When did I first become aware of Jesus Christ? Every idea has its own history. What was the history of this idea in me? During the months when I began seriously converting to Christianity from the secular Judaism in which I had been raised, I asked myself that question continually. I had heard a call to be baptized, but why? Why baptized? Why Christ?
The thing was: The figure of Jesus had been at the center of my thinking for a long time. Even before I had any faith at all, I had written an entire novel about him—two novels, in fact. By the time the call to baptism came to me, I did have faith, a general faith in God. And yes, the God I believed in looked very much like the God of the New Testament, the logos of Love that redeemed a tragic world. But that only raised the question: Why? Why that God? Why Christ?
Finding the answer was not as simple for me as it would have been for someone who had been raised in a Christian household. As a child, I had never been taught that Jesus was even special, let alone divine. I can’t recall ever having been inside a church as a boy. I don’t think I ever seriously discussed Jesus with any of my little Christian friends. I didn’t have many Christian friends, only a few. Mostly, I grew up a Jew among other Jews. So how had Jesus entered my imagination? How had he come to occupy its core?
It took an effort of memory, but I reached back to the first time I had truly noticed him. It had happened on a Christmas Eve. I don’t know how young I was, but young, a little boy, five or six maybe. I had been sent to stay overnight at the house of a woman named Mina.
Mina had come to work for my family shortly after my younger brothers were born. My older brother was six then and I was three. With the two of us underfoot already, my mother needed help taking care of baby twins. Mina came to live with us for a while—a year or so—I don’t know how long exactly. But even after she had moved out, she remained our regular babysitter. She was more than that to me, though. To me she was almost a second mother.
My first mother—my real mother—was an enigmatic figure. I find, when I try to describe her, that pale adjectives replace the living presence. Restrained. Self-protective. Gracious with strangers; they loved her. With her family … not cold, no. But aloof. Purposely insubstantial, somehow. Emotionally invisible. Even in my memories, the light seems to pass right through her, making her difficult to see. I can get at nothing solid about her but her fears and foibles and unfulfilled desires. She was afraid of authority figures. She yearned for a more glittery and urban life. She was afraid of testing herself and her talents. She was afraid to fail. I remember one or two titanic and terrifying rages from her, one or two shockingly icy and cruel remarks. But those were rare moments when she flashed into relief, a ghost revealed by lightning. Mostly, she was atmosphere.
Mina, by contrast, was a vivid personality. She only stood about five feet tall, if that, but they were five feet of gruff peasant cheer and practical energy. A Yugoslavian immigrant with a thick accent, she was lavishly affectionate, comically quaint and down-to-earth. She never learned to speak good English and I sometimes had to help her read hard words. But she knew what she was about, all right. I remember her making beds and cleaning rooms with curt, blunt, almost military efficiency. Chasing me and my brothers around here and there. Laughing, scolding, tickling, threatening to spank but never actually doing it. Driving us with elaborate care in her galumphing jalopy. Always cooking or baking, sometimes both at once. I don’t remember ever seeing her sit still to look at a book or magazine. When she watched TV with us, she’d get so involved in the story she would shout at the hero—“Look out!”—to warn him that the villain was sneaking up behind him. It used to drive us crazy.
Mina lived with her family in a tidy little clapboard house in the nearby town of Port Washington. It was a working-class enclave at the time, distinctly lower on the social and economic scale than Great Neck. Her family, as I understood it, were a collection of refugees, chased out of southeastern Europe by the Nazis or the Communists, I was never sure which. There was her older sister, the widow of a German Luftwaffe pilot who’d been shot down in the war. The sister was gaunt and tart and rather Germanic herself, but kindly for all that. Then there was the brother, a carpenter, who had come to America in time to serve in Korea. He’d been badly injured there when his jeep overturned. He’d had a metal plate installed in his head and was never quite right afterwards. A sweet-natured, jolly enough fellow most of the time, he was given to sudden bouts of obsessive agitation, flashbacks to combat, and depressive drinking binges.
Finally there was Mina’s niece, the daughter of her sister and the dead Luftwaffe pilot. She was in her teens then, about ten years older than I. She used to babysit us sometimes. She was a gentle, dreamy girl of truly astounding beauty, blonde and slender and delicate as a porcelain figurine. Her ethereal personality turned out to be the forewarning of a mental illness that blighted her adulthood—schizophrenia, I think. But back then, she was always just very kind and soft and patient with me, and I—? I fell so deeply in love with her that she left a permanent impression on my soul. Her face became my standard of beauty. Her name became my favorite female name. Sweet, gentle, mentally ill women turn up with alarming regularity as characters in my novels. The psychiatrist’s patient in Don’t Say A Word, the mother in Empire of Lies, the hero’s friend in the young adult story Crazy Dangerous. I’m sure there are more of them. They’re all she. Conjuring her this very moment, I can feel again the pang of my childish devotion. I never got over her.
I’m not sure how much of Mina’s family history I’ve gotten right here. I’m not sure how much of what I’ve gotten right is true. This is just what I knew about them, or thought I knew, when I was little. My parents used to hint that the sister and the Luftwaffe pilot had never really been married, that it was a wartime fling and the beautiful niece whom I loved was illegitimate. In later years, I myself sometimes wondered whether the whole family wasn’t actually German, whether they hadn’t pretended to be Yugoslavian to avoid the anger that Americans, and especially Jews, still felt toward Germans after the war.
Never mind, though. None of that bothered me when I was a child. None of it bothers me now. Mina and her family simply became part of my family. And Mina gave me a substantial portion of what mothering I had.
My own mother resented motherhood. “Even a cat can have kittens,” she once told me bitterly. She loved her children, but she had no use for the day-to-day job of us. She didn’t like to cook, for instance. I think Mina taught her every recipe she knew. I don’t remember Mom ever going to a PTA meeting or volunteering to participate in a school event. She did show up for all the mom necessities. She nursed us through our illnesses. She dispelled our nightmares. She dried our tears and bandaged our bruises after our western-movie-size brawls. But she generally performed these tasks with a brusque air of impatience and distraction. She was not like other moms we knew, who seemed to mother with their whole selves and as if by nature.
Mina, though, who had no husband or babies of her own, nurtured children as she nurtured everyone else around her. She took care of her own family—she ended up supporting the lot of them as they declined into disability and old age. She took care of babies as an obstetrics aide at a local hospital. She was a nanny to other families as well as ours. She won awards for the charity and church work she did all around her town.
Much of what she was expressed itself in the kitchen, her dominion. She was an incredible country cook, and her baking was beyond the power of praise. For us children, of course, this was the best thing about her. The weinerschnitzels she sometimes made, the steaks, the enormous but nonetheless crispy french fries: incomparable delights of my childhood. And next to the taste of the pastries and cookies she created, all other physical sensations of pleasure paled! It was Mina who baked our birthday cakes every year. (It was considered bad luck if she spelled your name right in the icing, which fortunately she never did for me.) But her Christmas cookies—or Mina Cookies, as we called them—were her delicious masterpiece.
The impression those cookies made on me was deep, very deep. When I was forty, I went to Germany for the first time, to Munich. It was right around Christmas. I stepped into the famous Christkindl Markt in Marienplatz—a huge seasonal market in the city’s main square. I took one whiff of the baked goods on sale in the stalls and I was struck by a visceral, Proustian sense of having stepped into my own memories. It was the smell of Mina Cookies. It was the smell of home.
We did not celebrate Christmas at my house. Or rather, we did for a while, and then we didn’t. It was never a big event, even when he had it. Hanukkah with its nightly candle lighting ceremony, its eight days of one present after another—that was the main attraction. But when I was very little, my father’s radio partner, Dee Finch, a churchgoing Protestant of some sort, would send over a few gifts. We would find them hidden behind a chair on Christmas morning.
Then, one afternoon, as I was playing in the dining room, I overheard my mother talking on the phone in the kitchen. She was speaking to Finch’s wife. She was asking Mrs. Finch not to send us Christmas presents anymore. It was “too much” for my brothers and me to have Christmas and Hanukkah both, she said. Looking back, I’ve come to feel that she was acting on a directive from my father. I think he was moving to protect our Jewish heritage from the seductions of the Christmas festivities around us. In fact, I have a sweet memory, dating from about this time, of Dad trying to fill the role of Santa Claus in our lives, with a character named Hanukkah Harry. (Jon Lovitz would later create a similar character with the same name on Saturday Night Live, but Dad beat him to it by about a quarter of a century.) Dad played the right Jewish old elf himself, of course. I remember giggling uncontrollably as he took me and my brothers on his knee, one after another, and listened to our present requests while responding in one of his funny voices.
At that moment, though—the moment when I overheard my mother on the phone—I was in no way concerned with matters religious. I remember my reaction very clearly. I didn’t care about the loss of Christmas at all. But the presents! The loss of the presents! That, madam, was an outrage! I felt I had stumbled on a misguided, not to say evil, parental plot, a conspiracy to cause us to receive fewer gifts. Fewer gifts, I tell you! And the Finches gave good gifts, too! Electric football games and those jumbo dump trucks that actually dumped. Really nice stuff. This was no small catastrophe.
I thought it stank and I didn’t mind saying so. I lodged an eloquent protest, stomping back and forth in front of my mother across the kitchen floor as I declaimed on the injustice of it all. Maybe it was to mollify me—or maybe it was just an excuse to get rid of an annoying child for an evening—but in any case my mother arranged for me to stay overnight at Mina’s house that Christmas Eve.
I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that Mina was a Christian. I don’t think I would have had any very clear conception of what that meant. She was, though: She was a true Christian. Religious, I mean, even devout. She went to church on Sunday. She said her prayers at night. She believed in supernatural presences and events with the faith of a child. She did the sort of charitable work in her community that my parents never did in ours. I don’t think she ever mentioned Jesus to me, but he was alive and real to her. He was—as I see now—the reason she was the way she was, the reason she did the things she did.
So Christmas at Mina’s was an elaborate occasion. The little clapboard house in Port Washington was transformed into what, to me, was a wonderland. There was a towering fir tree scraping the ceiling in one corner of the small front parlor. Mina’s brother climbed a ladder to string the colored lights on the branches while I stood below, craning my neck to watch him. Then I got to help hang the ornaments. And when the lights went on, reflected in the shining red and silver glass of the decorations, my mouth opened in an ‘o.’
Under the parlor windows—the windows that looked out onto the winter streets—there was a long table with a white cloth on it. The cloth was sprinkled with Styrofoam bits like snow. In the midst of the snow, a miniature village of porcelain country houses had been set up. Each house was lit from within by a tiny bulb. Tiny people—the policeman, the businessman with his briefcase, the mom with her carriage—stood on the lawns and sidewalks and streets. A train track encircled the town with a small electric train clacketing round and round on it. You could even put a white pellet in the locomotive’s smokestack so it would send up white smoke and give a whistle: whoo-whoo.
To decorate the windows themselves, the real windows above the porcelain village, I was given a pack of paper stencils and an aerosol spray can of synthetic frost. I would spray each stencil with the frost, and the white powdery shape of it would appear on the glass: Santa Claus or a star or a winged angel. I cannot properly tell how much this delighted me or how beautiful I thought these frost shapes were.
In the corner opposite the tree sat the television set, an old black-and-white one in a wooden cabinet. On top of the cabinet was a record player, a turntable with a spindle at the center of it. A stack of records was held in place at the top of the spindle, and as each album finished, a new one dropped into place and began to play. The songs were sung by the then-still-living singers of an already-passing age: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald. There were carols of strangely elevated loveliness, like “Silent Night,” “Adeste Fidelis,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” And there were more contemporary numbers—“Sleigh Ride,” “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas”—that had a rollicking but wistful charm of their own.
It was Christmas, in other words, a typical American Christmas. And maybe you’ll say I’m describing what needs no description, what every American child has seen and heard for himself, in the movies if not his own life. But I had not seen or heard it, not anywhere. It was all new to me.
And then, of course, there was the cooking. There was the warm, succulent smell of the cooking. There were Mina and her sister weaving around each other in the kitchen, bickering as they cooked. Which was another thing about Mina’s family, by the way: They bickered constantly. They were always nattering at one another over something or nothing, on and on in their cartoonish Old World accents. “You’ve turned the stove too high now.” “You’re mixing too much sugar in the batter.” “If you don’t put the oven mittens back where they belong, I can’t find them when I need them.” I don’t know why, but I found this delightful—vital and loving. The adults at my house were far more decorous. My parents never squabbled like that at all. There was a sense that hostility was too dangerous, too combustible, to be discharged in playful sparks like that. My mother used to say that if she and my father ever fought—really fought—he would leave her, assuming the marriage was over. My father admitted that this was true. He said that, whenever he saw a couple quarreling, he simply assumed they were going to divorce. Mom and Dad were not cool or controlled with one another, not at all. They were very affectionate. But there was nothing like the unchecked badinage I heard in the kitchen at Mina’s house, the meaningless spats dissipating into cackling laughter. “Now look what you’ve done, you’ll burn the whole house down.” To me, it sounded like the crackle of logs on a hearthfire.
I was given a role to play in all this, batter to mix, Mina Cookies to lay out on the pan. The mystery of how she made those chocolate and vanilla spirals was revealed to me at last. I got to lick the beater and scrape the batter bowl clean with a spoon, which may have been the single greatest thing that had ever happened to me up to that time. And the beautiful niece, who had been out with friends all evening, came home and petted me and fussed over me and I loved her so. And another record dropped down on the turntable.
I have been recreating that Christmas all my life. When we first moved in together, my wife was mystified by the way my normally lofty cultural tastes metamorphosed every December into the predilections of a working-class Yugoslavian immigrant.
“You want to listen to Andy Williams music? Really?”
“I like Andy Williams.”
“And how come we don’t have those paper things that you spray and they make angel shapes on the window?”
“Stencils? You want to stencil frost angels on my windows?”
“Why not? I like them.”
This is not to say that I had come to believe in Christmas. I didn’t believe in it. The trip to Bethlehem, the virgin birth, the shepherds watching their flocks by night, the three kings, the child in the manger, the salvation of the world: nice stories, but I didn’t buy any of it. It was a point of pride with me, in fact, that I didn’t. I liked to tease my wife that only a secular Jew like me could really appreciate the holiday as it deserved. For us, I told her, it was all trees and cookies and colored lights, without any of that tiresome religious stuff to worry about. We had no bad memories of childhood Christmases to haunt us. No flashbacks to that time when Dad got drunk and told Uncle Bob what he really thought of him. We came to the day with a clean Jewish slate. We opened our presents. We watched It’s A Wonderful Life on TV. Then we forgot the whole thing until next year.
But when I came to struggle with the idea of being baptized, when I asked myself how Jesus had first entered my consciousness, it was Christmas that I remembered, that first Christmas at Mina’s house.
It happened at the end of the evening. The music was turned off. The lights on the tree went dark. Mina took me upstairs to what would be my bedroom—and that’s where Jesus was. It was a small and gloomy room, I remember. The bed, framed in dark-stained wood, nearly filled it corner to corner. On the wall, above the headboard, to my right as I was lying down looking up at it, was a framed picture of Christ. It was a cheap print of some sentimental painting. It showed a long-haired goy gazing soulfully into the middle distance, his coiffed honey-brown locks surrounded by a golden glow. As an adult, I dislike pictures like that. I dislike the effeminate piety of them. They have no weight, no tragedy. It’s a cotton-candy god to me: sugar and fluff. In the moment, though, the picture frightened me. To my child’s eyes, it seemed downright eerie. This Jesus whom people prayed to in their churches: He looked other-worldly, spectral, weird. What was he gazing at like that, off in the distance? And why was he glowing? It was spooky.
I don’t know whether I’d ever slept away from home alone before. I wasn’t scared about it exactly, but I was a little nervous. I was afraid of being afraid. I knew I wouldn’t want to call for Mina if I had bad dreams or got anxious in the watches of the night. I wouldn’t want to go sniveling for help in a strange household, especially with the pretty niece around to hear me. So then, how horrible it would be to have to lie alone and wide awake in the alien room with creaks and shadows all around me, and that creepy Jesus hanging over my head.
Mina turned out the light and left me. I lay in the bed beneath the picture. I was afraid to look at it, but I couldn’t help myself. Every time I forced my eyes shut, I would sense that eerie presence up above me on the wall. From time to time, I felt compelled to sneak a peak at him—just to make sure he hadn’t moved, to make sure he wasn’t suddenly staring down at me with a malevolent grin. I began to be afraid that the fear of him would keep me up all night.
It didn’t. The Christmas Eve doings had exhausted me. Each time I shut my eyes, they remained closed a little longer. A few more minutes and I was fast asleep. An instant later, so it seemed, the first gray light of Christmas Day was at the window. I had made it to the end of the darkness. I was very relieved.
I had awakened early, earlier than the grown-ups. Though I was eager to go downstairs and see the presents under the tree, I was not comfortable enough in the strange house to get out of bed and go by myself. Instead, I lay there waiting for the adults to stir. As I lay, my eyes returned to the picture on the wall, to Christ.
How strange. He was not frightening anymore. He wasn’t eerie or spooky or creepy. The morning light had dramatically transformed him. He seemed wholly benevolent to me now. Kindly. Powerful. Protective. In fact, though his expression was oh-so-elevated and very, very serious indeed, I thought I now detected a touch of humor at the corners of his mouth, a secret mirth. It was as if we shared a private joke together. It was as if we were both amused by the childish mistake I had made last night. In the darkness, I had been afraid that he was evil. At dawn, I realized he had been my friend and guardian, watching over me all night long.
More than forty years later, as I drove through the Santa Barbara hills, as I questioned the motives of my conversion, I thought of this Christmas morning again and again. It kept playing in my mind with new variations, like a theme in a fugue. It was so easy to make a psychological backstory out of it. Sensitive child—hostile father—unknowable mother—kindly babysitter—happy Christmas—picture of Christ. Well, no wonder I wanted to be baptized. No wonder I wanted to make that glowing goyische face the mask of God. No wonder I wanted to reduce the incomprehensible will of all creation to a magic gentile framed on a fondly remembered wall. It was just a psychological glitch. A nostalgic yearning for a sweet moment from my youth. Understandable enough. But it was no reason to betray my commitment to reality. No reason to betray my heritage. No reason to dilute my writerly dedication to the hard cold truth.
On the other hand …
Every idea comes with its own history, but this fact doesn’t make it false. The genesis of a belief is no disproof of it. The truth remains true, no matter how or why we came to find it. If there is a higher, spiritual, supernatural world, it stands to reason that this everyday, material, natural world is only the language in which it speaks to us. So maybe my psychology was just Christ’s way of reaching me, his doorway into my heart. Maybe Mina’s loving kindness was just an image of his. Maybe the beauty of Christmas was just a symbol of his beauty. Maybe that picture on the wall was a story he was telling me: I who seem fearsome in the mind’s darkness will reveal myself to be your savior by the light of day.
Andrew Klavan is a novelist and the author of The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.
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