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  1. Culture
6 September 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:41am

Growing up, my family’s Jewishness and our Christmassy-ness never seemed at odds

By Eleanor Margolis

I’m the designated chopped liver maker this Christmas. It used to be my mum, before she died. And – truly – is Christmas really Christmas without your mother up to her elbows in purplish viscera, muttering about bile ducts, with the smell of browning onions filling the entire house and embedding itself in the soft furnishings like a liberty-taking guest?

It wasn’t until my teens that I realised chopped liver – the recipe for which came from my mum’s grandmother, which came from her grandmother, who came from a Polish shtetl – is not a traditional Christmas dish. And neither, for that matter, is matzo ball soup, which would sometimes make an appearance somewhere between the chopped liver and the turkey. It was also around this time – along with the revelation that actual Christmas cuisine contained way more pork than I thought – that friends would frown at my family’s Christmas tree and say things like, “Umm… aren’t you Jewish?”

Before this point, I’m not sure it had occurred to me that the day commemorating the birth of Christ was anything other than extremely Jewish. The entire festival is devoted to binge eating and arguments. Come to think of it, I’m still not sure how WASPs even cope with such a holiday. Prickly silences and alcohol, I suppose. Growing up, my family’s Jewishness and our Christmassy-ness didn’t seem at all at odds. For one, we were secular. We didn’t observe Hanukkah, because that was too frum. But Christmas… where was the religion in that? It was just what people did. You schlepp a tree into the house (in all fairness, my parents did always refer to the Christmas tree as the “Hanukkah bush”), you exchange stupid crap that no one wants, you watch bad TV. Where does God factor into any of that?

When I was born, my parents moved my siblings and me to one of the least Jewish parts of London. Between us, we had hardly any Jewish friends, and our whole experience of being Jewish seemed to centre on latkes being delicious and Nazis being terrifying. In light of our decidedly gentile surroundings, I guess my parents didn’t want us to miss out on this seemingly joy-filled thing that all our friends got to do. It was less a case of deliberate assimilation than of, “Oh, fuck it. I guess we’re doing this”.

 We had our limits, though. One year I asked my mum if we could have ham instead of turkey and she made a face like I’d just goose-stepped across the kitchen shrieking, “Sieg heil”. It wasn’t that we kept kosher (bacon was a semi-regular occurrence chez Margolis) but, for some reason, the thought of inviting an entire joint of pig into the house was too much for her.

Then when I, the youngest of the family, got too old for all the Santa stuff, my mum’s campaign to “ruin Christmas” began. She’d had enough, apparently. Ham aside, she – out of all of us – had always been longsuffering of our decision to adopt a holiday that required so much preparation, nearly all of which fell on her. The cooking, the shopping, the management of expectations; this was the begrudgingly annual role of a proud Jewish woman, who loathed sentimentality, turkey and mess. One Christmas, she woke us all up especially early, so we could get the present opening “over with”, so she could “tidy up all the crap”.

And the schlepping, the endless schlepping. The schlepping of countless items across London, just for them to be used up on this day-long goyish bacchanal. A celebration that – commercialised and empty as it had become – was still, on some level at least the birthday of someone our people would be persecuted for centuries, for supposedly killing.

So, my mum now fully disillusioned (and possibly never even illusioned to begin with), thus commenced the yearly tradition of her suggesting we forego turkey and presents for Chinese food and, I guess, the satisfaction at having both saved money and not contributed to an orgy of consumerism that would make the baby Jesus cry. Unfortunately for my mum, this campaign of hers was about as popular as Ken Livingstone at a bar mitzvah. As far as my siblings and I were concerned, we were a family who celebrated Christmas. We always had been, and the idea of partaking in the actual (mostly American) Jewish tradition of going out for Chinese food on Christmas day depressed the hell out of us. We wanted our chopped liver, dammit.

So it was all the more surprising when my New York-based sister told me, the other day, that she and her husband and kids would be doing the Chinese restaurant thing this year. I can only begin to imagine how proud our mum would’ve been. But Christmas in the London branch of the family is still going strong. Last week I found myself partaking in the traditional schlepping of the tree. And while carrying it over my shoulder like a Norseman, the thought popped into my head that I’d never – in my entire life as a Jew – been less vulnerable to an anti-Semitic attack.

While decorating the tree (something I was actually doing mostly to take my mind off the election) I thought about the decorations from my childhood, and how the smell of pine had embedded itself in the tinsel. I remember sniffing it and feeling that warmth and awe unique to a child before Christmas.

I thought about the effort my Jewish parents – my mum in particular – had gone to, to inject a little bit of magic into mine and my siblings’ childhood. My dad says that the sense of pure wonder he felt when he saw Christmas trees as a child has never really left him. For him, it was the forbidden-ness of all things Christmas that made them all the more alluring. So we were never forbade these things in the first place.    

As much as my sister would be doing my mum proud by finally shunning Christmas, I hope to do her proud with my attempt at the traditional Yuletide chopped liver.

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