The Hanukkah bush: Raising Jewish kids in downtown NYC
For those of you not around New York City in the 1970s, raising children was a challenge. City parks were infested with drug dealers and street crime was high. Many kids (without the security of a cell phone) were mugged on the street for their backpacks or pocket money. Playgrounds were dirty, subways were dangerous, and the homeless were visible everywhere, living off the warmth of grates from the heated basements of buildings. The city went into near bankruptcy in 1973 and the despair of the decade, some insist, culminated in the great blackout of 1977.
The seventies was also the decade when I was raising two Jewish children downtown, struggling to impart values and determined to educate them in public school. My daughter Julia, the eldest, did not last long at the Pace University Little School, a nursery school that was conveniently located and affordable. Art projects there consisted of coloring in pre-drawn outlines of clowns and Christmas trees. One day, she refused to do so and tore the paper up. I was called to class and within days I had transferred her to a coop nursery school founded by Claire Kaplan at the Educational Alliance on East Broadway. Popular with downtown artists, it was a place where fish bones were used to make art prints and where the kids were encouraged to be creative.
From the Alliance, both children moved on to an elementary school in Greenwich Village from which we often walked home. From mid-November on, we passed Christmas street lights, holiday decorations, and the tree lots, that appeared miraculously almost everywhere. The Salvation Army Santa was around, too, shaking his bell.
In school, there was always a Christmas party with a grab bag. At least once, I remember my daughter’s prize, a gilt Christmas tree brooch, which she proudly pinned to the lapel of her purple jacket. Once, I arrived a little late at a cub scout holiday performance held in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. As I entered, the emcee said: “And now, Daniel Bernstein will sing Ave Maria. ”Then, in his beautiful soprano, he sang the hymn as I sat there thinking about the utter irony of the scenario.
We had a menorah and we lit Hanukkah candles. I knew Hebrew and I said the blessings, remembering to light the candles with the shamos from right to left. Given my limited voice, I did my very best to sing Ma’oz Tzur, saved by my children’s talent. We played dreidel games for pennies, each year repeating aloud, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “A Great Miracle Happened There.” We exchanged modest gifts, too, usually sensible flannel pajamas and books, at least two reading levels above their class average.
Celebrating Hanukkah was fine but not for eight nights. Hanukkah had a hard time competing with Christmas which dominated life in our neighborhood. My children lingered as they passed the fresh pine trees, picking up broken evergreen branches, and sniffing their perfume. The branches left a gummy residue on their fingers and the kids licked it off, as if it were candy.
One day, succumbing to pressure for Christmas gifts, I bought some red fabric and made two stockings, embroidering Julia and Daniel’s names in script with green thread. I filled them with classic stocking stuffers—hi bouncing balls, marbles, jacks, yo-yos, and candy canes. The stockings appease them briefly, but I could tell that there was no placating their Christmas tree envy.
Their friends all had trees, decorated with handmade ornaments, and strings of popcorn. In every brownstone, loft, or apartment they visited, there was a tree, majestic and magical. Only their home went without.
One day, desperate to solve the problem, I found myself in a variety store on Eighth Street. It was a week before Christmas and, although Hanukkah and Christmas came at the same time that year, there was only a tiny corner allotted to the Jewish holiday.
Nothing very exciting–some plastic dreidels, a blue Happy Hanukkah sign, and chocolate gelt, wrapped in gold and silver foil. As I walked up and down the aisles, I spied a 10 inch high plastic Christmas tree, with tiny red plastic balls covering its artificial green branches. It stood on its own brown plastic stand and had gathered dust. It had been there for too long. It cost 99 cents.
I took it home and spent the afternoon covering it with tiny little blue Jewish stars and multi-colored paper dreidels. When the children came home, they were joyous. We had our very own Hanukkah bush.
Roslyn Bernstein, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, is the author of Boardwalk Stories, and the co-author with Shael Shapiro of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.