By Noah Hoffenberg, Vermont Country
I was raised in a Jewish home that also sported an annual Christmas tree, with lights and decorations, opening one present on Christmas Eve and the rest the next morning.
My grandparents, all now gone, were never allowed around our home around the holidays, for fear of their heartbreak were they to set eyes upon our bedecked tree. Since no holiday invites were ever extended to them, I had to imagine that they knew something was afoot, such as large red stockings on a banister near the tree.
Neither Judaism nor Christianity were routinely practiced in our home, although each was rolled out from storage for some of the major holidays, like an old statue from the basement of a museum for a once-a-year show. I was sent to Hebrew school to learn about the religion and the language. Neither stuck (I mean, really. What would a New England kid in the 1980s have in common with the slaves who built the pyramids?) and I left them behind after my bar mitzvah on Oct. 27, 1984. I did, however, learn to read Hebrew from the Torah for 20 minutes straight, without comprehending a word.
Since then, with an archaic Hebrew God on my left and an unfamiliar Christian God at my right, I fell into the chasm between them.
The holidays, for me, don’t spur chestnut-scented memories. Making a Christmas list in my childhood home was an effort in dashed hopes. I grew accustomed to never getting anything I asked for, needed or wanted. Eventually, I stopped asking, and still won’t respond when sought out for gift ideas.
I remember getting Chapstick, socks and underwear. Real gifts arrived at the homes of my friends: BB guns, motorcycles, stereo systems. My house? Santa brought presents that seemed to be for other children, poor kids, basics such as boots, gloves, pajamas, a toothbrush. The presents-every-night-of-Hanukkah myth? Not at my house, where it was Night One and done.
Having been raised by people who lived through World Wars and the Great Depression, my parents must’ve thought that giving my brother and me gifts and toys somehow equated to spoiling, and that their money was better socked away into savings for a rainy day, for their retirement.
In the end, my parents’ savings took a big hit in the financial crisis of 2008. Smells like karma to me.
Even though the gift-receiving process for me is forever tainted, I still enjoy the giving part. I don’t care if I’m thanked, appreciated or even acknowledged (unlike my parents, who wanted to hear thanks expressed, even for the toothbrushes). That, to me, is not the point. I tend to give things that I know will help people. If they get even a little boost from it, I can walk away with a modicum of confidence, saying “my work is done here.”
For most of my life, I found it hard to say if my parents were cheap or just confused about gift-giving. Although, years later, I think I got my answer. It came to me one time while visiting them. I noticed on a desk a receipt. It was for a large donation that they had given to a Midwestern televangelist.
My conclusion? My brother and I weren’t worth the trouble. To be continued (on my shrink’s couch)!
Noah Hoffenberg is a word-peddling mountain biker who spends all his time in the hills of Western Massachusetts, grousing among the porcupine and woodchucks.