The ache of this memory is etched in time, reignited today in this cold December afternoon.
It is of another cold winter afternoon in a long-ago December that I speak.
I am 12 years old and I sit alone on the city bus in the fading light, heading up to the Hill Section and my home, leaving my friend, Gladys, and our matinee behind me. Light snow is falling, making this memory even more vivid. We pass throngs of Christmas shoppers on the streets below, bundled in their overcoats and galoshes, everyone busily hurrying somewhere. There are gifts to buy and stores to visit, a last-minute urgency in the air. The bus trundles slowly by the Scranton Globe Store, our town’s biggest department store. I look out the window, breath foggy on the glass. The decorations in the Globe’s windows illustrate the story of the Little Drummer Boy. Marionettes pantomime the narrative and endlessly sing in an infinite loop of frantic devotion:
“Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rum pum pum pum…….”
The words of this song, which I both adore and detest, release a flood of heartache in me. I am a little Jewish girl with no gifts to give or to receive, a little Jewish girl with no king to honor, as far as I can tell. Nobody in my family is buying Christmas presents or preparing a holiday meal. My parents are working, always working, in their neighborhood grocery store, serving other people who are preparing holiday meals—adding an even more complicated emotional twist for me. There will be no holiday lights in my house tonight, only the yahrtzeit candle, memorializing the death of my mother’s father many Christmas Eves ago. There will be no festivity in our house—only unspoken grief and hushed exhaustion.
Deep within the memory of this child-moment, my 12-year-old self is brokenhearted. Life is bizarrely unfair. Why does everyone else get something as massive as Christmas? Our Hanukkah celebration held but a weak candle to the bright, universal lights of Christmas. How can this time of holiday cheer be available to so many, but not to me? Why is being me such a lonely and separate thing?
Fast-forward decades, to the present time. I hang our new holiday wreath on our front door. Its evergreen branches are beautifully interwoven with delicate dried blueberries and sprigs of vibrant red berries. I stand back to look at it, appreciative and happy.
Time has given me full permission to have it all—the Jewish holidays, the Christmas holidays, and everything in between. The only thing that can block me from full enjoyment of life, full enjoyment of the moment, is me. My parents and their generation’s need to insulate from the Other, from Christians, no longer holds sway over me. My marriage to a non-Jewish woman has facilitated the celebration of inclusive holidays: We sing Hanukkah blessings on each of the eight nights, making up our own relevant and spontaneous translations. We trim a little holiday tree, safe above the eyes and bellies of our ever-hungry canine companions. We exchange Easter baskets, go to temple on the holidays, to Quaker meeting on Sundays, and to church on Christmas Eve. We take what we need. We leave the rest.
Yet the exclusion I felt as a little Jewish girl growing up in the 1950s was real. Our Pennsylvania town was organized around religious lines. My parents’ need to keep our Jewishness separate and subtly under wraps was driven by their understanding of safety and their fear of potential anti-Semitism, along with a real concern for their business. We were apart from others, by seeming necessity and design.
But not today. As I practice living the great inquiry of yoga, I am invited into observing my relationship with the moment without judgment. I’m constantly offered opportunities to see the ways in which I continue to separate myself from others. Living yoga gives me the techniques and strategies to accept this ancient pull toward separating, and, to return, without judgment, to wholeness and unity. Just as they are on the yoga mat, breath and relaxation are my primary tools in the realignment of my actions with my intentions.
Of course, there are still plenty of moments in which I’m stuck in my terminal uniqueness, unwilling and seemingly unable to get out. But in those moments, I do my best to relax into what I’m feeling and simply notice.
I think of my Grandmother Sonia. I no longer imagine her rolling over in her grave while I trim our Christmas tree—now I see her smiling shyly at me, blessing me and my life from afar. Surely my healing is her healing, too. Surely we are all one, all in this together.