life.

“Sorry.” Carrie is apologizing to the customer buying fifteen decks of Pokemon cards. “My friend is decorating the window.”

Kathy unfailingly returns a few minutes later. Carrie has to leave for ice skating practice, so I’m back on the cash registers. Enter: heavyset woman, one of our regulars, Beanie Baby extraordinaire. As usual she makes a beeline for the shelves of miniature animals in Let’s Pretend, directly to the left of the front door. It is customary for her to leave in a huff if we don’t have the latest and greatest. But today is a special day and she decides to ask my assistance.

“Do you have Li-BEAR-ty??”

“Nope, sorry,” I say.

“I checked over there and didn’t see any.”

“That’s because we don’t have it,” I try and say this sans sarcasm.

“But I believe from my Beanie Newsletter that it was released for sale on Monday.”

That’s today.

“I’m really sorry, I’m sure we’ll get them in eventually. Usually we get new shipments on Fridays….”

“Fine. What time do you open on Fridays?”


“I’m gonna call at 8:30 then to see.”

“If you want to.”

And she leaves in disgust. I have a feeling I just ruined her entire day. Maybe her entire life. Who knows.

Hours pass and in this time I’ve finished reading Freckle Juice and The Giver. Jason’s shift ends and I’m left as the last kidsultant in the whole store, while the two managers are still on the phone in their office.
In comes a suited woman with matching jewelry, dark sunglasses, and a designer scarf that no doubt serves no purpose other than making one look like they have extra cash lying around, wrapped meticulously around her neck. She is determined and finds exactly what she needs and is face to face with me within minutes. As I’m ringing up her Harry Potter collection and a soccer ball I ask her if she’d like to take advantage of our complimentary gift-wrapping.

“What kind of paper do you have?” she asks, hurriedly.

“Birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, and a general colorful one.”

“Well Christmas of course! Hanukkah isn’t even a real holiday!”

This is unbelievable. I hastily bring her things over to the gift-wrapping portion of the counter and attempt wrapping the soccer ball. She decides I’m not going fast enough for her busy schedule so she takes the boxed Harry Potter set and finishes wrapping it in record time. I am silently cursing spherical objects, gold wrapping paper, and whoever originally deemed customers always being right.

“Thanks. You’re a doll.”

And you’re an ignorant bitch.

Instead I say, “Don’t forget to celebrate GOOZBOHS with us this weekend!” with manufactured holiday cheer and hand her a copy of the November activities calendar.

“Excuse me?”

“Grand Opening Of Zany Brainy’s One Hundredth Store.”

She pivots on her high heels and exits the premises.

It’s closing time, thank goodness. But there are still the bathrooms to clean and on my way to them I find a dirty diaper sitting on a shelf in Bright Start. I think this counts more as a Dead End. As I scrub the toilets and wipe down the mirrors Kathy and Brian are sharing pizza in the office with the door open. They don’t invite me to join them. I swear to myself that I will never again work in retail. In the basement, after retiring my purple apron for the night, I accidentally bang the side of my thumb against the solid metal handrail when I begin to ascend back to the store level. It feels like I broke half my hand but I just want to leave this place. I head out to my car in the parking lot, loving the silence of this night.

(photo 1: my mom took this of me in sunday school, probably around 1987...i think this picture is hilarious because i'm pretty sure i still--frequently--make that same face

photo 2: taken last decemeber ('05) before my friend's "ugly holiday sweater" party...abbey and i made those sweatshirts from scratch and walked around with the battery packs in our pockets the whole night....and took home first place!)


Carrie said...

I haven't been able to read this whole post yet...but I do see my name a lot...which means it's probably a good one =)

JM said...

So here you were surrounded by Christians and I grew up surrounded by Jews (just a hop skip and a couple of suburbs away).

Abbi said...

This was a wonderfully nostalgic post...1) because I sang in those holiday shows with you even though I hated you and called you LievoBITCH (because that's what 3rd graders do) and 2) because I of course worked at Zany Brainy and remember how demoralizing it was to be referred to as a cartoon character. Who was I anyway? Bambi? hmm can't remember.

So "Holiday Musicals":

It's funny to get your perspective on that. As a young "Christian" kid I always liked the Jewish songs the best (i think there were always at least two, don't forget "Dreidel, Dreidel" (sp?)). I always wanted to be Jewish (still kind of do) because it was so steeped in real tradition. It just seemed so deep to me. Christmas carols have always bugged me because to me, if it's not religious it's not a "CHRISTMAS" carol, its a winter holiday carol. Which is fine, I don't hate non-religious Christmas stuff, it's just different. There is such a disconnect between Christmas (Jesus' birthday) and the pagan traditions of trees, gift-giving, etc. Don't you think there should be a different name for this? Like winter celebration or something? I don't see how it has anything to do with being religiously Christian. There isn't this sort of disconnect in Judaism. The religion and culture of it is all tied up in one. Sure, there are Jews that aren't religious and are culturally Jewish but none of the holidays or traditions have been bastardized into something meaningless, fluffy, and neutral (like many Christian holidays for the non-orthodox/non-religious). I think I responded to that as a young religion seeker. It's seemed so much more meaningful than Santa or the Easter bunny or whatever.

I know it wasn't always fun to be one of a few Jews in the "'hood" (though I know you now value those experiences) but it's also not fun to be labelled under the huge umbrella of "Christian". Or in other words, being a minority within the majority and unable to distinguish yourself.

Hmmm, anyway...thanks for the thoughts, it obviously got my wheels turning. Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, Turn, Turn, Turn, Candles, Candles, Candles, Burn, Burn, Burn...(don't remember the rest of the words) ;)

Anonymous said...

i found this by googling GOOZBOHS.
those were the days.

RIP Zany Brainy.

Shawna said...

Princess Atta here. The highlights of working at ZB were 1) you, abbi, and carrie 2) occasionally getting a lunch break and using it to get Taco Bell 3) the disorganized basement / storage area - it was so easy to hide in there! Great post -