Dealing with how we celebrated the Holiday Season when I was growing up was just the most obvious symbol of our struggle to find ourselves religiously. We were half-breeds and both halves represented strong identities. Dad was not only a practicing Catholic when he met and courted my Jewish mom; he was a lay deacon in the Catholic Church. While he nominally converted to marry mom at City Hall, he never really shed his Catholic identity.
We hated Jewish holidays because we were the only kids absent on those days and our friends wanted to know why we had off and they didn’t. We were the only kids who didn’t have a tree and the only ones who didn’t go to church.
It didn’t really matter when we lived in New York’s Lower East Side, or later when we moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Both those neighborhoods had huge Jewish and Puerto Rican communities. We didn’t have to pick a lane. It was easy to identify with either side because there was plenty of each. But when we moved to West Babylon, Long Island, we were not just the only Puerto Ricans, we were the only Jews. We hated Jewish holidays because we were the only kids absent on those days and our friends wanted to know why we had off and they didn’t. We were the only kids who didn’t have a tree and the only ones who didn’t go to church.
It got so bad that shortly after my colorful Puerto Rican-dominated Bar Mitzvah I regularly attended Catholic mass and even made my confession because it was all easier than explaining to my friends that I was different.
At 14, I finally got what all my friends had, a Christmas tree. It had been a struggle. Our mom, the former Lillian Friedman, was adamant: Jewish families like ours didn’t celebrate the birth of Jesus. “But mom, he’s Jewish,” my sister and I long argued to no avail. “We can call it a Chanukah Bush,” didn’t fly either.
The long battle ended with a sneak attack. Irene, our adopted brother Wilfredo and I convinced our dad, Cruz Rivera of Bayamon Puerto Rico that we should just get it and put it up in the living room before mom got home from her job as cashier at the local E.J. Korvette discount department store (a sort of early Walmart).
We got the tree in place, got it lit and then waited for mom. We had a plan to mitigate her expected rage. As she walked in the living room and gasped, we started singing the old Yiddish holiday classic,
"Oh Chanukah, Oh Chanukah
Come light the Menorah
Let’s have a party
We’ll all dance the Horah…”
It went over like a lead balloon. Mom started crying and with a shrug and a sigh she spoke directly to God. Looking toward the ceiling, she said “I tried. You know how hard I tried.” From then until Irene got married and I went off to college, we had a Christmas tree, which disappeared as soon as we were out of the house.
We also celebrated “3 Kings Day” because we convinced mom that it was a Puerto Rican holiday rather than a strictly Christian religious observance, but that’s another story. I should also note that my Jewish wife Erica does not permit a Christmas tree, but we do watch the classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and annually attend the Radio City “Christmas Spectacular.”