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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Word From the Weiss

        “Happy New Year!” everyone blurts out at this time of year, as automatically as they bid “Gezundheit!” at the sound of a sneeze. But how happy are you really to see the current year end?
Ever since I experienced my first grown-up New Year’s Eve – complete with Champagne and fancy hors d’oeuvres, followed by the inevitable sinking sense of “Is that all there is?” – I’ve been far from a fan of the year-end wrap-up. Too many expectations, too much indulgence in potent libations. But most of all, if I’m being honest with myself, simply too much change.
For as free-spirited as I may appear or profess to be, like most people I’m a creature of habit. I like most things the way they are and wish they would stay that way. About the only thing I’m truly inclined to change is my underwear.

                     Should old acquaintance be forgot and never come to mind?
Just put a pair of clean bikini briefs on my behind.

        So much for celebrating New Year’s.
        As for my coming-of-age experience, the year was 1976. A fresh-faced 21, I had just finished college a week or so before. My boyfriend at the time, a well-heeled classmate from Brandeis, had graduated on schedule the previous May and gone off to work in New York. But I needed to take an extra semester, obliging us to undergo the arduous trek between the Big Apple and Boston nearly every weekend through December. Now, relieved to be reunited at last, we invited another young couple from school to join us in ringing in the new year. Buzzing with eager anticipation, we spent the afternoon of December 31st assembling the most elegant fixings we could afford, from an array of pricey cheeses to a jar of cut-rate caviar.
A blinding blizzard waylaid our friends, though, who were driving in from some suburb. They phoned repeatedly, promising to set out soon, or as soon as the steady downfall might subside. At last, though, they decreed that it had grown too late to come anymore and was far too hazardous to brave the roads. So we devoured our delicacies all alone and polished off the Champagne between us. Then, instead of doing what any red-blooded young couple in their right minds might (watch the ball drop on TV, then put on an Al Green record, or Barry White, perhaps), in our crestfallen, isolated and decidedly intoxicated state, we began hashing out our unresolved relationship issues.  By midnight, we had agreed to call it quits. I moved out promptly the next morning, before I’d even had time to unpack.
        It was not the definitive end of that youthful romance, which soon rallied to see another year, and even another New Year’s. But it also was far from the exhilarating revelry I’d long imagined to be the purview of adults on the penultimate night of the year.
I’ve had plenty of delightful celebrations of the year’s denouement in the interim, mainly intimate dinners with cherished old friends. But I’ve also had some other real zingers in the dismal department. (Last year, our son returned from a trip with such severe food poisoning that we had to take him to an emergency clinic that afternoon. Then, while I was getting dressed for our evening out, my husband had a car accident, putting a decided damper on our mood and any prospect of merriment.)
And so somehow, although many years have passed since that first attempt at an adult soirée – so very many that my youngest child is now a fresh-faced 21 herself – I never have managed to remotely recover the sense of breathless anticipation that Auld Lang Syne time seems meant to signify.
What I’ve developed in its place is a penchant for always buying something festive (i.e. absurdly glitzy) to wear that night, while inwardly weighing how eager I am to start anew based on the year I’m relinquishing. Often, so much tsuris and mishegas have befallen me that I’ve lost all hope for the current calendar year and can barely wait for it to end. But this year, I’m happy to report, is different. I feel like I’ve managed to make a fresh start already. And although it may be only that – a start, meaning that it begs for some sustained amount of follow-through before I’m entitled to break out the Champagne –  I’m less eager than usual to give up on the present year, cut my losses and start over with a clean slate.
It’s much like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. After a whole lot of sniveling and snidely conveying a “Why even bother?” attitude, I finally feel like I may be beginning to get it right at last. But whatever “right” may be, I don’t have it right enough yet. I need more time. I’d hoped to have more to show for myself by now. For this and many other reasons, I’m not quite ready to close the book on 2010.
It’s not just that I’m not prepared to start writing a different number on the date line of personal checks (always a challenge to get used to till March). Or that I haven’t made it to Staples yet to purchase a new daily planner. I’m stuck in a wistful time warp of the spirit, still mourning the end of summer while I put on boots and gloves to go shovel the walk. The second hand may be inching toward midnight on the 31st, but I’m not ready to move on.
Then again, as I said, I’m not someone who deals well with change. I’m still brooding that the local supermarket I’ve been frequenting for the past two decades recently closed, and I have to get used to the more goyishe chain that replaced it. It unnerves me that they don’t carry the brand of bread I like. I know there are far more monumental issues in life, and that there are plenty of people who can’t even afford bread. But there it is. How will I deal with a brand new year when I still want my old bread back?
How will I face four months of winter (face it, in New England we’ll be shivering until almost May) when my beach bag is still beside the door, ready for me to grab for an impromptu dip in the pool?
And how will I adjust to my youngest child having recently turned 21, meaning she’s an adult herself? Officially an adult, anyway. Having one more semester of college to go, she’s not quite independent yet. In fact, we are obliged for various reasons to escort her up to Stowe, Vermont, this weekend, where her boyfriend, a musician, is performing with his band at a ski resort on New Year’s Eve.
Driving four hours due north in late December may not be everyone’s idea of fun. In fact, our daughter doesn’t understand why we’re willing to do it – to which I say, “Just wait until you’re a mother someday, and you’ll understand that parents will do almost anything to make their children happy.” Also, not having forgotten what it’s like to be 21 and smitten – and having long ago realized that when you’ve been married for decades, New Year’s Eve isn’t exactly about romance anymore – we are more than willing to make the trek to make sure she arrives safely. With luck, we have close friends who have a vacation house there and have offered to put us up, and we look forward to spending time with them.
        Our hosts are attending a party that night, though, meaning that my husband and I will be alone together on the actual Eve, rather than feasting with friends as usual. (I don't remember the last time we were all alone on New Year's Eve. Maybe never.) Meanwhile, my husband had another car accident yesterday afternoon; when he took our daughter to get her hair cut for the coming festivities, a passing car lost control and slammed into him while he was parked near the salon. Talk about déjà vu all over again! At least he wasn’t hurt, and his car sustained only a flesh wound.
I can only hope this isn’t becoming a new New Year’s tradition. But I learned my lesson decades ago and am not planning to revive an old one. New Year’s may not be about “scoring” when you’re married, but neither is it any time to settle old scores. Like it or not, we have a brand new year to plan. So I’m going to watch how much I drink on Friday night, and also watch what I say.
        Meanwhile, I'm not really going to be alone for the holiday. We may not be amongst our old friends this year, but I have you, my readers. You are my cherished new friends. So let me be among the first to toast you. To life, and to life lessons learned the hard way. Let's all look forward, ready or not, to a nice, fresh start. To 2011. To better times. To starting over. L'chaim!

10:41 am 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Word From the Weiss
        And so, another year skids to a close. Time to toss out the old, ring in the new… and get all of those medical procedures that you need now before January 1, when the percentage you’ve met toward your health insurance deductible rolls back to zero again.
        I’m not just talking about the mammogram I had on Monday (scheduled in part in the wake of poor Elizabeth Edwards’ passing). I’m referring to what I did a year ago, when I broke down and submitted to something I thought I’d never dare consider – genetic testing.
From the time I was in my teens, when my mother’s only sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, I harbored a sense of certain doom. It was like I was walking around with an internal time bomb, inactive now but destined to go off someday. My mother tried to dodge this unwelcome twist of fate, combating her own raised risk of developing the disease with the least effective approach imaginable: denial. When a mammogram she had soon after my aunt’s death revealed a suspicious growth, she told her doctor that it had to be a mistake – just scar tissue from a fibroid she’d had removed years earlier. Then she adamantly refused to get another mammogram for the next 16 years.
Fate and modern medicine finally caught up with her when her longtime gynecologist eventually retired and her young, less compliant new one refused to take no for an answer. Soon after, the other shoe dropped. My mother was diagnosed with the disease… and my own probability of contracting it myself went through the roof.
By then, of course, what had once been a pea-sized growth had reached the dimensions of a grapefruit. As my mother went through treatment after treatment following surgery (much of which was more brutal than the disease itself), friends urged me to consider genetic testing. I refused. I’d been getting yearly mammograms since I was in my thirties, I countered. All had been clear so far. Besides, even if I got tested and received a bad report, I wasn’t ready to consider a double mastectomy for prophylactic purposes.
I preferred to live with uncertainty and hope for a slim chance that I’d been spared.
A year ago, though, I started to think differently. I now had watched my mother suffer through her agonizing final months and begun to revise my stance. I would never let that happen to me, I decided. Nor would I ever make my own kids have to witness it.
        Genetic testing is extremely costly – over $3,000 – and only one lab in the country performs it, Myriad Genetic Laboratories in Utah (although the blood can be drawn anywhere and sent there). Having two close relatives die of breast cancer, I learned, made me eligible to have the testing fully covered by our insurance. And yes, my family had already met its hefty annual deductible and was about to start from scratch again.
I must admit that I was half-hoping when I phoned the cancer center at the University of Connecticut Health Center that there would be no available appointments. No such lack of luck. They fit me in almost immediately, three days before Christmas.
The appointment included an hour of conversation before I’d be sent for blood work. The young genetic counselor I saw had to make sure that I was mentally prepared to handle the potential outcome.
That conversation included some positive surprises. Even with two close relatives afflicted by the disease, my own risk of having either of the two most common genetic mutations that lead to it was less than 20 percent (far from the 100 percent I’d long imagined). That was the good news. I won’t bore you with every grim detail of the not-so-good. Suffice it to say that there was plenty of it.
The two most common forms of the mutation are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 (short for Breast Cancer 1 and 2), and both are disproportionately prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews like me. If I had either one, my chances of developing breast cancer would soar to between 56 and 85 percent (versus 12 percent for the general population).
Even worse, if I had either mutation, there was a 50/50 chance that I’d passed it on to my own daughter, or that my son was a carrier who could pass it on to his children. I’d lived for over 50 years with uncertainty about my own genetic makeup. Was it fair for me to get tested and potentially give my children a terrible prognosis in their early 20s?
Yet after coming this far, there seemed to be no legitimate way to turn back now. So I went off to the lab and let them draw the requisite three vials of blood.
Unfortunately, it takes approximately three weeks for the results to be issued. Believe me, for me, those weeks were far from fun.
        The results were to be delivered in person by the same woman who’d done my initial consultation at UConn. I scheduled the appointment for January 12, two days before my birthday. Over dinner the night before, I confessed to my close friend “Nan” that I was terrified, more anxious than I’d ever been about anything in my entire life.
“In that case, I’m going with you,” she asserted. I protested that I’d be fine alone. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She even insisted on driving me.
She picked me up early the next morning, which was icy cold and ominously overcast. Soon we were sitting in the cancer ward’s waiting room, alongside countless other women, many of whom were very frail and concealing bald scalps with kerchiefs.
Nan had agreed to remain sitting there while I went in to face my fate. But when the counselor finally came to retrieve me, I had a moment of panic. I pictured myself having to return soon after, shake my head sadly and recount all the dreadful details. This would be unbearable.
“Come with me!” I blurted out. Nan looked surprised, but did.
We followed the counselor down a long hallway and into a small conference room. She picked up a folder and pulled out a report featuring lots of fine print. I watched her leaf through it briefly, then fold her arms. I tried to brace myself, but couldn’t breathe.
“Before going into all of the details, which are very complex and you need to know, let me get this out of the way,” she said. She paused, glancing down at the sheet before her. “Your blood tested negative. Negative for both. You don’t have either mutation.”
I looked at her. I looked at Nan. Then a scream of utter disbelief escaped my lips, and I began to sob uncontrollably. Never mind three awful weeks of crippling fear. A lifetime of unspeakable dread burst through a shattered dam and flooded down my face.
I tried my best to come down to earth as the details were divulged. Given my family history, my risk of my developing breast cancer was still elevated, to an estimated 22 percent. It remained possible that my mother had had a different, rarer mutation not yet detectable by today’s technology. Or that she’d had a mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2, but not passed it on. Either way, I didn’t have one.
        And here was the best news of all: Since I didn’t have either genetic mutation, my children could not have inherited one. They don’t skip generations.
Furthermore, since cancer doesn’t run in my husband’s family (neither his mother nor any of her 10 siblings was ever diagnosed with any form of the disease), the likelihood that either of my children had either genetic mutation was estimated to be nil!
Over the celebratory lunch to which Nan treated me at Bricco, our favorite local restaurant, the full implications of this revelation began to dawn on me. Genetic testing hadn’t merely lifted what had felt like a lifelong death sentence. Maybe it was time to rethink a lifetime of inherent negativity and always preparing myself for the worst.
I guess I grew up like many Jews do, internalizing centuries of pent-up anxiety, always wondering when the next pogrom, wave of anti-Semitism or other catastrophe will hit. Who knows what other worst-case scenarios that I’d long conjured up were based on erroneous assumptions? Maybe it was high time that I stopped waiting to die and started thinking instead about how to live, and maybe even really enjoy it.
        In the year since, I’ve tried to live every day bearing in mind that I dodged not a bullet, but a bomb. I’ve tried to hold onto that new sense of both optimism and infinite possibility, believing that, against my instincts, things actually can work out for the best.
That didn’t prevent me from having a moment of panic following my mammogram on Monday, when the technician returned after taking my films, told me the radiologist had seen something that looked suspicious, and that she had to do one side over again.
I tried to stay calm. Then she returned after round 2 and said it had been nothing.
“You’re all clear. There was nothing there.” She studied my look of clear disbelief. “I don’t know how else to say it: You’re absolutely fine.”
I’m fine. I’m more than fine. For another year! And I intend to have a fine one indeed.

1:22 am 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Word From the Weiss
       Here are the top ten reasons why I am NOT writing my blog this week: 

        10. My husband is on vacation for most of the month. I guess you would call it vacation. We're not actually going anywhere, or much of anywhere. But after 13 years at his current job, he's entitled to five weeks off annually, and he can't carry the time that remains into January. It's a case of use it or lose it, so he's using it by staying home from work. For the next three weeks. With me. (G-d help us both.)
        I'm not sure I've earned the right to take such a breather myself. I only started filling this space in September. I'm also not sure that productivity is contagious. But slothfulness sure is. Why should I slave away writing when he's lying there on the couch, feet up, reading a book? Yes, a mystery book. And here's a real mystery for you: How, exactly, is he managing to read? His eyes are closed. He's snoring!

        9. What is he so tired about? I'm the one who's really, really tired. I went to Boston last night to see my daughter perform in a year-end concert. Since the show didn't start until 9 p.m. and Boston is a hundred miles away, I decided to stay overnight with her, in hopes of getting to bed before midnight. Yeah, right. I'd forgotten what goes on at college.
The concert finished shortly after 10, as expected. But my daughter still had to watch a movie that would be discussed in one of her classes today. She was also now totally ravenous (as usual, she'd barely touched her dinner before singing). There was nothing exciting to eat in her apartment, though, so she insisted on baking cookies, which we scarfed down with ice cream. Then we lit the menorah with her boyfriend and hung around talking to him for another hour or so. Finally, we got into bed and put on the movie after he left, around midnight.
 TheKillingFieldsphotocropped.jpg       The class in question turned out to be about genocide. The movie? The Killing Fields, from 1984. Two hours and 21 minutes of brutality in Cambodia, not to mention a young Sam Waterston sulking and even younger John Malkovich sneering. (I'd long forgotten he was in that.) We streamed it onto my computer from Netflix, but had endless technical difficulties and had to keep rolling it back. We finished watching at 3 a.m.
        Why, you may ask, did I stay up until the bitter end? My daughter has a studio apartment, and I was sharing her queen-size bed. You try sleeping through all of that violence, machine-gun fire and explosions. Field of Dreams this was not.

        8. Suddenly, it was 9 a.m. My daughter needed SamWaterstonphotocropped.jpgto shower and dress quickly before a rehearsal for yet another concert, and I was stuck in a time warp. Sam Waterston had aged 26 years overnight and was no longer writing exposés about  the Khmer Rouge, or even trying cases on Law & Order. He was now a white-haired pitchman hawking TD Ameritrade on TV. And John Malkovich was all but bald and, well, being John Malkovich. Hadn't we just turned in 10 minutes ago? Who could function on such little sleep, let alone put words together?

        7. My daughter left me alone in her apartment for the next two hours. Write my blog or sleep? Write my blog or... clean?!? I don't know what men daydream about, but one of my recurring fantasies is rather dirty and heavily involves rubber. It's to be left all alone in either one of my kids' apartments with some Scrubbing Bubbles and a roll of paper towels. Never mind that friends think I'm a bit of a slob. Or that I still resent my own mother for the time she visited my first post-college apartment and removed her shoes and stockings after dinner and proceeded to wash the floor. Never mind that my daughter's current apartment is actually, Purplerubberglovesfantasyphotored1.jpgsurprisingly, fairly clean. After all, what's a mother for, if not to lend a helping hand or two?
I covered my hands with the rubber gloves I'd bought my daughter when she moved into her latest digs (they may not sound like much of a house gift, but they're purple, her favorite color). Then I located a treasure trove of cleaning products under the sink. A quick survey of her apartment, however, yielded no paper towels. Not even a sponge. The best I could do was to make the bed, unload the dishwasher, spritz the mirror with Windex, and douse the doorknobs with disinfectant. Then I put away the many clothes she'd tried on and discarded this morning, de-waxed the much-used menorah with boiling water, and emptied the garbage. How irresistible tidying up can be when you're supposed to be writing something. Also, I may be NiceJewishMom.com, but first and foremost I'm a nice Jewish mom. Write my blog when there's actual dust lurking under my daughter's bed? Ha! I think not.
        6. I spent the rest of the day interviewing someone for a book I'm writing (more on that some other time). The interview ran far longer than I'd anticipated. By the time I got on the road, it was rush hour. Rush hour out of Boston. Bitterly cold, and bumper to bumper on the Mass Pike. Even with an E-ZPass to streamline passage through the tolls, the trip home took an extra hour. I spent the whole time on the phone yakking with the troops (thank G-d for my Bluetooth). And by "troops," I mean my husband and son. It was still a long, stultifying ride, especially on six hours' sleep.

        5. I got back after 7 p.m., utterly exhausted, and having been away overnight figured that I should hang out for awhile with my husband. Usually he's too busy to come down for dinner and has to be called three times. Now he seemed eager for company, even mine, and had picked up some takeout so I wouldn't have to cook. Talk about fantasies. Did I mention that he's on vacation?

        4. My bridge group (yes, I am becoming my own mother) is meeting at my house Wednesday, and I have a whole lot of cleaning left to do. Somehow, it's much more enjoyable cleaning someone else's house (your own child's, anyway) than it is dealing with your own mess. I know that the women in my group aren't coming over to inspect my home wearing white gloves. Aside from engaging in a Letsshootcrap.jpgmodicum of chitchat, they're fairly single-minded in their purpose, much like the character Big Julie in Guys & Dolls, the thug from Chicago who keeps complaining when they're down in the sewer, "I came here to shoot crap. Let's shoot crap!"
        The dolls who are coming over aren't mission dolls, like Sgt. Sarah Brown, but they do have a mission; they want to play bridge. (Luck be a trump card tonight?) To do that, though, they need a clean table. A table that isn't covered with junk mail, magazines, knickknacks, nail clippers, and other random clutter. Not to mention half-empty wine bottles, serving trays still lingering from Thanksgiving, and, yes, dust. Maybe even dirt. (Did I mention that I'm a bit of a slob?)

        GleephotoRachel.jpg3. It's Tuesday night. Glee is on, and I really want to watch it, even if it's the Christmas episode this week, filled with giddy caroling, a revolving cast of characters dressed in Santa Claus suits, and an overabundance of Christmas spirit -- heart-warming mush instead of the usual pop/rock mash-ups.
        I'm uncomfortable and often offended by the way the two Jewish main characters are portrayed. One, Rachel, is a shamelessly Gleephoto1Puck.jpgambitious and Narcissistic egomaniac, albeit a beautiful and phenomenally talented one, and the other, Puck, is a dim-witted and shamelessly immoral juvenile delinquent, albeit a socially cool and phenomenally talented one. (Seriously. How many supercool Jewish juvenile delinquents do you know?) Even so, I guess it's nice that they choose to have openly Jewish characters of any kind. And even so, I shamelessly love the show.  

        2. It's the seventh night of Chanukah, and even after six other nights I still want to go rustle up a batch of latkes, then wrap some gifts, light the menorah, and sing the blessings with my husband and my dog. Even if they are now both snoring.

        1. Given my lack of sleep, my long journey, my neglected husband, the imminent bridge group visit, and a bitterly cold night, I know what I want for Chanukah: I want the night off. Whether or not I deserve it.
        Happy Chanukah to you, too! Treat yourself to something you need, whether you've earned it or not. Or give yourself a break. I'm sure you could use one as much as the next Nice Jewish Mom. Thanks, everyone. Thanks for reading. I'll see you here next week!
12:18 am 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Word From the Weiss
        Never mind not being ready for 2011. Who can handle Chanukah only a week after Thanksgiving?
        OK, to be honest, I managed to finish my holiday shopping last Saturday, even though I make it a rule to give something on all eight nights to every member of my family (including, of course, the dog). Given the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, that obliged me to start buying gifts as early as last summer (think of it as Chanukah in July). The only challenge now is getting them wrapped – and remembering where I put them.
        Yet what other choice did I have? My kids were home for Thanksgiving, and they live so far away that we won’t be seeing them for Chanukah this year. I have a friend who mails gifts daily eight days in a row so that each of his kids receives a package for each night of Chanukah. He, clearly, is a man of faith – faith in the U.S. Postal Service. I’d like to think of myself as a woman of faith as well. But at this time of year, I’d rather play it safe. I sent my kids home with their gifts.
        In that regard, I may be alone. Despite all of the hoopla surrounding Black Friday and Cyber Monday, most of the people I know are busy. They’ve barely begun to shop.
        Am I the only one who resents that Jewish holidays are moveable feasts, cropping up when you least expect them (and in this case when you’re still eating leftover turkey)? Plus, who can really relish potato latkes when we’re still stuffed with cornbread stuffing?
        I also worry that an early Chanukah raises the risk of Jewish children feeling pangs of envy when Christmas rolls around, and memories of their own celebration are, like the Maccabees, already ancient history.
When did we Jews begin competing with Gentiles so shamelessly to make the biggest holiday bang? I mean, eight nights of Chanukah I can understand. Giving gifts on Chanukah I can also sort of understand. But does any child (let alone any adult) really need to receive presents eight nights in a row?
        Nonetheless, I never consider buying fewer gifts. I don’t even consider buying less expensive gifts, although my husband gives me a lecture about it every year. (I think he says something about setting a strict budget or not spending as much as I did last year, but I’m not quite sure because I make it a strict policy to merely look like I’m listening.)
        Instead, I follow another long-respected Chanukah tradition: I try to pass off as gifts things that everyone needed anyway. Warm winter pajamas. Snow boots and gloves. Socks. Bed linens. Underwear. Books. These are the sorts of things that my parents managed to underwhelm me with annually when I was growing up. But most kids have plenty of toys and gadgets that they don’t play with anymore, and others that they never played with in the first place. At least the useful presents will actually be used.
        The sad thing about sensible gifts is that it’s hard to get a rise out of children when they open boxes from department stores (already an ominous sign) and find brand new… thermal long underwear! Or, surprise! -- The Snuggie, or almost anything else made of polar fleece. Yet if there’s one thing that I used to relish, it was seeing my kids’ eyes gleam back when they were small and incredibly easy to please, and they got to unwrap the Malibu Barbie or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure of their dreams.
        The pursuit of that magical moment is what motivates many Jewish parents to try competing with Christmas. That, and perhaps less-than-fond childhood memories like the ones I still harbor – of being obliged to sing countless Christmas carols at school concerts while silently lip-syncing phrases like “the little Lord Jesus.” Seeing Christmas lights proliferate like dandelions on neighbors’ lawns. Having to watch characters on TV sitcoms obsess endlessly about the incredible booty they hoped to find under the tree.
        ACharlieBrownChanukah.jpgWho can blame Jews, particularly Baby Boomers like me, for feeling like our kids deserve equal time and equal booty, if not to get to finally see, say, a Charlie Brown Chanukah on TV? Or perhaps a new installment of some other cultural franchise – “Harry Potter and the Hallowed Chanukiah… or the Goblet of Manischewitz,” perhaps?
        Yet let’s face it: Just consider how the trappings of the two holidays truly compare. No one can dispute that potato latkes have it hands-down over fruitcake. Yet in size and spectacle, it’s hard to pit even the most ornate nine-headed candelabra against almost any Christmas tree. There are less than a handful of mainstream Chanukah songs (never mind that most popular Christmas carols, from “White Christmas” to “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” were composed by Jews). And Judah Maccabee, however heroic, never poses for pictures in malls or ho-ho-ho’s down anyone's chimney bearing gifts.
        This is not to suggest that I personally ever have suffered from so-called Christmas envy. I like our holiday just fine, thank you, and so do my kids. “At least Chanukah has a point,” my daughter once observed when she was young. “I mean, what’s the point of Christmas?” Evidently, the birth of Jesus was not a hot topic at her Jewish day school.
        Along with the obvious contrasts, though, I worry about the inadvertent similarities. One of my friends puts all of her family’s Chanukah presents out at once and lets her children choose one to open each night. She enjoys watching them turn boxes over, shaking them to gauge their contents. But to me, this is a minor variation on the typical Christmas approach. Deck the halls with loaves of challah. Fa la la la la, la la la la!
        I prefer a method marked by modified extravagance (although not quite modified enough to appease my live-in Scrooge). Everyone receives a gift every night. Only the first and perhaps last nights, however, feature eye-popping purchases. Most of the rest come with washing instructions and are likely to elicit little more than a “Bah, humbug.”
        My family may be typical in two more respects. One is that I do most of the holiday buying, with little help from my spouse. (Hence the need for the un-listened to lecture). The other is the focus on children. We give, they receive. Or that’s the way it used to be. I’ve made some modifications.
        Initially, I began including my husband on the receiving end. At last, someone who appreciated fleece! But this made it seem too much like I was the mom and he was one of the kids. Besides, everyone felt guilty that I was the only one left out of the action.
        So I decided to start picking up a little something for myself. And an occasional big something. I even wrap my own gifts, then gush while opening them. My gasps of surprise may require a soupcon of Sarah Bernhardt, but there’s no need to feign delight. I always get exactly what I want – and in precisely the right size.
        Meanwhile, to balance out all of this materialism, my family started celebrating Christmas, too. We observed it only as good Jews should, though. On Christmas Day, before joining friends for Chinese food and a movie out, we used to visit a battered women’s shelter bearing gifts: new toys for the children and colorful bags brimming with makeup and toiletries for their moms. After years of being wary of Santa Claus, we discovered that it was much more fun being him.
        I must admit that we haven’t done it lately, though, and it’s time to remedy that. Chanukah just hasn’t felt nearly as meaningful ever since our kids grew up and left home. It seems sad lighting the menorah nightly with my husband and having only two voices to harmonize on the blessings, even if the dog does chime in as best she can. (Don’t believe that my dog can sing? Phone us any night during the coming week and we’ll let you listen in.)
Otherwise, I’ll take our December holiday as is. I love free shipping on Cyber Monday, even if I won’t go near the mall, be it Black Friday or even Free Friday. I love the perseverance of the indefatigable Maccabees and the miracle of the oil. But I’ll admit to one bit of Christmas envy:
        Oh, what I’d give right now to have another 3½ weeks to get ready.
12:38 am 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

Comments? Questions? Just want to kvetch? Please go to GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS.