The whole thing was Bonnie’s idea. At three in the afternoon on December 24, time forChugim activities at camp Hashomer Hatzair winter camp, my best friend Bonnie turned to me and said, “Let’s ditch.”
“What for” I asked.
“I have an idea.” Bonnie leaned in close so I could see her hazel eyes were bright, which made me wary. This wasn’t the first time she had lured me into an adventure, many of which did not end well. Also, unlike Bonnie, I looked forward to Chugim, or club, time. In the drama chug we were putting on a play where I played a character named Zilla. I got to wear a white turban, glare at my husband, and declare, “I denounce you and everything you betoken!” I relished those words, more intently with every rehearsal, and for years to come whenever I was irritated with a boyfriend I would fight the urge to stare into his eyes and hiss, “I denounce you and everything you betoken!” That bit of dialogue held the seeds of my future as a Jewish storyteller and a woman who speaks her mind, but all I knew then was I liked how my skin looked dark and smooth in the white turban, and I sensed a hint of power that I wouldn’t fully own for many years.
Bonnie could never find a chug she liked. She was bored with arts and crafts, hated singing, and said she’d rather die than do Israeli folk dancing. She only liked sports. Bonnie was even more disconnected from Judaism than I was, if that was possible. We were misfits at Hashomer Hatzair winter camp. The other campers were Zionist Jews who identified deeply with Judaism and with Israel. Bonnie and I had never heard of Zionism. We knew we were Jewish, but in the 1960’s in the San Fernando Valley, our parents’ goal was to blend in with all the families in our tract development, Storybook Lane, where the floor patterns repeated every fourth house.
We’d stumbled on to Hashomer camp the previous summer because a cousin of a friend was going. We loved the summer camp because the counselors gave us so much freedom we could make out with boys behind the cabins and not get into trouble for it. We figured at winter camp we could make out with boys in the snow.
Bonnie hunkered in closer and said in a loud whisper, “Let’s go cut down a Christmas tree!”
I stared at her. “Why?”
“We’ll bring it into the mess hall tonight. It’s Christmas Eve!
“Are you nuts? This is Jewish Camp, Bonnie!”
“I know. That’s why it will be so funny!”
In my house, although our Jewish practice was limited to Hanukkah and a yearly Seder with my grandparents, Christmas trees were taboo. My sisters and I each had our own miniature brass menorahs, just big enough to squeeze birthday-sized candles in. These came from a synagogue gift shop, but to me, the tarnished brass gave them an ancient mysterious aura. Across the street at Bonnie’s house, though, there was just one menorah, and their enthusiasm for it was tepid.
I shook my head at Bonnie. “Even if we wanted to, how on earth could we cut down a tree and carry it down the hill?
Bonnie had thought this out. “Brian’s going to help us.”
Brian was the boy who followed us around because he had a crush on Bonnie. If we were out of place at Jewish camp, Brian was in a different class altogether, a total misfit in life. His gawky frame reminded me of the skinny cedar tree that leaned against our cabin window, scratching in the wind every night, asking to come in. I usually found some excuse to ditch him, because he made me feel uneasy. I see now that the pleading in his eyes touched something soft and scary inside me, but then was I was just glad he had a crush on Bonnie and not me. She usually shrugged him off too, but now he was part of the plan.
“Brian has a pocketknife.”
I stared at her. None of the Jewish boys or men we knew carried pocketknives. My father was a CPA and Bonnie’s dad was a Personnel Manager. They sat at desks, growing paunches, with no use for pocketknives or any other tools as far as I knew.
“He does not,” I said.
As if on cue, Brian appeared from behind the cabin, pocketknife in hand. He had a way of slipping in and out of shadows that made me shudder.
“Well, how does one cut down a pine tree with a pocket knife? “ I used words like “How does one ” to sound superior to Bonnie when I was nervous about her schemes, but I was already going along with this one as we walked up the trail, Bonnie drawing me in with her chatter.
“It’s easy,” she snapped back at me, as if she cut down trees every day. “You pick a small tree.” Like Kent’s.”
Bonnie’s older brother Kent had begged for a Christmas tree so long that their mother caved in and let him have one this year, as long as he kept it out of sight. It sat it on a little table in his bedroom, decked with miniature globes and sparkly tinsel. My sisters and I went across the street to their house regularly, so we could tiptoe down the hall to Kent’s room to peek at it, like a shameful, glittering secret.
Bonnie was bounding ahead on the trail, giggling, with Brian trailing her like a gaunt shadow. I looked down through the trees to see if anybody noticed that we were sneaking off. But we had chosen the camp because it lacked supervision, and clearly nobody missed us.
We climbed higher, crisscrossing between paths, tromping across the snow until the faux-leather boots I’d bought at Orbachs discount store began to get soggy. Coming from Southern California, we had no concept of what a week in the snow would be. I wore a new orange and purple quilted Jacket with matching orange stirrup stretch pants that I had seen in the pages of Seventeen Magazine. I had fantasies of snow that didn’t include slippery icy paths, gray piles of hard dirty snow, or toes that could get numb.
When I peered down the mountain, I could no longer see the camp cabins or lights. Finally Bonnie stopped.
“Aha!” she pointed to a spindly little tree, about three feet high that stood alone in a clearing. “That’s our baby!
Brian knelt and began to saw away at the trunk with his puny knife, while I hopped up and down to warm my feet as Bonnie crooned, “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas!”
In the ten minutes or so before the tree gave way, my mind raced. What if they thought we were lost in the snow? Would someone send out a search party? Would they call our parents? Would we be sent home when they found us? I was halfway through a rescue scenario that involved a Saint Bernard with a keg of brandy and musical accompaniment when I heard the trunk snap.
Bonnie let out a war whoop as she snatched the tree and swung it over her head, prancing around singing. Dashing through the snow… she hollered, and Brian chimed in, In a one horse open sleigh, as they passed the tree back and forth like a trophy. Bonnie tossed it over to me and I yodeled, Oer the fields we go! Laughing all the way!
Bonnie pulled out some tin foil she’d stolen from the camp kitchen the night before. We shredded it into strips that we coiled around the scraggly branches, but the tree still looked forlorn and lopsided. Bonnie stood back and surveyed our work. “Very Christmasy,” she declared.
Brian shouldered the tree as we slogged down the mountain. “When we walk in to the mess hall, all three of us carry the tree.” Bonnie outlined our detailed orders. “Brian in the middle, you and me on either side. We’ll march in together, singing, ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas!’ Got it?” I nodded. Got it.
In the twilight, we could see the soft light glowing from the windows of the dining hall. We should have realized that the glow was candlelight. We might have known that meant Shabbat but we never lit Shabbat candles at home. I’d seen my Grandmother do it once or twice on a Friday night, taking two white stubby candles from a blue box and lighting them at her kitchen table before we ate in the dining room. She swirled her hands in waves as she drew in the light, then said the prayer in her thick European accent,Boruch Ataw Adonoy, Elohenu Melech Ha Oylum…. I imagined it was a quaint custom she’d brought from Russia, something our family didn’t need anymore, like the treadle sewing machine or the ringer washer she still kept in her garage.
We stood for a moment in front of the dining hall, in formation, clutching the tree. I was so close to Brian I could smell his sweat. When Bonnie hollered “Now!” we burst through the double doors of the hall nearly tripping over each other’s feet as we fumbled to grasp the tree and sing. “We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas!”
It’s hard to fathom now that we expected laughter, but I believe we really did. Instead everyone turned and gaped. There was a dead quiet as if the whole room had sucked in its breath and didn’t dare exhale.
Bonnie signaled to us, Louder! We bounced the tree up and down and doubled our volume. The prickly branches and tin-foil tinsel rubbed against my cheek. “We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas!”
Glaring silence. Glowing candles.
I’d been to a Shabbat dinner at Hashomer summer camp, but only once, so I’d forgotten. Forgotten how everyone dressed up for Shabbat dinner. Forgotten how everyone looked washed clean in the soft flames, how their faces reminded me of my grandmother, how the b’racha made me feel old and young at the same time, how time paused and stood still.
It was very still in the room now and suddenly my cheeks felt hot, and my feet very cold. Bonnie laughed, much too loud, and shouted, “It’s Christmas Eve! She waved the tree in the air. “Merry Christmas to all!” I nudged her to stop.
“It’s funny.” Bonny said. “Get it?”
If I could go back now, I might get it. I might see the faces in the glow of the candles and feel how much I ached to be in that light. I would see that even though nobody had sent a rescue, party, we were lost.
I don’t remember if we officially got into trouble or not, but we were escorted out of the dining hall, and the spindly Christmas tree ended up in a trash can. We were even more set apart from the other campers for the rest of the week. I redeemed myself a little by being an especially proud and fierce Hebrew woman, Zilla in the play that Sunday. I’m pretty sure Bonnie got some secret admiration from a few rebels, too.
It has taken me a few decades to find my way back home. After a first marriage to a Lutheran who carried a pocketknife and knew how to fix anything, I eventually ended up with a Jew who was as estranged from his roots as I was. We didn’t light the menorahs in our respective closets until our first daughter was born, but from there on, the path drew us like quicksand. He’s a rabbi now, and I’m a storytelling rebbitzen.
Bonnie and I stay in touch, talking now and then on the phone. Her path was the opposite, marrying a Jewish man first, and then marrying a non-Jew. She never practiced Judaism with either of them. Her brother Kent became a Catholic. When I told her, twenty years ago, that my husband was becoming a rabbi, she said, “Are you Jewish?”
“One hundred percent,” I answered.
“Do you light candles on Friday and everything?”
Last year, when I lit our Shabbat candles on what happened to be Christmas Eve, I looked into the flames and saw a glimmer of us atHashomer Hatzair camp fifty years ago. I saw the glint in Bonnie’s eye when she said, “I have a plan,” and remembered the shining faces mirrored in the candlelight in that dining hall in the snow.