As a kid, I thought that everyone celebrated Christmas the way our Buddhist Jewish family did.
You know, trying to find a beautiful tree at “half off, get one free” that we decorated with origami cranes and Stars of David’s made out of leftover matzoh.
Yes, it’s the only kind of holiday I have ever known, a merry Bewish festive season, a word made up for a combination of both my parents who are Buddhist and Jewish.
Let’s just say that I grew up thinking that while Jesus was a suffering member of my tribe, I was not supposed to worship, Buddha taught us that “Life as we know it ultimately leads to suffering.”
You see, I couldn’t win.
Oh…and did I mention that my father made the meanest martinis in all of Los Angeles, as he told jokes from the old Jewish neighborhood and urged me to loudly do the same…while my mother yelled at me to make the rice and remain a calm, serene and quiet Asian Buddhist daughter?
Are you starting to get the picture? My parents were verifiably insane!
Although in their weird way, they were entirely loving, sweet, exciting and always passionate, even if they hardly ever agreed on anything.
They just went about their business and went on their merry ways for their four kids during Christmas and throughout the whole year. What’s not to love about that?
And while I had a confused identity at times and even thought that Charlie Brown, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph were pretty damn great religious figures during the holidays, I felt loved. And isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
As a Japanese Jew, I did not visit double the amount of Temples as you might think. Nor did I light menorah while simultaneously meditating and envisioning that I was a lit candle never to be blown out.
As a kid, Christmas was about getting the big doll of the season or the Schwinn bicycle, and dining Japanese-Jewish style with fried fish and musubi alongside a “not very” Kosher honey-baked ham and some healthy borscht.
But most of all, it was about family: the six of us and a few cousins, eccentric aunts and uncles, grandparents and here-and-there visitors who bustled into our home with fruitcakes, pies, armloads of gifts and always a smile and a grin, because we all knew that our December 25th was special in our own way.
There were no mangers, plastic Jesus night lights or crosses decorating our home. Instead, we had Japanese Kabuki theater masks arranged loosely near books by Chekov while we watched Woody Allen movies and T.S. Elliot’s chipper Murder in the Cathedral.
And our feast! Why, even the Grinch would want to carve our roast beef!
Our meals also included Japanese-style cooked salmon, leg of lamb, sweet potatoes, turkey and stuffing, mash potatoes, baked potatoes, and at least 20 side dishes that we all clamored about to get a scrumptious taste of.
And the desserts! Just simply close your eyes now and stop reading if you have any kind of a sweet tooth!
There was homemade crusted apple and cherry pies made by my grandmother; chocolate souffles, fudge brownies and cranberry tarts made by my sister; lemon merengue pies and angel food cake by my mother; an endless array of warm-baked cookies and pastries right from the oven and every flavor of ice cream that you can possibly imagine that would satisfy our souls and soothe our taste buds like a diabetic cacophony or perfectly orchestrated symphony.
As for properly celebrating any Chanukah-ish celebrations?
I don’t know about that, except if you count eating lox and bagels and challah bread at Jewish delis in Hollywood, while we complained about the 107-year-old waitress giving us too much food. “What are we supposed to do with so many leftovers?” my father would kvetch.
Milton Berle once observed, “Anytime a person goes into a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.”
Oh, and there was also the time my sisters and I used my father’s old yarmulkes as bathing suit tops while we sang the classic “Oh Chanukah, Oh Chanukah!” and walked down to the Santa Monica Pier to watch hot surfer boys dressed up like Santas and his helpers.
My life experience can be best summed in the following quote, “Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. And sit up straight. You’ll never meet the Buddha with posture like that.”
“Oy Vey,” I say, as my Jewish boyfriend sits next to my Japanese mother at Christmas and next to his own mother at Chanukah. What can I say? They both love the mensch.
The late, great Anne Bancroft once said, “When Mel Brookes told his Jewish mother he was marrying an Italian girl, she said, ‘Bring her over, I’ll be in the kitchen with my head in the oven.’”
The great thing about being from such a diverse background during holidays is the sheer entertainment and material alone. I could literally sit home for the rest of my life and have enough to write about for a lifetime.
Now, that’s an idea!
For example, I remember one year when we used menorah candles for my father’s birthday, while my mother told him to “blow quickly” so we could save them for my sister’s birthday the following month. You understand, these were “my good” candles, not the cheap ones from Torahs R’ Us.
Then, there are the memories of when we all decorated the Christmas tree with clumps of tinsel, while my father just laughed at us while drinking scotch, sang Dean Martin songs and tried on 10 different sweaters while he asked us kids, “Which one makes me look the most handsome?”
I know that the last thing that you want to hear about now is politics, but I just have to mention that this year I feel a little less high on the weird scale as Barack Obama is our President Elect.
Like me, he is a half-breed from parents of different cultures and faiths who were expected to get a long and sing “Kumbaya.” He was asked during his initial presidential run what he considered his ethnic identity to be. Being the wise man he is, he answered thoughtfully that he is simply an American from two rich cultures.
And you know, that’s just how this half-Shikseh princess from the middle class side of the tracks feels.
My mother and father’s families originally came from Russia and Japan, but they too were also both born in this country.
Everyone has their own strange family stories to tell and that is one of the things that unites us together as Americans…that we all have families who originally came from somewhere else. And in every family, we have the odd relative, unusual tradition or holiday ritual that we secretly enjoy and covet.
For me, this includes the fact that I have begun yet a second generation as I have Jewish-Japanese-Italian-Scotch-Irish daughters, wherein I get to torture them with the same oddities that I experienced during childhood. And what’s really cool is that my parents are still around to do their same old shtick to double-torture them!
I am reminded of two quotes I heard continually as a child, the first from a Japanese Samurai, “Generally speaking, the way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.”
And the other from Woody Allen, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
And you think you have issues!
Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here in the corner in the dark by myself, eating a knish in my kimono while hoping that Santa puts something nice in my Victoria’s Secret stocking.
As my 95-year-old grandmother said, “I hope that you have been nice enough that Santa will bring you a nice big present, but naughty enough so that you have had a good time.”
Happy Holidays to one and all my friends!
Here are some Buddhist Jewish quotes that I will leave you with . . .
“Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist”
“If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?”
“Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?”
“Drink tea and nourish life. With the first sip, joy. With the second sip, satisfaction. With the third sip, peace. With the fourth, a Danish.”
“Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.”
“Accept misfortune as a blessing. Do not wish for perfect health, or a life without problems. What would you talk about?”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Oy.”
“There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?”
“Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis.”
“The Tao does not speak. The Tao does not blame. The Tao does not take sides. The Tao has no expectations. The Tao demands nothing of others. The Tao is not Jewish.”
“Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out . Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.”
“Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as a wooded glen. And sit up straight. You’ll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders.”
“Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.”
The Torah says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Buddha says, “There is no self. So maybe we’re off the hook.”
Ed: Brianna B.