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Because I'm Jewish - Holiday Reflections

I remember the Christmases more than the Hanukkahs.


Take, for example, The Night of the King Crab.


I’m going to say it was 1972. In my memory, everything about that night is wrapped in a burnt-orange and avocado-green glow.


We were seated at the dining room table -- me and my father on one side, my older brother, Tim, and my mother on the other. Me and Tim were kids, and my parents were still in their 30s. Instead of the usual turkey or roast beef, my mother had prepared Alaskan King Crab legs for Christmas Eve dinner. Fancy.


It was inconsequential to us that the Jewish faith forbids eating shellfish. Apparently, somewhere in the bible, it is written, “Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. All creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins or scales are not to be eaten.”


Uhm … whatever floats your boat, but I am unaware of anyone on either side of my family that wouldn’t elbow their way to the crustacean platter at a decent buffet. Same goes for bacon, which is also forbidden by Jewish law because pigs do not have split hooves or chew their cud. (You can’t make this stuff up.) My wife doesn’t eat swine, but she’s not Jewish and it has nothing to do with religion. She simply feels that pigs are “too smart and too cute” to be eaten. Same goes for baby cows, ducks, geese, lambs, goats and rabbits. Cows, chickens and turkeys all go straight down her gullet, however. She knows this is illogical and feels terrible about it, but you have to start somewhere.


There was a small pot of melted butter on the table for the crab and as I cracked the legs and dunked the meat in the warm butter, I imagined I was a hungry caveman by a roaring fire. I couldn’t get enough. My brother, a fussy eater, refused to partake, so my mother put a TV dinner in the toaster oven for him. I began to taunt him, waving crab legs in his face until he swatted them away angrily. I was warned by both parents but continued to harass him until he grabbed the pot of butter and flung it at me. I was drenched in the stuff, it was in my hair, ears, eyes, everywhere. I lunged across the table, trying to stab him with my fork. He fled, laughing, as I gave pursuit. While my mother screamed at us to stop, my father chased me down the hall and grabbed me. But I was covered with melted butter and slipped out of his arms like a greased pig. I continued to chase my brother, but he easily eluded me, as even my feet were buttery, and I couldn’t get any traction. My father slipped too, his legs going up over his head like a cartoon character as he crashed to the slickened tile floor. Taking full advantage of the situation, our cat leapt onto the table to gnaw at what was left of the crab legs.


The next morning, we all opened gifts together, then feasted on bagels with lox and cream cheese. Later we ordered Chinese food for dinner. No crab, but plenty of prawns and pork.


About 15 years later, I was attempting to help my father secure the Christmas tree into one of those horrible medieval stands with the 3 screws. With my father yelling at me that I was doing it wrong, the dog barking (the cat had died and been replaced with a bristle-faced Terrier mix named Odie that walked sideways and once catapulted himself through a window to get at a pizza delivery man), the tree fell over and knocked the menorah and a small ceramic llama off the mantel. Pushed beyond our limits, my father and I got into a shoving match. I tried to put him in a headlock, and he fell backwards with his legs up, like he had all those years before when he slipped in the buttery hallway. But this time he was wearing a bathrobe. Only a bathrobe. Nothing underneath. I saw things. Things that I cannot unsee. By that evening, the tree was decorated, wrapped in strings of twinkling lights. It had to be. A few years before, my parents had adopted a little autistic girl from Peru. If there was ever a good reason to put up a Christmas tree after you’ve seen your father’s taint, it’s a little autistic girl from Peru.


Not so many years ago, I watched my father light the Hanukkah candles, as he did every year, singing the ancient, warbly prayers that he learned in Hebrew school in Brooklyn. I never went to Hebrew school and don’t know the prayers, but I have always tried to pay my respects by donning a yarmulke to bear witness on at least one of the eight nights of Hanukkah.


Watching my father’s stoic focus as he lit one candle with another, I asked, “We never went to Synagogue, you never talked to me about God or having any religious beliefs … why do you still light the candles every year?”


He answered without the slightest hesitation.


“Because I’m Jewish.”


And those are words I’ve never forgotten.


Is that why we do what we do? Is it because we are what we do? At the worst of times that means committing unspeakable acts in the name of God. At the best of times, it means uniting as families and communities, or remaining in sweet solitude to continue peaceful traditions and rituals out of respect and honour for those who paved the way for us.


Very recently I was sitting in the 2nd Ave Deli in New York, sharing a sublime twenty-five-dollar Pastrami sandwich with my wife. When she tasted my accompanying potato knish she gasped and said, “Oh my God! That’s amazing. How do they get it like that?”


I thought briefly then answered, “Well, it takes about 3 thousand years to …”


The words got caught in my throat and I started to tear up. I was verklempt. My mind had flashed to all the Jews who had to fight for their survival so I could enjoy the privilege of sitting in this deli to devour the perfect knish. According to google, the struggle goes back to like, 1500 BC, and according to Kanye, we still better watch our backs. It never fucking stops. When the deli manager, a hunched, bespectacled man perhaps in his late 70s, was near our table, I waved him over and told him the knish made me weep. He smiled, nodded and took off his glasses to wipe away his own tears as he thanked me for sharing that. You think it’s over the top? What can I say? This shit goes deep. Deep enough that he came by again later with a free plate of Babka. If you don’t know what Babka is, I truly feel sorry for you.




***


Culturally I am proudly Jewish but acting is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to religion -- organized religion anyway. And acting classes, good ones, are the closest thing I’ve ever known to places of worship. I love the communities I’ve been a part of as a student and teacher. I love reading the stories and being a witness to the hard-earned magic of actors bringing words to life. What I love most is sitting in communion to bask in the profound, aching truth of what it means to be human in this world. Being an artist in these politically, socially, and environmentally charged times is perhaps more demanding, more dangerous, and more important than it ever has been. Maybe every generation of artists has needed to believe that, but I’ve been at this for over 30 years, and it has never felt so palpably incendiary in the theatre, the classroom and out on the street.


No matter how hard we try, our creative efforts will never be accepted by everyone. It’s likely that these very sentiments will be judged and mocked by some. Yet we boldly carry on. We will not be stopped. Just as my father lights the candles at Hanukkah because he’s Jewish, we will continue to act. Because we are actors.


To the skilled and devoted teachers who work with me at Haven, to all of you inspiring, beautiful souls who study and play with us, and to my trusted comrades who keep the studio thriving with such generous and authentic care, I am forever grateful for your presence in my life.


I wish you a happy holiday and look forward to continuing the journey together in January of 2023!


Yours,


Ben




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