A Christmas Conversation with a Jewish Boy
By Kim Chernin
Some years ago I met a young boy in Golden Gate park, in the arboretum, near the duck pond. It was early winter, the garden was not crowded, a few kids were throwing bread to the ducks, the mothers shouting them back from the edge of the water. The squirrel-lady was there on her habitual bench, in her battered straw hat and heavy sandals. The sky was overcast. A young boy, perhaps ten years old, kept an eye on me while I was looking at the ducks. I don’t know what he saw but it seemed to interest him. He kept inching closer and finally he said: “You know what kind birds these is?”
He was a slim, dark-haired boy with glasses; they made his eyes look large and worried. I had the feeling he was eager to tell me about the birds, and hoped I didn’t know. Therefore, I didn’t know.
“Those birds?” I said, pointing to the small black ducks with white heads and bellies. “They look like they’re wearing tuxedos.”
“See,” he said, drawing my attention to the placard where ducks and other birds were identified by names and pictures. “You see? These birds not there.”
“They must be kind of unusual around here,” I suggested, although I’d seen them before.
“You know names? No? But I know. You want me tell you? These named bufflehead. We studied in school the names.”
Buffle didn’t sound exactly like buffle; head had a guttural sound to it, but I knew what he meant. I was charmed by his eagerness to share knowledge. I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking about his accent, which I thought was probably Russian. There were a lot of new Russian immigrants arriving in San Francisco in those days, in the seventies. So I approached indirectly. “We used to speak Russian in my family when I was little. My parents and my sister did, but I’ve forgotten most of it.”
“You know Russian?”
“A few words...”
“Gavarite pa russki?” he said, his voice rising.
“Niet, niet,” I answered, not daring to bring out my few words. Obed gatov (dinner is ready); ya tibya lyublyu (I love you); gde ubornaya (where’s the bathroom?) They were, to be sure, phrases important enough to have been remembered since childhood, if not entirely appropriate for this occasion. But now a sudden intuition seized me; I was certain the boy was not only Russian, which gave us something in common, but also Jewish, which gave us even more. I don’t know how Jews manage to recognize other Jews, even when we are from vastly different national cultures. On the one hand we just know. There are all those things we recognize without being able to name them. Then too there’s the question of survival; it’s dangerous to mistake a non-Jew for a Jew and perhaps unwisely reveal your identity; on the other hand there are many situations in which it’s dangerous not to recognize a friend. It probably comes down to the way a Jewish soul lives in Jewish eyes, longing for recognition and kinship, yet hesitantly. I was aware that this question of being Jewish could not simply be thrust at him; he had recently left the Soviet Union.
“Your parents Russian? Russian?” he asked, as if he hoped I might deny it.
“Well,” I said, “they were born in Russia and they went back to live there in the thirties.”
His eyes grew wide. “Went back? Went back to Soviet Union? We not go back,” he added quickly and glanced over his shoulder.
I looked around, at the squirrel lady, the buffleheads on the pond, the splintering winter sky. None of these seemed likely to broach the question of Jewish identity. Then I noticed a man going past on the street with a Christmas tree over his shoulder. The boy followed my gaze. “Do you have a Christmas tree?” I asked with feigned innocence, sure that he did not.
He looked uneasy, glanced at his shoes, shook his head. But that could mean they hadn’t bought one yet. Perhaps couldn’t afford one? They were new immigrants, was it a question of poverty?
“Not yet?” I asked.
He hesitated. Suddenly his face brightened. “Do you?” he whispered. “Do you have Christmas tree?”
“No, I don’t have a Christmas tree.”
“Not yet?” he echoed, shifting the burden of revelation back to me.
I took a step closer. I had to resist a powerful impulse to glance over my shoulder. “I never do,” I said, as if it were a confession. “I never have a Christmas tree.”
“We never do too,” he said quickly, with tension in his dark eyes. Out with it, out with it Eleni, I said to myself, tell him you’re Jewish and be done with it. But I knew the rules of this treacherous game. No false steps. Assume nothing. There might be other reasons a person might never have a Christmas tree, although I couldn’t think of many.
A constraint had overcome us both, a sense of danger, of possible transgression. There was an awkward silence. I felt I was experiencing what it must have been like for him in the Soviet Union – manoeuvering around the question, afraid of the possible error, afraid to miss the opportunity for kinship if it was not a question of error.
“No,” I said finally, reminding myself that I had never before in my life found it difficult to tell anyone that I was Jewish. “No, I never have a Christmas tree... because... we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
He glanced at me with a scrutinizing expression. “We too, we don’t celebrate Christmas neither,” he offered, catching his breath. Finally, he said “Why don’t you... not celebrate Christmas?”
“Well, you know, we celebrate Chanukah instead.”
“Chanukah?” For an instant he looked puzzled, disappointed. “Chanukah,” he whispered, with a strong Russian pronunciation, suddenly recognizing the word. The next step was inevitable.
“Yes, we’re Jewish,” I said softly. “We are all Jewish.”
“And we too,” he said, coming even closer. “We all too.”
We wanted to hug each other. We wanted to take hands and jump and spin about to acknowledge our relief, the dangerous verbal ground we had just crossed together. But he was a serious Russian boy with glasses, and I was a grown woman who had just learned what it was like to be a Russian Jew. Nevertheless, he slipped his hand into mine and looked over at the pond. I noticed two elderly people observing us from a bench. “My grandmother, my grandfather,” he said, waving to them and tugging me by the hand. They both rose as we approached.
“What is your name?” the boy asked politely.
“Kuznetz? In Russian means…how you say?” He makes a hammering motion.
“You mean blacksmith?” I ask, tentatively. I already know what the name means but had no precise idea how to pronounce it.
“My name Sasha Gorsky,” he said, offering his hand. He turned formally to his grandparents. “Grandmother, grandfather,” he said, “I introduce you Eleni Kuznetz.” Then all caution, all constraint and inhibition were suddenly gone. “And she,” he said, rising up on his toes, “she is... she is...” But he just couldn’t manage it, he couldn’t tell them I was a Jew. He glanced at them; he glanced back at me. “She too,” he brought out finally, “she too don’t never celebrate Christmas.”