How did this story began?
On that fateful day in the winter of 1964, Sheldon and Barbara Stern gave birth to their last son while overlooking the Ventura Freeway near Los Angeles. They cleaned him up, brought him home and made an appointment with the local rabbi. A few days later, the rabbi blessed the plump baby and made his ceremonial bris upon his appendage. Things were never the same after that day.
A few years later, the Stern children overheard an argument between their parents. The father, a cad in his own time, argued that the children would be better off celebrating Christmas. The mother, a faithful Conservative Jewish mother, who poured the guilt better than any Jewish mother on the West Coast, wanted to light the Menorah and celebrate Hanukkah. By 1971, mom won the battle of the Holidays and dad was out the door the next spring.
Growing up Jewish was hard for me. There was so much resentment and anti-Semitism around me in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. I felt more of a mark because our family was not wealthy and provided an easier target for the rednecks in our neighborhood, as well as the upscale synagogue we attended for both my brother’s and my Hebrew education.
Which brings me to the following question: Christmas or Hanukkah?
Christmas, to me, is a culmination of a month-long affair that starts with Thanksgiving and ending with one morning filled with Christmas songs on every radio station and last week's eggnog from the fridge. You do get gifts on that morning, sometimes before. But, come on, do gifts, Egg Nog and Nat King Cole really mean Christmas?
Hanukkah, on the other hand, is celebrated over eight nights of candle lighting, dredel spinning, gift giving and smoke detectors going off. Oh, did I mention that you get to eat lousy Israeli chocolates shaped into coins and packed into "Hanukkah Gelt?" On top of that, if you lived with my mother, you also got "Hanukkah Guilt!"
This is not to say that it was all bad memories of melted chocolate wrapped in gold foil and silly spinning games. Because the gifting tradition was transplanted into this celebration, a child would get something every night.
This is sort of similar to Christmas – except there would be eight gifts under the tree all in one day.
In my case, there were a couple of Hanukkahs I recall where my mother knew that I had the car bug. I used to love making these 1/24 scale plastic models of cars. They provided a true lens of how one would view the automobile when one could not drive it for another decade.
Before I was born, the model car was a hobby enjoyed by many kids. In fact, pre-built models were given as toys by dealerships to promote certain models. They began as cheap metal and merged into plastic. Companies such as AMT, MPC, Revell, Lindberg, ERTL, and Tamiya provided hours of entertainment as one carefully applied toxic clear glue to points where one piece forms a larger form. The chromed pieces were best bits of the model, though every bit was amazing in terms of detail.
There were not enough Testors glue and Krylon spray paint to make me happy in forming a plastic model in white to something I would destroy in a few months.
Remembering the cars I built were simply a journey through the history of the automobile. I remember building a 1970 Buick Riviera, a 1970 Chevrolet Impala Custom coupe, a 1973 Plymouth Satellite Sebring, an AMC Pacer, a Porsche 911 2.7 Carrera…even a mid-1970s Dodge pickup. And, yes, I tried the larger scale models – such as a mid-to-late-1930s Packard V12. That was a huge challenge with wires and intricate detailing. This was one where I asked my brother to help – or, did I? I just remember trying to finish it.
I will admit to not liking the snap-together models by Monogram of the same era. It did not challenge me as much as the glue-together models. However, the snap models made less of a mess. One table in our kitchen had dried up traces of Testors glue on it from my own hasty efforts in building various Chevys, Fords and Dodges. The front porch was not immune to my haste with a few abstract forms made from a spray paint can.
No wonder why I choose writing and photography as my mediums for artistic efforts.
For Hanukkah, mom would get eight of the current model year's models for each night. By the eighth night of Hanukkah, I built an entire Avis rental car fleet for 1973. Not exactly my proudest achievement, but it was worth remembering.
I have not built a model since my youth. Die-cast cars catch my fancy, but I have to admit my disappointment to the level of so-called detail they offer up for a price above plastic one. Decals of badges do not have the same stunning detail as injection-molded forms on a plastic one. The tires were not as detailed. I understand that for a die-cast model to match the detailing of an AMT plastic model form the 1970s would catapult the price into the hundreds of dollars. Still, the collector would want something worth displaying.
Then again, these are merely gifts. Hannukah is merely a holiday of gift giving with spiritual meaning. I am merely being semi-trivial as I have been these past few holiday seasons.
The memory remains, however, as does my spiritual and cultural identity. I am a very spiritual person, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, yet with influences and understandings of many other faiths. Aside from the obvious commercial connotations of the holiday season, I always endeavor to find some sort of spiritual meaning during these times. Whether I find it amid the celebration of lights or in the meaning of Christmas, it is a light that shines even in the darkest of days.
So, celebrate wisely.
Photo by Randy Stern