A Bipolar Year

by

02/04/2001

309 West 92nd Street, ny, ny 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Since September, my family has experienced an unusual barrage of schizophrenic divisions on personal and global levels — our kids’ schools, the subway series, the election, and Christmas/Hanukah overlap – each of which raised unique parenting dilemmas, the kind they don’t write about in those “What to Expect” books.

Because our daughters are 3_ years apart, we are now in the first year (of two or three) of sending them to different schools, making every morning an exercise in transportation strategy. Nancy, 3, is in pre-school at West Side Montessori six blocks away, while Helen, 6, is in first grade all the way across town at Brearley.

Coming home, Helen rides the paid “Cupie” bus (adding another $1500 to the mind-boggling expense of private education), but for getting to school, we opted – for this year, at least – to continue to bring her ourselves, to spend that half-hour of quality/quantity time that allows for sweetly meandering conversation in our otherwise overscheduled lives.

But this seemingly simple choice is far from it. Will my wife take Helen on the city bus, a process she loves but delays her arriving at her office until 10? Or am I going to drive Helen and she walk Nancy over? Or do I take both kids in the car, so she can go to the gym? When I’ve gone out of town for work, my wife has had to variously leave Nancy with a neighbor, or bring Helen to a friend’s to mooch a ride off the paid school bus, or hire a car service and shlep both kids to the east side and then bring Nancy back west.

By the time either of us sits at our desks, we often feel like we’ve already run the marathon. Not to mention the fact that our calendars have to accommodate two sets of parent-teacher conferences, school fundraisers, class cocktail parties and potluck suppers, playdates, assemblies, and the like. We pray that in a few years Nancy will get into Helen’s school and we can again live as one family.

In contrast, the election and the subway series, while dividing the nation and the city, were not contentious in our household. My wife and I both supported Gore, albeit half-heartedly, and we expressed our feelings to Helen, who took up our cause – surprisingly, to a much stronger extreme. One day when she saw a “PUSH” sign on a convenience store door that someone had altered to read “BUSH,” she bellowed out, “Ach, I hate Bush!”

I’ve debated with other parents whether to pass along your politics to your children; some feel it’s too doctrinaire, and could lead to rifts at school. (One friend of ours was amused to hear that her kindergartener had echoed her sentiments to a Bush-supporting playmate that “If Bush wins, the rich will get richer.”)

To me, it’s worse to act like you don’t care. You just should add the caveat that there isn’t one right answer, and different people like different candidates, and you’ll survive even if your guy doesn’t win. (How did Gore put it? “While I strongly disagree with the decision, I accept it…”)

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and I do not allow Helen or Nancy to root for the Yankees.

Back on election night, when Florida was declared for Gore and then withdrawn, I was instantly reminded of Mets first baseman Todd Zeile’s apparent home run against the Yankees in the World Series. The ball had thudded — plop — on top of the padded fence and dribbled back onto the field; because baserunner rookie Timo Perez slowed to admire it, he was nailed at the plate. Gore ran a similarly overconfident, unaggressive campaign, and was similarly punished.

The election took five weeks to get settled as opposed to five games, but both felt similarly preordained: in baseball, either way, a New York team would win (and lose); in politics, nobody would have a mandate. But it was interesting to see that once it became apparent that people’s voices could make a difference, the politics got much uglier – and more entertaining. The mob shutting down the recount reminded me of Roger Clemens throwing the broken bat at Mike Piazza. A photo on a recent front page of the Times, showing Bush supporters angrily brandishing “Sore/Loserman” signs were more vivid than anything of the dry campaign that preceded the election.

Then came the holiday season, which provided a different sort of subway series/election for which there were no easy answers: the Hanukah/Christmas yinyang, which in 2000 overlapped, with Christmas occurring smack in the middle of the “eight crazy nights” (as touted in the Adam Sandler song).

My wife was raised Protestant, and I was raised reform Jew. My two brothers are also with non-Jewish women, which has led my parents to join a “support group” at their suburban temple for parents of interfaith marriages – making me feel, as I’ve told them, like marrying a shiksa is the moral equivalent of having an alcohol problem.

I suppose in their eyes I am fallen; I recently learned my wife is actually “ineligible” (!) for the family cemetery plot. During my childhood in a heavily Jewish suburb (okay, Scarsdale, I said it), I hung out with mostly Jewish kids, and had strong feelings about the kinds of Jews who had Christmas trees in their homes. The us-versus-them mentality was wholly understandable for my parents’ generation, for whom the Holocaust is a first-person experience.

But I loosened up over the years, and heathen that I am, for the past dozen years I’ve had a Christmas tree in my home, and actually enjoyed it — I’ve even hung ornaments! So far we are raising the girls with both religions in the home, but no formal religious schooling, and we bring them to temple or church at most a handful of times a year.

For all my mature equanimity, however, something about the Christmas season does make me want to wear my “Let’s Go Jews” hat.

One night during the holidays I was out with some Jewish women who had all married Jewish men, and they were talking about their kids’ pining for Christmas. When one’s Orthodox parents-in-law asked her three-year-old daughter what she wanted for Hanukah, the girl replied, “A Christmas tree!”

A few of these Jewish mothers had independently begun to entertain the notion of putting up Christmas trees so their kids didn’t feel deprived – and so they didn’t instill the same us vs. them mentality into the next generation. They weren’t about to start putting up crosses or going to church. But it started to feel like keeping the kids from dressing up on Halloween.

One night Helen asked me, innocently, “Which do you like better, Hanukah or Christmas?” And unlike politics, or sports, I thought it especially important to remain impartial. “I don’t think you have to pick a favorite,” I said.

“Well, I like Christmas a little better,” she said.

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