Friday, February 22, 2013

and jesus was his name-o



When my daughter, Serena, graduated from our neighborhood Christian preschool, I was less relieved that she was kindergarten material than I was that the number of holiday recitals would dwindle.  I had attended three years of performances by the adorable singing children.  Thirty-six-inch-tall people cannot help but look cute dressed as American flags or ears of corn, making charming hand movements and touching themselves unabashedly when they have an itch.  But I was gritting my teeth behind my smiling lips. 

On the makeshift preschool stage for three of her formative years, my daughter sang cheerful songs of Christian tragedy, many having to do with the crucifixion. To the tune of “Bingo”: “There was a man from Galilee / and Jesus was his name-o / J-e-s-u-s....” To the tune of “Sugar”: “Jesus in the morning / Jesus in the evening / Jesus at suppertime.”  To the tune of “Deck the Halls”: “Jesus hanging on the cross / fa la la—.” OK, I exaggerate, but only a little.
        
Truth is: I’m one of those people for whom Jesus is just all right. And I knew Easter was around the corner, which meant "Jesus had a little lamb" for weeks to come.  On our way to Passover Seder, Serena would sit in the back of the car and rock herself to other goofy Jesus songs, and I would feel guilty for not teaching her any of the goofy Jewish songs—and then I'd feel guiltier because I don't know any of the goofy Jewish songs—except the one about the dreidel, and I never understood why you’d make one out of clay.
        
So when Serena graduated and moved to the Catholic school, where her father was the social studies teacher, I thought we’d be spared the altered tunes.        

The week before spring break, after the first grade had been bombarded with Easter lessons, Serena sang, “Jesus loves me / yes I know,” in the car on the way home from school. Every day. I began thinking about Purim services almost as a threat rather than a spiritual remedy.
        
Then, the day before Purim, my daughter said, “Mommy?  Do you know who I miss?”
        
“No, sweetie,” said innocent Mommy. “Whom do you miss?” (I said whom.)
        
“I miss J-e-s-u-s,” she said.
        
“That's it! We're going to Purim!”  I said it as if she were punished, as if I were punished right along with her, as if this were not-so-gladly the cross-eyed bear.
        
When we got home from school, I logged on to www.judaism101, my religious cheat sheet.  I was relieved to have remembered the gist of it: Queen Esther is the hero who married King Ahasuerus without revealing that she was Jewish.  Haman, the King’s advisor (the Karl Rove of the Old Testament), was angry with Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, for not bowing down to him, so he devised a plan to exterminate the Jews.  In a plot twist that ought to have been made into a movie (but not a musical!), Esther saves her race, and Haman is hanged on the gallows meant for Mordecai.
        
The story in no way excited Serena, who’d been alive for seven years and had never even seen the outside of a synagogue. She didn’t want to go, of course, because who does? Not I, but then again, I never threatened my mother with a personal relationship with Jesus.
        
So the next night, I drove us to a strange shul out in the county—where Jewish people live. Serena perked up when she saw the swarm of children dressed for Purim: lots of tiny Queen Esthers (Cinderellas pushing the envelope), lots of pee-wee King Ahasueruses with faux facial hair, and a couple of miniature Hamans. “Next year, can I dress up?” she asked. We were off to a good start.
        
The ceremony was short and sweet and mostly in Hebrew. Once everything in the room, the world, and the universe—including fruit, wine, bosses, and armadillos—was blessed, we each grabbed a grager (noisemaker) for the story of Purim. Every time Haman's name is mentioned, the congregation spins the gragers and heckles him. This was the best part.
        
When the Purim service ended, instead of the assembled dispersing for the usual sweet treat of Hamantashen (the triangular, poppy-seed-filled cookies also known as Haman’s hats), dozens of costumed adults and teens rushed the stage behind the Rabbi.  In moments, piano music played, and those assembled on the stage began, to the tune of “All That Jazz”:  “All That Spiel.”  I looked at my program in stunned silence.  Sure enough, every song—every song!—from the musical “All That Jazz” had been rewritten to fit the story of Purim.
        
For fifteen minutes, I squirmed and wriggled, tortured by doggerel and ready to crane toward the sky and howl like a dog at a siren.  “Do you have to pee, Mommy?” my daughter asked me.  Yes! And then we escaped.  Across the hall, I spied a huge platter of Hamantashen, did a cursory scan of the area, and ran in like a bandit to snag my daughter a cherry cookie. She had blessed. She had stood. She had sat. She had stood and sat and stood and sat.  As far as I was concerned, she had earned her right to do what Jews do best: eat.  Without having to suffer through a musical.
        
I realized then, much to my relief—for I am a good person, really—that it wasn't Jesus at all that gave me fits.  Sure, I prefer Judaism’s teachings and traditions—especially the fun ones, like this booing and hissing thing at Purim and the presents for eight nights at Chanukah and the food.  But I was relieved to know I wasn’t anti-Christ; I was simply against the lyrics and the score.  I hate musicals.
        
Friends who can’t bring themselves to believe this—as if I claim the ability to breathe under water—will quiz me to find the exceptions.  “What about?” they’ll ask, with an “Aha!” prepared for when I am forced to admit that I do enjoy The Wizard of Oz and have even sung the Scarecrow’s song when I am whiling away the hours in search of my brain.
        
The genre is creepy.  On stage are raggedy souls, victims of plague, prostitutes.  And they are singing!  Instead of a last cigarette, dying characters get a finale.
        
Purim is the gateway drug to Passover.  It’s a sacred time, but, like many other religious observances around the world, it’s kind of like a musical! We have the script—The Hagaddah—with lines to be read by the leader, the participant, and the assembled; we have the choreography:  “all rise,” “be seated,” “raise cups”; and we have the songs:  “Dayanu.”  My family sings only the chorus, and we sing it as if our ship were sinking: “Day-day-anu, day-day-anu, day-day-anu, dayanu dayanu, HEY!”
        
But that year—the year that I’d sworn off songs about Jesus and Esther, my uncle brought us a song he’d written to finish off the service:

Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes
Out with the hametz, no pasta, no knishes
Fish that's gefillted, horseradish that stings
These are a few of our Passover things.

Matzoh and karpas and chopped up haroset
Shankbones and kiddish and yiddish neuroses
Tante who kvetches and uncle who sings
These are a few of our Passover things.
         
What’s next?  To the tune of “Maria”: “Elijah / I just saw the prophet Elijah”?   What about “Take me out to the Seder / Take me out with the crowd / Feed me on matzoh and chicken legs / I don’t care for the hard-boiled eggs.”
        
It’s been a long time since that Passover. My daughter has become a bat mitzvah and graduated from Catholic school (today’s Jewish dilemma is not free ham; it’s free Catholic school).  She’s now in a public high school for the arts where she plays classical, jazz, and big band saxophone.  My cousins have moved away, and both my uncle and my father have died.  The last straw? I’m fifty.  Fifty!  I turn my back for a second, and family members are dispersed and deceased, my only child practically an adult.  Oh, what a tragedy! I feel wretched.
        
Cue the music.

2 caws:

sophieswildhair said... Best Blogger Tips

Love it! I can write a song about feeling wretched :) Pam

Richard Gilbert said... Best Blogger Tips

A fine essay. A keeper. Worth submitting somewhere . . .