Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fanny Price is a pill!

That is my conclusion after finishing "Mansfield Park." It's part of my maternity leave reading list. Last time around, I read "War and Peace." No, really. It's good. All you ever hear about is how long it is, boo-hoo and wah, but if you can handle the last four or so Harry Potter books you can do this too. Worth the effort.

So I thought, what should I read this time around? Because the thing about nursing is that you spend lots of time sitting down. You can get on the phone, you can watch TV or you can read. You can of course also interact with your baby, but your baby will be feeding for up to an hour, every two to three hours, and no matter how much you want to be Ultimate Mom, you're going to want a diversion after a while.

Now I love "Pride and Prejudice." I've read it over and over. I've seen, I'm fairly sure, every movie version, including the Bollywood one ("Bride and Prejudice," so-so acting but great dance scenes). But I realized that I'd never read Austen's other novels, and she only wrote six (not counting "Sanditon," which was unfinished at the time of her death). Hey, I can read five novels in a few months.

I was surprisingly so-so on "Sense and Sensibility," finding it a little overwrought plotwise. Also I felt like the ending sold out Marianne a little. Which is odd because I didn't remember getting that sense from the movie. Also odd: One scene that stuck in my head from the movie -- a heartbroken Marianne standing in the pouring rain, reciting poetry to the house her lost Willoughby was in -- wasn't in the book at all. When she falls ill, it's solely from Willoughby spurning her ("dumping" doesn't sound right, does it?). People in these novels keep getting sick just from hearing bad news. Delicate 19th-century constitutions?

I liked "Emma" a lot; it has a light, arch tone that makes it a fun read. The heroine is so sure of herself, and so completely wrong about everything, that you sort of want to roll your eyes and hug her simultaneously. Also I developed a new appreciation for "Clueless," which is a surprisingly faithful adaptation, aside from having a pretty good soundtrack.

"Persuasion" is the one you want to read when feeling most cynical about human nature. The satire verges on viciousness. (Occasionally you get the distinct feeling that Austen didn't like most people.) But Anne Elliot is someone you want to root for, getting a second chance at love even though she's a spinster in her late twenties (ancient, I know).

"Mansfield Park," though, has left me a little cold. All the other heroines are likable in their way, from calm and sensible Anne to smart, witty Lizzy Bennet. But Fanny Price is completely reactive. The entire novel happens around her, and she just mopes and cries and waits for her beloved Edmund to get around to noticing that she exists, and gosh, wouldn't they make a cute couple? Which the reader picked up on somewhere around chapter three. I read that Fanny was Austen's favorite heroine, and I really hope that wasn't true.

It's funny how contemporary the novels feel. Frenemies! Lousy parents and spoiled kids! City snobs snarking about the country! (Oh you New Yorkers with your better-than-Jersey holiness.) Not to mention adultery, illegitimate children and the occasional gold-digger. I don't know if it's reassuring that society hasn't changed that much, or depressing.

But this has been a fun read. Just "Northanger Abbey" left, assuming the library has it, and then I think I can legitimately consider myself an Austen fan. For whatever that's worth.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

But at least they gave us gelt

A local Jewish group was holding a menorah lighting ceremony at town hall, so we figured we'd go, since we'd already hit the town's tree lighting-palooza. Plus there'd be latkes and doughnuts. I refuse to make latkes from scratch because there's only so much work I'm prepared to put into dinner, but I'm happy to eat them if someone else makes them. (Side note: Trader Joe's frozen latkes are quite good.)

So we showed up a few minutes late and figured the menorah -- a decent-sized electric one next to the lit-up tree -- was already lit and the party had moved inside, except for the few stragglers still around the menorah. Then we realized the stragglers were the party. The entirely outside party. After dark. In December. With the wind whipping through our entire bodies.


Let me just say, you all seemed like very nice people, as much as we were able to talk to you in between the teeth chattering, but ... outside? Two feet from a parking lot? In the freezing cold? With children in tow?

I know the whole point of Hanukkah is to shine a light against the darkness and all, but you know what else beats back the darkness? A well-lit room. With heat.

I almost made us leave on the spot, but we'd promised kiddo latkes so we trooped on over. There was a radio playing Hebrew party tunes, a table with doughnuts and dreidels, and that was just about it. We politely stayed a few minutes and then skipped on out before our children got frostbite. "You brought a baby -- you must really be dedicated!" one man called out as we were leaving.

No, sir, just expecting a *ahem* warmer reception.

And I wouldn't even be that annoyed, except that here was how the tree lighting party went: chorus sings, fire trucks blare, Santa arrives, tree lit, big crowd heads inside for Santa photo ops, balloon animals, cupcakes, hot chocolate and other assorted goodies. Sure, one was town-sponsored and one was a private group. But they were both held at the same spot, so yes, folks, comparisons are inevitable.

Jews are not good at outreach. Or PR. I think we're so used to everyone hating us that it doesn't occur to us that people might want to, say, know more about our culture, or maybe attend one of our cultural events without it being unbelievably inconvenient. (DH has complained before about feeling unwelcome in all-Jewish places.)

In all fairness, it's easier to get into the Christian holidays because they tend to have a secular (pagan?) component to go along with the more serious religious component. Christmas has Santa. Easter has the Easter bunny and gobs of candy. Neither one is the point of the holiday, but they give the kids (and wary Jewish adults) something to hang onto unless and until they're ready for the real point. Jewish holidays are the point. There's no Pasky the Passover Pascal Lamb, for instance. Just the seder. And gobs of matzah.

But the end result is that we are going to do our damndest to educate our kids in both sides of their heritage, and Judaism is going to be a harder sell. Unless we can find better Hanukkah parties.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Santa Santa Santa and also Santa

People make such a big thing about Christmas envy. Oh, you poor Jewish thing, you must've hated growing up watching your friends and their Christmas this and Santa that. Trees and lights and ham and lamb and mint sauce (I still don't understand the mint sauce, can some gentile out there enlighten me?) and candy canes and TV specials and stockings. You poor deprived child. Boo hoo and wah.

But not really. The thing is, I like Hanukkah. Always did. You get to play with fire -- in front of your parents, no less -- you get to hear a cool story about war and miracles, and you get eight nights of presents. And no matter what Lewis Black tells you about back-to-school holidays, some of us actually got toys at Hanukkah. Like the Cabbage Patch dolls and the Pound Puppies and the Nintendo and could I be dating myself any more here? Anyway, Christmas-Hanukkah never bothered me.

(Easter-Passover, that bugged me. Macaroons? Chocolate bunnies? No comparison.)

What I'm realizing, though, is that when it comes to the sheer fun quotient, Hanukkah can't compete. It's just outclassed.

We took kiddo to see Santa on Saturday -- right, the day it snowed, and then tried to find a tree even though there was snow in our eyes the whole time -- and went to our town's tree lighting on Sunday. He had a blast. He ran right up to Santa, high-fived him, sat on his lap, said thanks for the candy cane, and then while we were drinking our hot cider he ran back over to Santa and scored a second picture. Probably would've shot for a third if we hadn't dragged him outside to the tree lot. We'd have an album full of him mugging with Santa.

For the tree lighting, everybody gathered outside the municipal building while every single fire truck and ambulance the town owns (or it felt that way, anyway) came screaming into the lot, followed by Santa on a smaller truck. Kids shrieked when they saw him. Santa is a rock star! Then everyone looked up at the big tree at the top of the hill and counted down to 1, when the tree magically lit up in primary colors. And then inside for cupcakes and hot chocolate, plus pictures with Santa (absolutely not, it was a mile-long line).

Such excitement, such drama. Even I got a thrill when I knelt next to kiddo and pointed: "Look, here comes Santa! Look at the tree, they're turning on the lights!" It draws you in. I started to wonder what it would've been like for me, celebrating these things as a kid. What would it have felt like? What's it like to see Santa for the first time, and to believe in him? Kiddo looked dazzled.

(I am aware that Santa is not actually the point of the holiday. We'll tackle that part, too, when kiddo is old enough to understand a little better. Right now I'm focusing on the more secular aspects.)

Hanukkah has a pretty compelling story in its own right, but it's a more quiet sort of celebration. It's not even a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, nowhere near the status of Passover or the High Holy Days. Any attempts to raise it up to the level of Christmas are -- let's face it -- Christmas envy.

We celebrate both, obviously, but we don't mush them together. They're separate holidays held for separate reasons and that needs to be acknowledged. Still I wonder how much more we'll have to push to make Hanukkah stick in the kids' minds. Because Christmas has a magic that's hard to resist.