July 07

Festival of Lights
by Ayelet Ben-Ziv
p. 2 of 2

Meanwhile Uncle Nahum came back and found some empty benches, and Mom pulled me down to sit beside her, next to the big windows that let in patches of white sky.

“In a little while we’ll have to get going because I still need presents for some teachers, for our mailman, and for the babysitter.” Mom talked to herself as she looked at her holiday shopping list. “Maybe I’ll just give the mailman cash and be done with it, why not? Just like the garbage men.”

“People gave each other presents during Hanukah last week, but in Israel you don’t have to do it. Christmas is awfully commercialized,” Uncle Nahum said, and looked at me again as if he had just proved something. What “commercialized” means I’m not sure. Uncle Nahum always uses big words just to be annoying.

Mom nodded her head. She also looked at me out of the corner of her eye and flashed a silent smile. Uncle Nahum always talks about Israel and how everything is so much better there than it is in America. But Mom says he’s a good man and we shouldn’t laugh at him because Nahum is family.

Daddy says that the problem with Uncle Nahum’s speeches is that they’re like Christmas carols – eventually they get stuck in your head and there’s nothing you can do about it. Too bad Daddy wasn’t with us.

- - -

“I want to go downstairs where the tree is and look at Santa close up,” I whispered in her ear.

“What?!” she said loudly.

“What? What do you mean, what?” asked Uncle Nahum.

“Don’t you dare tell him,” I whispered to Mom.

“I was talking to the boy,” she explained to Uncle Nahum.

“About what?”

Then, even though I pressed her hand, she told him I wanted to have my picture taken with Santa on the ground floor. Her mouth moved nervously because she was trying so hard to smile at Uncle Nahum, to show him how I’m just a dumb little kid and how they’re both so big and smart. I didn’t even say I wanted to have my picture taken, I just told her I wanted to take a look, but Uncle Nahum started off on one of his speeches about how this was too much, that you can’t bring up Israeli children in America, and that we must return home to Israel before the boy starts wearing a baseball cap, joins a team and starts praying to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I don’t really understand about Jesus and Mary, because my family doesn’t believe in God. I do know what a virgin is, but I don’t want to talk about that now. What’s wrong with wearing a baseball cap and playing baseball? Last summer I played, and then if I get really good I’ll join the local team!

This time he even managed to annoy Mom. They started talking in loud voices and interrupting each other. Suddenly Mom and Uncle Nahum looked exactly the same, both of them with their square jaws and their sparkling eyes, and all those words that you don’t know what to do with. Mom, who I always liked to look at and who I think is really pretty, suddenly looked like Uncle Nahum’s identical twin. I saw that her glasses were dirty like his, and that she had wrinkles on her neck and that soon she would be old and bald just like him, and that her sweater was faded and that she was arguing and waving her hands and didn’t even care that people around us were staring at her.

I looked at her and at Uncle Nahum and all of a sudden I hated both of them so much I wanted to run far away from them, to the end of the world, not just to some place in America, and definitely not to Israel, but to India or Australia, or to that place I saw on the Discovery Channel. I thought that with each passing minute Mom looked less and less like who she is.

- - -

On the way down the escalator, people crowded together and stood on both sides. And when I got there, I stood in line for a long time not thinking about anything, and when my turn came Santa motioned for me to come toward him. I got closer and he lifted me up and sat me on his lap, even though I’m kind of big for that. I didn’t even want to sit on his lap, but it didn’t seem like I could tell him no. Santa had a weird smell, like that stuff Richie’s mom uses sometimes to take off her red nail polish. Then I thought about Richie’s mom, with her red hair all the way down to the middle of her back, and her pretty clothes, and her wide smile, and how she never yells and always speaks nicely. Once I asked Mom if there was anything she could do to get straight, neat hair like Richie’s mom.

“Sitting in a salon for hours and hours for my hair and nails isn’t my style.” She laughed, like it was better to look messy

“Ho-ho-ho, what do you want for Christmas?” Santa asked me. I looked up, thinking maybe Mom and Uncle Nahum were waving at me beyond the railing. But I didn’t see them. The lights on the tree bothered my eyes so much I started tearing up. I looked down so he wouldn’t see. It wasn’t comfortable at all. His white beard scratched my neck.

“Ho-ho-ho, what do you want for Christmas?” he asked, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to tell him I came because of the train, but my voice wouldn’t come out. The lights really bothered me. I closed my eyes tightly and thought about how they always tell those stories about people who really want something, like for instance a kid who’s really, really sick and they don’t want him to die, so they pray to God even if they don’t believe in him, and then when their kid gets better they have to start believing in God. So I thought all I had to do was think hard about the train, and in the end Santa would know, and I’d get the train, and then I would always have to believe in Santa after that, like Kim from my class. Partly so he wouldn’t get mad at me, I told him silently that it’s not my fault that I’m Hebrew and that I didn’t even care about it anyway.

“Open your eyes, boy,” said a voice in front of me. With my eyes shut, I heard the click of a camera.

“Ho-ho-ho, where are your Mommy and Daddy?” asked Santa. I didn’t know what to say.

“Bob,” he said to the man with the camera, “did he pay in advance?” And even with my eyes closed I could still see Bob shake his head “no,” and I remembered that I didn’t have any money. “I think this boy came without his parents. What’ll we do?” Santa asked, stroking my head like I was deaf and didn’t understand what was going on.

“Let’s call security,” Bob said. “His parents must be around here somewhere.” Then I realized everything was going the wrong way. Santa and I would never be friends and I wasn’t going to get a train out of this either. I got up in a flash. But Santa grabbed my arm, “Hey, where’re you going?” he asked. Even though his blue eyes were kind, I yanked my arm away and started walking backwards. Santa, with his big belly and red face, jumped up from his seat and came after me. When he got really close I started running, but he chased me.

During those few seconds everything slowed down, like a movie in slow motion, one frame at a time. Opposite me there were all these kids standing in line waiting to have their pictures taken, looking at me to see what kind of kid runs away from Santa. I guess they never saw anything like it. There was a pretty little girl with braids there, and two blond twins, and three kids who looked like brothers, the oldest one about my age. I ran between them and Santa pushed them to the side. They stared at us in fear, like I was the bad guy, and not a superhero, and then what I wanted more than anything else in the whole world was to just disappear, so no one would ever see me again.

- - -

When I stand up my height is almost the same as Mom’s when she’s kneeling. I know because when Mom found me she didn’t yell at me, she just went down on her knees, with her face against mine, and looked deep in my eyes like she was searching for something. Tears shone in her eyes when she hugged me, like she was afraid I’d get lost again. My head pressed against her hair and I smelled her usual smell that doesn’t have a name, kind of like a cup of coffee, but also a little like the smell of fried onion rings.

“My boy, don’t ever do that to me again, we were so frightened,” she said as she hugged me. Her voice cracked and sounded scared. Then I noticed her whole body was shaking and I realized she was crying. I wasn’t crying at all but it was really strange to know Mom was crying. Suddenly it was like I was big, and it actually felt good. Then I patted her shoulder, little strokes to calm her down like the way she used to do for me when I was little.

- - -

Eventually I realized that we weren’t the only ones there and that others were around too. I raised my head up and saw that man with the camera hanging around his neck, Bob, and also Santa, Uncle Nahum, and some security men. They all looked at us. So I moved Mom away from me. She got up, took out a tissue and wiped her face, which was red and swollen. The security guard spoke to her.

Behind her Uncle Nahum stood with Bob and Santa Claus, who handed him a small brown envelope. Uncle Nahum looked inside and his eyes practically popped out of his head, like he had just swallowed some disgusting cough medicine. He tried to give the envelope back, but they refused. Uncle Nahum argued with his big hands, and spit sprayed from his mouth like it does when he gets angry. Santa and Bob argued kind of quietly and nicely, like my teacher, Mrs. Prendegest, but you could see they weren’t going to give in. In the end, Uncle Nahum put the envelope in his jacket, pulled out his wallet and handed over some green bills. He almost threw the money at them in this really angry way. Santa just laughed and put his arm around Uncle Nahum’s shoulders -- a stupid red dwarf together with an idiot green frog. They must have made him buy the pictures of me with Santa, even though on the way home Nahum said, “No way! What are you talking about!?” He’s such a liar. I haven’t found them yet, even though I really want to take them to school, or at least show them to Richie.

- - -

“Look!” Mom said afterward when it was just me and her and Uncle Nahum again. “Look! It’s starting to snow, just like in the stories. We’ll have a white Christmas, how beautiful!” Her voice still cracked a bit. Through the windows you could see how it was really starting to snow. The snow swirled around in the sky like it was looking for the sidewalk but in the meantime wanted to play around in the air. It fell on the cars, and the people in the parking lot opened their umbrellas and started walking quickly in zigzags. When it snows on Christmas it looks just like it does in pictures and it’s really fun.

Nu? Big deal. It snows in Israel sometimes too. What?! You think it doesn’t snow in Jerusalem? It snows in Jerusalem, and it snows sometimes in the north, and in 1991 I even remember snow on the coastal plain…”



Ayelet Ben-Ziv was born and raised in Israel. She has lived and worked in the United States with her family for more than a decade. Her short stories have appeared in Hadoar, Keshet Hachadasha, Jewish Frontier, and Yedioth Ahronoth.

Iris Avtalion worked as a manager for Prime Translations. Adam Rovner is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Hofstra University and the Hebrew translations editor for Zeek.

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