It was my friend Chuck S’s idea: to sneak out of the house after dinner when our parents were sitting around the table smoking and drinking and be a human nativity scene. It was Christmas time. Mangers were everywhere. This manger was in front of the suburban branch of S Brothers just around the corner from where the S’s themselves lived on Azalea Lane. His father’s store was the preeminent department store in Shreveport, and was the very first to establish a suburban branch. Was this idea of his, as Roth so aptly put it, something to do with putting “the id back in yid?” Because it was a very daring transgressive idea, we all knew it was not the thing to do to mess with the Christians’ iconography. We were Jews and while Jews were technically white, we could go to the schools, we knew we weren’t really white like our neighbors and friends who attended the Baptist church, the Methodist Church the Episcopal Church, and in short we knew to behave ourselves.
Chuck who always carried around a whoopee cushion, had a wicked sense of humor.
And was a perpetual prankster. He was the one who left messages at his cousin’s house in the name of Herman S, whom everyone knew, was the illegitimate black son of his uncle and who got a discount at the department store, and who Chuck swore, turned up monthly for his remittance check. Chuck knew the dirt on everyone, or maybe he just invented it.
This is what I believe happened that night in ancient times. The four of us, plus Lou, the Chihuahua, ran over to the manger in front of the store. We took the costumes off the dummies and donned them over our own clothes. In between the fake sheep, the stuffed cow, we arranged our tableaux. I, by virtue of my name was the Virgin Mary. Chuck was Joseph; he wore the striped robe and had the staff. My brother and Chuck’s sister put on the wise men’s clothes. Chuck took the doll representing the baby Jesus out of the crèche and put the Chihuahua in there. A loud speaker was blasting Christmas Carrols. But we couldn’t hear them; we were doubled up with laughter, practically throwing up in merriment. We were thrilled with our transgression. And we were waiting for people to drive by so we could fake them out.
In those days, Chanukah had yet to emerge as a rival merchandising opportunity. And more to the point, there weren’t that many Jews in Shreveport. I haven’t been to Shreveport at Christmas time in decades, I don’t know to this day whether there the menorah is given any attention as it is in the big cities. Now you can’t go anywhere in LA or New York and I’m guessing Chicago, Boston, or any major city without the Christmas tree and the giant menorah vying for attention. Though in some parts of LA merchants still get it wrong. Last Passover for instance, when I was at the Whole Foods, I spied a pack of instant latke mix, alongside a display prominently featuring organic matzo and non-GMO gefilte fish. At the time, I was faintly pissed and thought; can’t you get your fucking Jewish holidays straight? No self -respecting Jewish merchant would put an Easter basket out at Christmas time. Believe me, we Jews know a thing or two about gentile holidays.
Back in the manger, several cars passed, our tableaux stood very still, and then when danger was over, we doubled over practically puking with laughter.
Then Chuck’s father suddenly appeared. And we were scared out of our minds. He was tall, athletic and meaner than a rattlesnake beneath his usual cheerful grin. He wasn’t grinning now. He grabbed his children by the arms. “Get back home!” he shouted. Lou was barking furiously. Chuck’s sister was wailing. We were throwing off our costumes, and doing what we could to restore the dummies to the manger. For one wild moment, Lou had the baby Jesus in his little jaw and was shaking it.
Chuck, who I used to hang out with a bit in my very early New York days, was the second person I knew who died of AIDS. The first person also came from Shreveport.
I haven’t spoken to my own brother in a very long time. From time to time I hear of Chuck’s sister. I hope she is happy and healthy somewhere. Lord knows I hope my brother is happy and healthy somewhere.
Chuck parents, if they are alive, are really old now. And Lou their dog is long gone.
Yesterday I emailed a friend of mine who still lives in Shreveport to ask whether there are any Jewish decorations up right now. I called it a candelabra, in the interest of clarity. Just for the record, my own family didn’t have a menorah. We had a Christmas tree.
I still haven’t heard back from him.
Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levyby