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Two festivals of light.

From the book Seven Stories of Christmas Love by Leo Buscaglia, (C) 1987 by Leo F. Buscaglia, Inc. Published by Stack, Inc. Distributed by William Morrow and Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Love never dies as long as there is someone who remembers.

Christmas never fails to evoke memories. Most of us can recall Christmases of great joy and of disappointment, of warm camaraderie and frightening loneliness, of exciting hellos and painful good-byes.

It's strange how memory works-why we remember what we remember and forget what we forget. How is it that I can remember so vividly the details of a special Christmas more than 50 years ago, and forget important events of just a few days past?

I could not have been more than eight or nine years old the Christmas when our new neighbors moved in. It was an exceptionally cold and rainy Los Angeles December. I remember it well because of the embarrassment I felt over having to wear my sister's winter coat, which she had outgrown. In our home, clothes were not thrown out, they were handed down, and it was my turn to wear the coat-no matter the girlish fur piping on the collar and sleeves, and buttons on the wrong side.

We lived in a small house heated by a single woodburning stove that served to separate the kitchen and the dining room. I remember how we huddled that December to dress by its heat. The house was frame, similar to many others still to be found in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. They were proudly referred to at the time as craftsman houses.

The families who lived on our street were mostly first-generation immigrants: Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians from southern Italy, Germans, and Mexicans. Few of them spoke English well, most had large families, all of them were poor.

Our new neighbors moved in early in December -a rabbi and his family: a boy, Elijah, who was my age; and a girl, Sarah, a few years older. When I saw them for the first time I pretended to be playing but watched as their large old pieces of furniture were unloaded from the moving van and disappeared into the darkness behind their front door. I wondered what they'd be like, if they'd speak English, if they'd be friendly. As is usually the case under such circumstances, it was Elijah and I who were the first to talk. It always seems easier for children, for some reason. We were soon walking to school each day, fast becoming close friends. He was one of the few children who didn't laugh at my coat.

We were standing in the schoolyard waiting for the bell to ring one morning when the subject of the approaching holiday came up.

"What are you going to get for Christmas?" I asked Elijah.

"I don't believe in Christmas," he said simply.

I was stunned. "Everybody believes in Christmas," I insisted.

"I'm Jewish. We don't," he answered matter-of-factly.

"Well, what do you believe in if you don't believe in Christmas?" I persisted.

"Lots of things. But not Christmas," he responded.

When something of any importance happened during the day in our lives, it was always shared with the family at our dinner table that evening . It was here that anxieties were lessened, mysteries solved, solutions arrived at. I couldn't wait to tell the startling news. Our new neighbors didn't believe in Christmas!

Mama and Papa were as mystified as I was at the news. They were not moved by my elder brother's explanation that Christmas is a religious holiday, that there are all kinds of beliefs in the world, that the Cohens had as much right not to believe in Christmas as we did to believe in it. After all, he reasoned further, wasn't that part of why so many people left their homelands to emigrate to the United States?

Mama in her innocent wisdom rationalized, "Maybe they don't know about it. They come from far away, like we do, and maybe no one told them yet."

"Well, they don't come from the moon," my brother said with a laugh.

"Don't be so smart," my mother said"or I'll send you to the moon!" Mama had a way of making a point. She turned to Papa across the table. "They should be invited to share Christmas with us," she said.

That was Mama's way of handling any problem-feed it! And there was always a place at the table for anyone at any time. Perhaps that's why so many of my fondest memories are associated with eating.

Within a week of their moving in I was hired by Rabbi Cohen as their Shabbas goy: the gentile who serves the family on their Sabbath. I was paid generously-a nickel a week for the job, a fortune for a poor kid at the time. It was very easy. I just had to turn on the lights when the family returned from the synagogue, move a few pots of food to the stove, and turn on the gas.

This, of course, became another mysterious subject for our table talk. "How come you have to do that? That's really strange."

A few weeks prior to Christmas I was serving the Cohens' Sabbath table. When I finished my ritual, I did as I had been instructed by Papa and invited Rabbi Cohen and his family to have Christmas dinner at our home. Elijah had warned me that they wouldn't come.

Rabbi Cohen was a man not easily forgotten. He was of medium stature but appeared much larger than life, with his bespectacled alert dark eyes, his shocking mass of black hair, his dark beard, and his black clothingall serving to accentuate the whiteness of his delicate face and hands. We all thought that he was the very image of the man on the Smith Brothers coughdrop box.

In his deep, melodious voice he answered my invitation. "Ah," he said. "Ve vould like to come to your house and meet your mama and papa, but better I talk first to your papa."

"They don't talk English too good," I warned him. "That's why they asked me to invite you. They talk Italian."

"Veil," the rabbi said with a smile. "I don't talk too good, either. But ve'll understand each other. Vy not? Ve're neighbors."

When he was at home Papa could always be found in his garden. Behind the house grew endless vegetables: onions, peppers, garlic, zucchini, carrots, lettuce, and whatever the seasonal vegetables or fruits were. The front of the house was always a profusion of flowers. It was especially lovely this Christmas season, with large bushes of poinsettias-double red, in full bloom.

Rabbi Cohen stopped Papa at his weeding a few days later. Elijah and I, now good friends, stood close by to watch the historic encounter.

"I'm Rabbi Cohen, your new neighbor."

"I know you jus-a move in," Papa said. "Is-a good you jus-a move in."

"It's time ve should meet," Rabbi Cohen said, with his unique inflection. He shook Papa's hand warmly. "I vant to thank you for the invitation to be vis you and your family for Christmas dinner."

"It's-a all right," Papa said"You and your family come. We gotta plenty to eat."

"That's a problem," the rabbi said and smiled"You see, ve can only eat certain style foods. Ve run a kosher household."

"Well," said Papa, in the usual way he had of refusing to allow anything to present a problem. "We'll cook what-a you eat-kosher." Of course, Papa had no idea what kosher was. He was counting on Mama's usual creativity in the kitchen.

"Vell," replied Rabbi Cohen"it's a little more complicated dan dat."

He proceeded to explain what a kosher household entails. Papa nodded understanding, but it became plain that evening at the dinner table that he had understood very little of what the rabbi told him. What he concluded was that Jews ate differently from other people, that they did know what Christmas was all about, and that they too had a very special holiday in December called Hanukkah. But in spite of communication problems, Papa was delighted to tell us that the Cohens would be our guests for Christmas dinner and, in turn, we were invited to share their Hanukkah ceremony several nights later.

My elder sister was sent out to the nearby kosher market on Wabash and Evergreen with instructions to buy enough kosher food to satisfy at least ten people. Papa wanted to be sure there would be enough. Though we had very little money to spare, feeding our new neighbors was a very high priority.

My mother was delighted and intrigued when my sister returned with large bags of assorted foods in tightly sealed jars and containers marked "kosher." The grocer had helped her select a very special feast, indeed.

Both holiday visits were great successes. After surmounting various problems and supplying appropriate utensils of their own, the Cohens were very touched by the special dinner set before them. The Buscaglias devoured their Christmas feast with their accustomed gusto. There were gifts for the Cohens under the Christmas tree, and in the soft glow of Christmas lights we serenaded them with carols, in both English and Italian.

Each year Mama proudly displayed a traditional manger scene made up of several small hand-carved figures: Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and a few shepherds, angels, and animals she had managed to carry with her among the few possessions she brought from Italy. Over the manger was a tiny banner on which were printed the words: "Pace sulla terra agli uomini di buon volonta."

During the evening, Mrs. Cohen fingered each of the images tenderly, then asked, "What does the banner say, Mrs. Buscaglia?"

"Pace. Peace," Mama answered.

"Yes," the rabbi sighed. "Peace."

I can remember much laughter that night, but I recall more vividly the tears brought on by shared memories of the "old country." How much they missed the families left behind, the dear friends, the special foods now unavailable, the places of their childhoods that perhaps they would never see again.

Several evenings later we sat in the Cohens' living room eating potato latkes, sharing small glasses of wine, and breaking bread-the challah. We watched in silence as Mrs. Cohen lit the last of the Hanukkah candles from the flame of the shammash-eight in all-until the menorah was ablaze with light. Mrs. Cohen looked beautiful in the bright candlelight. "Like a Madonna," my mother told her. "Oy vey," Mrs. Cohen said, "a Jewish Madonna!" We listened to the prayers and the songs. Rabbi Cohen had a beautiful basso voice that towered over the others in a strange harmony. We were all presented with Hanukkah gifts. We learned to spin the dreidel, a great game that produced much laughter.

When the time came for us to depart, Rabbi Cohen put his arm around my father's shoulder. "Hanukkah isn't Christmas, but like your Christmas, it's a time of a miracle, a Festival of Light," he explained. He told us it celebrates a rededication of their temple, a reminder to put away thoughts of revenge and battle and share love in peace with family and friends. "Just like it says on your manger-time for 'peace on earth to men of good will.'"

I can still visualize the moment when we departed from the Hanukkah celebration. Papa huddled us all together under umbrellas at the bottom of the Cohens' front porch. He turned and Happy Hanukkah, cari amici." Rabbi Cohen, his family surrounding him, smiled down at us and said, "Merry Christmas, neighbors. Mazel tov!"

This was the beginning of a loving friendship between our two families that was to last more than 30 years. Thirty years in which so many things happened, none of which we could foretell' during that first special season. Rabbi Cohen died one day on his way to shul. His heart simply stopped. My brothers and sisters, one by one, left home. Elijah got married and I was his best man. His sister went off to college to become a doctor. Mrs. Cohen went to live with her brother in New York. My parents sold the family home and moved into a small apartment nearer to my elder sister.

Beautiful memories recalled have a way of re-creating the original glow and warmth surrounding them. I feel them still, writing these thoughts, even after 50 years. I can settle back and yield to the feeling of love we radiated during that holiday, a love that will never die as long as there is one of us to remember.

"Happy Hanukkah, cari amici."

"Merry Christmas, neighbors. Mazel to v!"
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:reminiscence of Christmas and Hanukkah
Author:Buscaglia, Leo
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1988
Words:2118
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