The Sweetest Voice
My son has taken up a time-honored holiday tradition by counting himself among the legions of Jews who have an abiding affection for Christmas carols. It all began two years ago when Adam had a solo part in Deck the Halls at his school’s Holiday concert. His musical triumph brought back memories of my role in the Christmas Pageant at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. I debuted as the Partridge in the Pear Tree during the Class of 1978’s interpretation of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Much to everyone’s surprise, I had the starring role. After all, the partridge appears during all 12 days of Christmas. That’s a lot of stage time.
My Jewish father celebrated a secular Christmas until he married my Orthodox Jewish mother. It would be an understatement to describe her reaction to my aunt’s small glittering silver Christmas tree as simply disapproving.
Adam’s brush with Christmas reminded me of a short story by the late, great Grace Paley called “The Loudest Voice.” I mention this here because in addition to singing “holiday songs,” at the moment Adam is exclusively reading dead white men for English class. Sure he needs a grounding in the classics. But whose classics? Adam read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for school. Somewhere down the road I’ll teach him that no one can turn a phrase like Grace Paley.
Here’s Paley’s amazing opening to “The Loudest Voice”:
There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.
The narrator is 10-year old Shirley Abramowitz, who lives in the Bronx. Her parents are Yiddish-Polish-Russian speakers. “A puddle of languages,” Shirley says. Adam’s great-grandfather Harry Stern could have been Shirley’s classmate. Maybe Poppy Harry had a teacher like Miss Glacé who praised him and the other Jewish kids in his class for learning, “without error,” Silent Night, Deck the Halls and Hark! The Herald Angel. “To think that some of you don’t even speak the language,” gushed the young teacher.
Look who’s jumping into the puddle of languages with their attendant customs? We are. “The only Jewish kid in the class has a Christmas solo,” another mother said to me. “That’s the spirit!” That’s ironic, I said to myself. And ecumenical. And oh so Jewish in America.
When my children were small, we’d drive around town looking for shiny, decked out houses. Every time they saw lights and glowing reindeer they’d scream, “Oh my gosh.” The phrase stuck as a stand-in for stunning seasonal lighting. But the blue-yellow flame of the Hanukkah candles also thrilled my children. Part of their joy came from their deep, hushed, fascination with fire. As they got older I believe they also saw the valiant, steadfast flickering of light against the tableaux of dark winter days.
I love a Hanukkah midrash about Adam—the first man, that is—experiencing the descending darkness of winter days. As the days grew shorter, Adam thought the world was reverting back to the original chaos of creation. In response to this dire situation, Adam fasted and prayed for the return of light. When the winter solstice arrived, he understood that the world moved between darkness and light, the physical and the spiritual.
Like the fictional Shirley Abramowitz, Adam’s sweet voice called up the intent of Hanukkah lights–lights that symbolized the miraculous rededication of the Second Temple after the Greeks had defiled it. But there was also the lightness of a fa la la la la season in full swing coming down from the glee club risers.