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Illumination

by Ryma Shoshami


The crimson glass hut, topped by a crusty sprinkling of snow, hung from the prickly pine branch by an invisible silk thread. I ached to stroke the shiny, smooth walls and peer through the tiny frosted window. The delicate toy was well within my reach, but my problem was not one of distance. My mother had warned me that touching would arouse the ire of the resident wicked witch.

“She eats little children who bother her, so don’t let her see you.”

Staring with wide-eyed wonder and fear, hands tightly clasped behind my back, I took a cautious step away from the tree. I was not quite four and not inclined to tangle with any witch. Thus was assured the safety of this fragile ornament that decorated what was euphemistically called in atheist Russia, the “New Year” tree.
 
Russia was where my Polish father had fled at age sixteen, hiding in every forest along the way, and usually just one tree ahead of the invading German army. He eventually met and married my mother, and together they built a life from the ruins of their shattered old ones. But he had no intention of remaining in Russia. In fact, his plan was to somehow reach Canada, where his father had settled before the war. My grandfather had gone to earn the money to bring his family over. Unfortunately, time had run out. My father and his five closest friends succeeded in escaping the Nazis. The rest of the shtetl’s Jewish population, which included my grandmother, uncle, and various other relatives, were relegated to two mass graves in the woods on the outskirts of town.

It took several years of bureaucratic wrangling, but being a Polish citizen, my father was finally able to extract permission from the Russians to return to his homeland. My mother, however, was loath to leave her entire family behind; the prospect of a new country and a strange language terrified her. The Communist clerks, who attempted to dissuade her from leaving, added to her trepidation by hinting that my father would abandon her once the family had crossed the border. Family legend has it that my father countered by threatening to hang himself from the highest beam in the new community privy that serviced the ten families sharing our particular courtyard.

The image of such a gruesome and malodorous suicide proved more persuasive than the bureaucrats’ intimidation tactics. My mother packed our bags and tearfully said good-bye to all she had ever known. In June 1957, when I was six and a half years old, my family emigrated from the Soviet Paradise.

We spent the next 10 months biding time in Poland, waiting for the precious visas that would allow us to continue our journey to Canada. After three horrific months in a bed bug- and lice-infested transit camp, we found a dingy apartment in a town whose name meant nothing to me and which I promptly forgot. In fact, very few memories of Poland remain, the most vivid one being of gigantic sewer rats scuttling about in a dismal rain.

During all this time, my grandfather was frantically processing the paperwork that would enable him to see his first-born son after twenty-three years. I, of course, was oblivious to the details of our tenuous situation. How could I know that the Polish government was close to slamming shut the window of opportunity on all the Jews eager to escape? Although the tension in the house was palpable, I had no idea as to its cause. The hushed whispering between my parents and our neighbors, who were in similar circumstances, was mysterious and intriguing, but it was all adult stuff.

My days were consumed with evading the kerosene-soaked scarf and fine-tooth comb that constituted the head lice remedy of the times. My mother was determined that I would not add a single new member to Canada’s lice population. Being unemployed, she had scads of time to devote to picking at my scalp, and she demonstrated a vigorous dedication to this project. We both shed copious tears in Poland.

Apart from the daily torturous combing of my fine, waist-length hair, once December arrived, I had another reason for concern. The New Year was fast approaching and no one had yet mentioned a tree. Alarmed at this turn of events and running out of patience, I chose to nag my older brother about it.

"We're not allowed to have a New Year tree anymore," he informed me.

"You're lying!" I accused. "We always have a tree!"

"Well that was there and then, and this is here and now,” he taunted. "Jews don't have New Year trees so we’re not having any stupid tree." With that pronouncement, he returned to his chess board and proceeded to execute a maneuver sure to stymie his opponent, in this case, himself. The sky could fall, but our discussion was over.

My head swirled with all this new information. Sobbing with fury, I sought out my parents for reassurance that the New Year tree would be erected as usual, topped by its shimmering silver star. And that the witch's house would still hang at eye level, no longer treacherous, but still appealing. And that Grandfather Frost would appear with gifts.

To my great anguish, no assurances were forthcoming that life as I had known it at the end of each December would be restored.

"There'll be no more talk of trees. We’re finished being goyim.”

What language was my father speaking? What were goyim? Seeing my distress and bewilderment my father lowered his voice and attempted an explanation.

“In Russia, the tree is for celebrating the New Year, but in other countries it’s for celebrating Christmas. It’s really a Christmas tree.”

“So what, I don’t care!” I protested.

“Listen carefully. Christmas is a holiday for people who are Christians,” he stressed. “We’re Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

He did not add that in Communist Russia, not having a New Year tree would have cast suspicion on us. The elaborate pretense had to be maintained, and so along with all the other Jews they socialized with, my parents had participated in the official winter festivities decreed mandatory by The Party.

“Can’t we just call it a New Year tree?” I whined.

“No! I said there’ll be no more trees!”

“What about the parties?” I sniffled, remembering the annual children’s celebrations I attended at my parents’ respective workplaces, at which Grandfather Frost distributed gifts and sweets.

"You’ll have different parties as soon as we're in Canada,” he answered with finality. “From now on, we celebrate Jewish holidays."
 
I listened intently for some saving grace to this untenable situation, but heard only betrayal. I didn't want new holidays and different parties. I wanted my tree. I wanted my witch. I was inconsolable.

“I want to go back to Russia,” I wailed.

“Stop it right now, and not another word,” my father commanded.

But I was my father’s daughter. Meek surrender was not an immediate option.
 
“I’m going back to Russia. I’m going to live with Babushka!” I threatened, invoking my grandmother as a possible solution to their heartless and insensitive treatment of me.

Throwing his hands up in frustration, my father reverted to the old reliable standby of all strict parents throughout the ages. He warned that if the tantrum continued, he would give me something real to cry about. Having previously experienced such confrontations, I recognized the futility of further protest. To save face I stared defiantly into his cool, blue-gray eyes, but the sound effects ceased.

By summertime, we were settled in our new home in Montreal, a cramped, dreary, cold-water flat in a “starter” neighborhood for poor but ambitious Greek, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, as well as the even poorer local French Canadians. The next few months were devoted to learning a new language and acquainting myself with the vast army of wonderful cousins who had sprung up to welcome us. Somehow, between my fractured English and the internationally understood hand waving that passed for sign language, we all managed to communicate.

My grandfather's new young wife, however, was a step-grandmother straight out of Grimm's. In her warped thinking, our arrival was not a miraculous reunion between my father and grandfather. Instead, it spelled competition to her two young children for my grandfather’s attention and eventual inheritance, such as it was. Too wily to antagonize my father, she picked on the weakest target, me. Tall and over-bearing, she towered over me and made sure that I was kept intimidated so as not to outshine her daughter. As most children and dogs are adept at doing, I was able to sense the antagonism behind her phony smiles. She may as well have been the incarnation of the wicked witch we'd left hanging on the New Year tree back in Russia.

As though the Canadian “witch” was not a significant enough contribution to an already stressful transition, the gadgets so familiar to Westerners also conspired to unsettle me. Each shrill of the black phone squatting on the lamp table beside our threadbare “chesterfield” sent my heart racing. Should I lift the receiver and risk not understanding the person on the other end? My English was still tenuous and each sentence was a potential humiliation. But what if it was my mother calling from work, making sure I was safe? I couldn’t risk a scolding by not picking up.

The toaster, though intriguing, was undependable and painful. I smeared as much butter to soothe the tiny burns covering my hands as I did on the burned toast. On the plus side, the flickering black and white TV, with its rabbit ears antenna was a wondrous appliance. It was unimportant that most of the time we were treated to snow and that the cascading picture was sure to induce crossed eyes if stared at long enough. My brother and I were convinced that each episode of Rin Tin Tin was worth the risk of blindness. Had there ever been a more brilliant, loyal and courageous canine? Not likely.

Yet the most significant change in my life was that I was gradually discovering the unique holidays that were part of the "being Jewish" package. Who could complain about apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashana, even if celebrating the New Year in September seemed bizarre? Also fun, though I hated to admit it, was snaking in a conga line behind the rabbi on Simchat Torah. We sang in celebration and munched on apples while he wended his way through the entire synagogue. But it was my first bag of gold foil-wrapped chocolates and $5 of Chanukah gelt that proved to be the tipping point. I grudgingly admitted that being Jewish was tolerable.

As Christmas of our first year in Canada approached, I found myself drifting into nostalgia mode. I wondered what had become of the little witch house and all our other ornaments. I knew there would be no tree in our home, but the public school I attended allowed a tree in each class, bought and paid for by the students. No matter that most of the students in my school were Jewish! Sensitivity to other cultural narratives had not yet permeated the collective social consciousness of the public arena.

My parents accepted that they could not set the rules in a school belonging to the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. They were just grateful that our morning rituals consisted of no more than saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. So since Christmas was the public holiday of the season, they handed over the ten cents towards the purchase of the class Christmas tree.

It seemed like an eternity since I’d decorated a tree and I couldn’t wait to begin. I could already smell the familiar sharp pine fragrance and feel the prickly needles. After poring over photographs of school Christmas celebrations, I imagined our own class gifts wrapped in shiny red and gold and Christmas-themed paper, all scattered haphazardly under the tree. Scarlet ribbon curlicues interspersed with silver streamers and cotton snow tacked to the branches all embellished my daydreams.

I just didn’t know what to do about the intermittent guilt feelings nagging at me. Was I a traitor to my religion? Would G-d punish me? But these concerns were promptly dismissed. After all, it was a “school thing” and out of my hands. I was acquiring a formidable talent for rationalization.

The following year, while decorating, we all sang along with the traditional Christmas songs our teacher had put on the tinny school record player. Bells jingled on the horse pulling an open sleigh and the three Kings of Orient delivered their exotic gifts. Paper snowmen and star cutouts were taped to the windows, competing with the actual frost on the outside of the panes. Gradually, the room and the tree acquired a sparkly, festive air. The guilt feelings put in a brief appearance but were soundly quashed and discarded.

My third Christmas at school was a repeat of the first two. By then, I was familiar with the routine. The same reindeer, the same Santa Claus, the same decorations graced the same walls, windows and tree. And because the landscape had not changed, I at first failed to notice the mechanical, assembly line rhythm to my cutting and stringing and taping. Neither did I discern the lack of gusto in my singing. And the chattering of my classmates was barely penetrating my rambling thoughts. 

At one point I stepped back to assess the tree. Did it have enough sparkles? Was one side lopsided or was everything balanced? The longer I pondered it, the less appealing the tree became. The star perched precariously atop the center branch was slightly askew, one of its points drooping and tarnished. The dusty angels dangling from the branches appeared exhausted, their many years of responsibility for everyone’s safety finally proving too draining a task. And when the fairy lights were lit, I did not gasp with wonder and delight. I was busy cleaning up.

A vague queasiness assaulted my stomach and throat as I trudged home over the thin layer of crackling snow. Forehead furrowed in contemplation, I tried to fathom my bizarre and unexpected detachment from that afternoon’s activities at school. Despite the red wool scarf protecting half my face, my breath still escaped as steam from my mouth and disappeared into the crisp air. The questions nagging at me refused to evaporate so easily.

Nearing home, I saw our neighbor M. Dupuis approaching from the opposite direction, dragging a ragged pine tree behind him, his usual cigarette resting between his lips. I wondered where he and his wife Therese would find enough room for a Christmas tree in their overcrowded flat. I fretted about his milkman’s wages not being high enough to afford gifts for his ever-expanding brood.

“Merry Christmas, Monsieur!” I called out. “What a lovely tree.” I hoped he’d found the tree on a deserted lot. It would have been a shame to pay good money for what amounted to not much more than a sparse collection of branches.

“Merci, petite, thank you little one,” replied M. Dupuis, taking advantage of the break to inhale a deep drag. “Mais non, it’s not the biggest tree in Montreal, but with almost eleven children at home, well, if I got a bigger tree, I would have to send the twins to live in your house.” The twins were my friends Marie and Chantal, and once we were home from our respective schools, we were inseparable.

“Oh, M. Dupuis,” I laughed. “You don’t mean that!” We both knew that the twins already could have passed for family at my house, grateful for an opportunity to escape the bedlam of their own home.

“It was the last tree on the lot and Marcel, he want to go home. So I give him one dollar,” he admitted. His tone of voice implied that he had spared poor Marcel an afternoon of freezing boredom, but I knew better. Three years in this neighborhood had left no doubt in my mind that no one here had any spare change.

“Oh, I’m positive you’ll make the tree very pretty,” I assured him. I remembered the beautiful ornaments we had left behind in Russia and wished they were here to help spruce up this pitiful specimen of a pine.

Despite the prickly cold, M. Dupuis had unbuttoned his jacket. His ruddy face glistened with the sweat of his exertions. I watched with fascination as one drop snaked its way down to his chin.

“But your people also have a holiday soon, non?” M. Dupuis was saying. The drop detoured around some stubble and continued its determined journey, down to his moist neck.

“Yes, we have a holiday too. It starts tomorrow,” I informed him.

The drop of sweat finally arrived at a dead end, a silver chain hanging around M. Dupuis’s neck. A matching silver cross was dangling from the chain. I blinked. I shook my head to get rid of the sudden swooshing and pounding inside my ears. Of course! How could I have been so dense? The wild thumping of my heart revealed what had eluded me all afternoon.

“How do you call it, that holiday?” he persisted through a hacking cough.

“Chanukah!” I sang out, louder than intended. “My holiday is called Chanukah. And it’s about a real miracle.”

“Ah, yes, miracles. They are important, non? We all of us have to celebrate our miracles.”

“I have to go now, M. Dupuis! Merry Christmas! And thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” he answered automatically, bewildered as to what he had done to earn such enthusiastic gratitude. “And Merry Chanukah!” he called as I disappeared up the stairs to our flat.

The next evening, the first night of Chanukah, it snowed lightly, soft fat flakes that drifted down as an afterthought and melted without adding another layer to the snow already clinging to the pavement. All was cozy inside. We had just lit the first candle and were happily devouring potato latkes with sour cream. The bronze-colored Chanukiah was a humble, second-hand cast-off, no longer fancy enough for its previous owners. In later years we would add more elaborate and expensive ones to our household, but that night, what we owned was perfect as far as I was concerned. The two candles it held cast a brilliant, almost defiant glow. It felt like home.

Out of my parents’ concerns for the safety of the family, my first few years of life were devoid of any mention of Judaism. My parents had their own wicked witches to contend with and could not rely on a chattering child to never say anything that might perk someone’s unwelcome interest. However, over the years I have learned to love the wonderful traditions that are a part of the Jewish holidays my family was finally able to observe without looking over our shoulders.

Chanukah, the holiday that celebrates a miracle as it lights the way for religious freedom, is still particularly special to me. How agonizing it must have been for my parents to carry on the pretense of the "New Year" tree. And my father’s annoyance at my childish fit all those years ago in Poland is no longer a mystery.

Having been raised in a religiously observant home, my father every December must have fervently prayed for the day when he could light Chanukah candles instead of Christmas lights. But he knew that the shiny baubles and trinkets we hung on those meaningless pine trees served a special purpose. They offered a protective shadow that kept us out of the headlights of the Communist thugs. The Christmas tree balls and lights that sparkled in our home in Russia were part of the miracle that let us survive until we could be Jews again. 

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