Sipress Virginia

Sipress, David. What’s So Funny? (pp. 39-40). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
reproduced with permission of author

This cartoon of mine, from 2006, is among my most autobiographical. Not that my father and I ever actually went into any woods together, unless you count Central Park, and I don’t think he ever chopped down a tree. What’s autobiographical is the confusion I felt as a child over the fact that my family, like many Upper West Side Reform Jewish families in the nineteen-fifties, celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas.

We celebrated the two holidays in separate rooms—Christmas in the living room and Hanukkah in the kitchen—so that we wouldn’t get them mixed up, I guess, or perhaps to prevent contamination. In the kitchen, on a baking sheet so the candles wouldn’t drip on anything, was the gold-painted tin menorah I got at Sunday school. I loved lighting the orange “Jewish” candles and saying the blessing, mainly because it was the only time I was ever allowed to get anywhere near fire.

In the living room, presents were piled under the piano until Christmas morning. Even for dedicated assimilators like my parents, a Christmas tree would have been a bridge too far. On Christmas Eve, over the presents, my mother would play Christmas carols while I sat beside her on the piano bench and sang along, often mystified by the strange, incomprehensible lyrics.

The two weeks before Christmas were the busiest for my father. He would open his jewelry shop on Sixty-first Street and Lexington Avenue at 8 a.m. and stay until the last customer finished shopping at nine or ten that night. This made my father’s Christmas shopping for my mother a bit of a challenge. She would have been happy to shop for her own presents and save him the trouble—saving him the trouble was her life’s work—but, to his credit, he wouldn’t cross that line. So every year, for an hour or so, my mother would hold down the fort at the shop while my father hurried out to get her gifts.

The year I was six, about to turn seven, I was with my mother when she arrived at the shop, ready to take over. We had been to Bloomingdale’s to see Santa—just to “see” him, because I wasn’t allowed to sit on his lap. (The reason was some version of “we don’t know where it’s been.”) It was decided that I could go along with my father while he did his shopping, and the details of what I said on this outing quickly became one of the “cute,” and, for me, highly embarrassing, stories my father told and retold to friends and relatives in the coming years. He was still telling it the year he died, at the age of ninety-three.

It was a cold late afternoon. We were heading for the shop of a Japanese dressmaker who, barely five feet tall herself, specialized in clothes for tiny women like my mother. My father wore an elegant camel’s-hair coat and a cashmere scarf. I wore a miniature replica of the same coat, wool mittens attached to the sleeves by metal clips, and a peaked wool hat with ear flaps covered by earmuffs—my mother insisted. My father was hatless as usual, oversized ears turning bright red after a few seconds in the cold, his thick, gray mustache frosty and stiff.

This excursion was special for me. I rarely spent time alone with my father—he worked six days a week, and on Sundays he was exhausted and preoccupied. As we walked east on Sixty-first Street and turned down First Avenue, he did the one thing that reliably dissolved any questions I might have had about where I stood with him—he took my hand and held it as we walked.

The dressmaker greeted us warmly in her small shop. After a brief exchange of pleasantries and some mutual commiseration about running a small business during the holidays, my father said, “I want to get something nice for Estelle.”

“Oh, yes,” the dressmaker said, making a show of giving the matter some thought before plunging into the overstuffed rack and pulling out a dress that my mother had selected weeks before. My father said that it was perfect. The dressmaker wrapped it up nicely and then placed it in a brown paper bag, so that my mother “wouldn’t know what it was.”

It was already dark when we stepped outside. “Mission accomplished,” my father said, mainly to himself. “And I’ve got that jade necklace I’ve been saving for her all year back at the shop.”

“Let’s take a little walk,” he then suggested, and we turned at the next corner. In the middle of the block was a small, red-brick church. Behind a low, wrought-iron fence was a garishly floodlit nativity scene. Music was playing—“O Come, All Ye Faithful” or something similar. We stopped. The nativity scene reminded me of the dioramas I loved at the Museum of Natural History, with cavemen and wild animals. My memory of the nativity scene is vivid, because it was my first. It included life-sized statues of the standard three humans, and, more exciting for me, a cow, a sheep, a goat, and real straw and hay.

“Why are they in a barn?” I asked my father. I took off my earmuffs so I could hear his answer.

“It’s all they could afford,” he said. “How should I know? Let’s get going. It’s cold and it’s getting late.”

“Isn’t it smelly?” We had recently visited my mother’s cousins in Connecticut, and they had taken me to a farm where you could pet the animals. What had most impressed me was the smell. “Don’t the animals go to the bathroom right there?”

“Yes. No. They probably go outside. Let’s hope so, at least.”

“That’s Jesus,” I said, pointing to the baby. He was chubby and pink, and reminded me of the phrase “tender and mild” in “Silent Night,” one of the songs my mother and I sang together at the piano. The words made the baby sound like something good to eat.

“What are the parents’ names?” I asked.

“Joseph and Mary. And those guys in the background, on the camels . . .” He pointed to a painted backdrop, leaning against the wall of the church. “Those are kings . . . supposedly.”

“What are ‘kings supposedly’?”

“I meant it’s just a story.”

“Did they have countries? Why are they coming there on camels?”

“They’re bringing presents for the baby.”

“Where is Santa?”

“What? The North Pole, I guess. Come on, David, let’s vamoose.”

He took my hand, but I didn’t budge. “When Jesus grows up he gets crucified,” I told him. “They hammer nails into him.”

“What? How do you know about that?”

“The movie. The one about the bathrobe.”

“The what?”

That Easter, I had watched “The Robe” on television one afternoon with my sister, Linda. There is a wonderful scene in which Richard Burton, playing Marcellus, a Roman tribune, arrives at Pilate’s palace, along with another soldier, a centurion. The scene opens with Pilate washing his hands. When Marcellus walks in, Pilate says that he has a final task for him before the tribune goes off on a new assignment on Capri. “An execution . . . three criminals. One of them is a fanatic. There might be trouble.”

Pilate says that he’s had a “rough night” and, looking dazed and distracted, requests a bowl to wash his hands. A slave tells him that he just washed them a minute ago. “So I did,” Pilate says, and he exits, zombie-like.

Then the centurion asks Marcellus perhaps the most hilarious, deadpan question in the history of cinema: “Your first crucifixion?”

“Yes,” Marcellus mumbles, staring down at the scroll containing his orders.

“What?” the centurion says. “Never driven nails into a man’s flesh?”

“The movie where they make Jesus carry the big cross up the hill,” I explained to my father, “so they could hammer the nails into his flesh and hang him up on it.” My sister, who was six years older than me, had given me a graphic description of the crucifixion, with spurting blood and splintered bones.

“You mean ‘The Robe,’ ” my father said. We were both silent for a few seconds, contemplating the pink plaster infant in his mother’s arms with the very bad death in his future.

“Linda says Jesus was Jewish, but the Jews wanted to kill him anyway. What was he, Daddy, Jewish or Christian?”

“He was Jewish,” he replied. “Christians hadn’t been invented yet.”

“But the Jewish people wanted him dead?”

“We have to go, David,” my father said, pulling on my arm.

“But . . .”

“I’ll tell you all about it, but now we have to mosey.”

“Do they kill the camels to make our coats?” He didn’t reply to that one.

We started walking. “Here’s the deal with Jesus, in a nutshell,” he said. “When he grew up, he started telling everyone he was the son of God, and . . .”

I looked back toward the church and pointed. “But wasn’t he the son of Joseph and Mary? Didn’t he come from his mommy?”

“Yes, but he kept saying otherwise. He kept saying his mommy was a virgin.”

“Round yon virgin,” I thought. But she hadn’t looked round.

“He told everybody that God sent him directly to Earth to be his son and save the world. Supposedly.”

“Then what happened?”

“He started wandering all over the place in Israel, teaching people about religion and collecting a bunch of followers who started claiming that he was performing miracles. . . .”

“What’s ‘miracles’?”

“Tricks. Like magic tricks. Like walking on water.”

“But you can’t do that,” I said. But I was already thinking that I would give it a try the next summer when we went to the beach.

“That’s why they’re miracles. But you’re right—it was all a bunch of baloney. Anyway, the other Jews, the ones in charge, started hearing he was saying he was the son of God, and they got mad.”


“He got too big for his britches.” This I understood. I had been yelled at many times, and even spanked once or twice, for the very same crime.

“So when he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut, they complained to the Romans, who were in charge of the Jews and everyone else back then, and the rest is history. But nobody blames the Romans. Everyone blames the Jews, which is why we’ve had so much trouble from the Christians. Even today.”

“They hate our guts. Linda told me.”

“Not all of them. Some do, but not all of them.”

For a couple of blocks, I thought about the Christians I knew—my teacher, a few friends at school, our cleaning lady, our elevator man—wondering which ones hated my guts. At Lexington Avenue, we turned uptown. In front of Bloomingdale’s, we passed a Salvation Army Santa.

“Is Santa God?” I asked. “Is he Jesus’ father?”

“What? No. Enough with the questions, David.” Now we could see the shop a block away, and my mother’s head in the window.

“Is he Christian?”

“Yes, he’s Christian. He’s based on some saint. The one in charge of presents. Speaking of which . . .” He held up the paper bag and smiled at me. “Don’t tell your mother what’s in here.”

“Is that how he can get into our apartment when we don’t have a chimney and all the doors are double locked? Is it a miracle? Like walking on water?”

“I don’t know. Ask your mother.” He pulled me along as he picked up the pace.

“Why do we have Christmas, since Santa is Christian and we’re Jewish and some of them hate us?”

“Because we’re Americans,” he answered. His eyes were on the shop.

“But if they hate us . . .”

“Enough with the questions, David!” He looked at me and gripped my hand tighter. “It’s just a holiday. So we can have presents, understand? That’s it. Case closed.”

“But Hanukkah has presents.”

“Oy,” he sighed. “Hanukkah’s too long. Doing it all in one day makes more sense. Some of us have to work.”

“What’s a virgin?” I asked, as I stumbled after him across Sixty-first Street.

“Someone from Virginia,” he replied.

From New Yorker Dec 24 2014