Except that I never know when to shut up, so I have to tell a story:
I went into a local candy store the other night -- in Greenwich Village -- and filled a little baggie with nuts, and picked out two pieces of stale chocolate-covered marzipan, and took it all to the counter. The counterman, who looked and sounded Indian (as we used to say, "Indian Indian"), weighed the nuts but refused to let me pay for the marzipan. When I thanked him, happily surprised, he affirmed my surmise that this was an act of holiday spirit by asking, "Do you celebrate Christmas or Hannukah?"
I hesitated for a split second and then said, "Both! . . . And how about Diwali!"
He was so delighted that I had even heard of Diwali. I said, "More and more people here know about Diwali." When you call tech support now you're talking to someone in Bangalore, for Chrissake, we'd better know about Diwali.
When I was growing up in a neighborhood that was multiculti way before its time (Chicago's Kenwood in the '50s), we lived in a row of houses whose inhabitants were the Shapiros, the Daleys (11 kids, I think), the Gottliebs (us, 6 kids), the Kilbridges (8 kids), Rothschilds, Harshas, Waldmans . . . Catholic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish . . . I had friends in school who were Mexican, black, Puerto Rican, Japanese. When I was a teenager we had houseguests from India and Pakistan, exchange students, one of whom was the first great crush of my life. (I already knew about Diwali.) Earlier, I belonged to a gang of little kids on the block that was half Jewish, half Christian. The week the Christian kids learned in Sunday school that the Jews killed Christ, they tried to tie me to a tree. It was a halfhearted attempt, more laughable than frightening, and the rope slid off the tree as their interest slackened.
We had a Christmas tree. My mother used to keep the curtains closed so the rabbi wouldn't walk by and see it, but of course he knew. (He was a great, warm soul, Jacob Weinstein, who later marched with Martin Luther King.) We also had a beautiful old menorah with two crowned, rampant lions that's still in the family somewhere. I loved the Christmas tree because it smelled so good and the glowing lights were so poignant and they made a kind of seasonal sensory trinity with the haunting hush of Christmas carols. It made sense to me later on when I learned that the tree with lights predated Christianity. We went to Reform Jewish Sunday school, and I was fascinated by the Bible stories and the holidays. But I was also enthralled by the story of the birth of Jesus and used to act it out with my toy horses.
What am I saying? I find the answer, somehow, in this story about Woody Guthrie. (The story was originally in the L.A. Times, but it's vanished from the web. Luckily, it was saved by a message board poster.)
Woody Guthrie wasn't Jewish, but he wrote a trove of Jewish-themed songs in the decade between meeting his second wife, Marjorie -- Arlo's Jewish mother -- and falling ill with Huntington's chorea. Arlo, his son Abe and the New York klezmer band the Klezmatics recently performed some of these songs at L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall, in a program called "Holy Ground: The Jewish and Spiritual Songs of Woody Guthrie."
In the L.A. Times story, Arlo "retells an anecdote dealing with Woody and Marjorie's first child, Kathy, who died after being in a fire a year before Arlo was born":
"She was brought to the hospital, still alive, and my mother rushed in and the nurse said, 'Mrs. Guthrie, you filled in everything but what religion the child is,' . . . She said, 'All.' The nurse said, 'We can't put that.' So she said to put 'none.'
"Twenty minutes later my father came in and, thinking to get around the confusion, the nurse said, 'You need to fill in the religion.' He said, 'Put "all."' She said, 'We can't do that.' So he said, 'Put "none."'"
No sooner have I written that than my inner Ann Coulter pipes up (well, it's not that bad -- my inner La Shawn Barber, maybe?) and says, "Oh, so you're one of those idiots who mindlessly idealizes people like Woody Guthrie? [well . . . no.] Unions, kumbayah and the Comintern? What do you bet that baby died of some kind of bohemian commie pinko parental irresponsibility? Betcha they fell asleep smoking dope and burned the house down." I know nothing about the life of Woody Guthrie, so the only way I could answer my inner right-wing sneerer was to look it up.
Thanks to amazon.com's "Search Inside This Book" for ambiguously settling this dispute. According to Ed Cray's Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie, Cathy Ann Guthrie was four years old. Woody, sure enough, had gone to Elizabeth, New Jersey "to sing at an afternoon rally for the victorious Phelps Dodge Electric strikers". Marjorie, four months pregnant with Arlo and already the weary veteran of several of Woody's "dalliances" (score another one for the inner scold), had gone across the street to buy oranges and milk. "A short circuit in the cord of the newly rebuilt Stromberg radio, firemen said . . . started a fire in the mattress of the folding bed." The devastated Woody nonetheless vowed "to go right on and to have our next several babies in the same progressive and social-minded ways which we raised Cathy on."
Fair and balanced. We quote, you decide. Call me naïve, but the Guthries' grieving words on religion resonate for me regardless of their source.
UPDATE FROM THE CENTER: Some may be shocked at how I could careen from one extreme to the other. What is someone who admiringly quotes Woody Guthrie doing even thinking she has an "inner Ann Coulter?" And vice versa? I'll explain.
I no longer consider myself a liberal. I'm a proservative, or a congressive, or something. I had so wanted my stubborn religious eclecticism to be something other, more rational, more chosen, than just a reflex of my liberal upbringing. Alas, it is no accident that a quote from Woody Guthrie would just happen to appeal to me. I was raised in that tradition. Given a choice between Truman and Dewey, my parents voted for the socialist, Norman Thomas. The soundtrack of my childhood wasn't Woody Guthrie per se, but it was all that kind of stuff -- Win Stracke's children's songs, Alan Lomax-type folk songs, anthems of the Spanish Civil War.
I can't get around it -- the "we are all one," all-traditions-no-tradition attitude toward religion is a part of progressivism. And it's the part that has stayed deeply ingrained in me. (That's why I'm writing a book for "spiritual nomads.") The socialism and free love are long gone, washed away by reason. The arguments for going back inside tradition are the ones that don't reach me. I understand the case for traditional core values. It's the divisiveness, rigidity and superstition they come wrapped in -- the protein coat, not the DNA, if you will -- that my immune system was long ago trained to reject.