Category Archives: Digressions

Christmas Series Part 2: Hanukkah

Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 was about how Jesus is also the Messiah in Islam. Part 2 is about Hanukkah.

My wife is Moroccan and from a Muslim family. I am from the U.S. and not from a Muslim household, so people often assume that religion would be a barrier in our relationship and in raising our children. But quite the contrary. What I always explain is that I was raised in a mixed household and community. My father was born in New York, the son of Italian immigrants and had a very strict Jesuit education, attending mass almost every day of his adolescence. He grew up in a very small apartment in the Bronx and was surrounded by the brown people of his generation: Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Irish and African Americans. Meanwhile, my mother grew up a more middle class suburban lifestyle. Although her mother was a first generation immigrant, my grandmother’s parents were Swiss and integration was much smoother for them. She was a quintessential WASP, and my father was not. When they married, my father’s closest friend would not attend his wedding because it wasn’t in a Catholic ceremony, and at least as legend has it, my father was not the ideal son-in-law.

I grew up in a non-denominational and secular Christian household in a Washington, DC suburb. Most of my friends were Jewish. In fact I have seen more of the inside of a Jewish temple than a church, having spent every weekend at thirteen shuffling from bar mitzvah to bar mitzvah. When I was little, about the same age as my seven year old is today, I thought of people, not as Jewish or Christian, but as Hanukkah or Christmas. When you drove through my neighborhood, you could tell the two apart from how their houses were decorated in December. Christians had Christmas lights, and Jews had candles in the windows. I was always assessing whether it would be better to be Christmas or Hanukkah by counting the number of presents I got on Christmas morning to see if I had more than the eight my Hanukkah friends got. Plus, I loved potato latkes. My jealousy of my best childhood friend had no limits due to his father being Hanukkah and mother Christmas. He got both.

So what does this have to do with Christmas 2017? A few weeks back, my eldest son was pestering me about whether Santa Claus was real. I mean, he said, it just doesn’t make sense that Santa could deliver all of those presents to all the kids around the world in just one night. Good point, but: (1) there is a seven hour time difference between Madrid and our cousins in Texas, so he could make it; (2) not all kids are good every year; and (3) not all families celebrate Christmas. I then explained more or less the story of the birth of Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews in the time of the Romans. That Spaniards celebrate the three wise men or Reyes Magos, and that in Morocco where mommy is from, even though they believe that baby Jesus was the newborn king, they don’t celebrate Christmas. And finally, I explained that when I was growing up many of my friends were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah, where they lit a candle every night for eight nights and for each night they got a present.

The look on my son’s face was the exact same look I had at his age. You could see conversion in his eyes. He was doing the math.

A few days later I announced to my wife that I wanted to get a menorah and have the family celebrate Hanukkah as well. We’d light candles each night and say a prayer. No, I am definitely not a religious person or even a believer, but how can you not be infected by the Hanukkah spirit when you see these tweets from my childhood classmate Leslie?

Tonight we celebrate the opportunity to remember the light of knowledge and understanding between neighbors. #Chanukah2017 pic.twitter.com/VY4t7x7ksJ

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 14, 2017

On Chanukah, we get together to fill our home with light; we also raise our voice in song to push away the night. Songs of joy and gratitude for living proud and free, songs that make all singers into one big family. pic.twitter.com/M1gxrgaRIr

— Leslie Flaum Genna (@LeslieAlane) December 18, 2017

The first issue I saw was where to find a menorah in Spain on such short notice, unless I went somewhere like Toledo or Cordoba where they sold fancy menorahs for Jewish American tourists. But reality set in when I proposed the idea to my wife. She suggested me that maybe I was going a little overboard. We had a Christmas tree that I put up on November 24th. We had stockings, lights, mistletoe, an advent calendar filled with chocolates, Christmas music was playing non-stop in the house, a failed gingerbread house, and I had already been cooking all of my family recipes from eggplant parmesan, meatballs, turkey stuffing, peanut butter cookies, and was constantly serving Moroccan tea.

I think she is right. At least for this year. Next year we can drop the gingerbread house and substitute it with a Menorah.

Shalom, Salam and Peace on Earth!

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Filed under Digressions, Living la vida española, Married to a Moroccan, Parenthood

The Novel I Have Not Yet Written

Tonight my daughter was crying a bit more than usual when I put her to bed. She hadn’t finished her dinner, so I decided to take her out of her crib and give her a bottle while the lights were still off. In the dark, I looked up to see the large framed Billie Holiday poster on the wall (maybe not the most common decor for a child’s room). And with that I began to sing, “Someday we’ll meet / And you’ll dry all my tears / Then whisper sweet little things in my ears . . .”

Then my mind traveled to a novel I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, one I would call “The Afternoon Sun” based on the following lines from the Cavafy poem of the same name:

One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only . . . And then-
that week became forever.

Sometimes I know the basic facts of the story, sometimes how it will begin and how it will end. I just haven’t figured out how to fill in the narrative.

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Twenty Years

I dug up this old photo from twenty years ago. It’s of the same view that Mr. Trump would have had at his inauguration this January as he looked over the Washington DC Mall from the Capitol. Every time I’d read about the crowd size controversy, I’d think about that photo from a time when I was still living in my hometown.

Twenty years ago it was 1997. The English Patient had just won the Oscars, and Titanic was out in theaters. Notorious B.I.G., whose songs “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” were hits that year, had just been murdered. And it was the year that Mother Theresa and Princess Di would die.

I was finishing my second and entering my third year of law school. Bill Clinton was a few years older than I am now, and Monica Lewinsky was a few years younger than I was then. In a matter of months scandal would break.

Twenty years ago, a president had to lie about smoking pot and about consensual sex with an intern, long before a president could openly say inhaling was the point or another one could brag about being able to grab a woman by her private parts without her consent.

Twenty years ago, Donald Trump was getting ready for his second divorce and was about to “move on” Melania. The Twin Towers were still standing in Lower Manhattan and no one had heard of Bin Laden. George W. Bush was not yet president and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were alive under a local dictator had not yet lost their lives to an American democracy. It would be a decade before the U.S. had its first black president or female presidential nominee.

In 1997, I was a few years away from my first cellphone, Apple still hadn’t made its comeback, and I got my email from AOL on a

desktop computer with a firm “you’ve got mail”. I made mix tapes, was building my CD collection, and apparently dedicated a lot of time to my hair.

Later that year, the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack was released, with its stellar roster of vintage Cuban musicians, including the great Omara Portuando singing:

Si las cosas que uno quiere
Se pudieran alcanzar
Tú me quisieras lo mismo
Que veinte años atrás

[If the things that we wished for
Were ever attainable
Then you would love me the same
As you did 20 years ago]

Twenty years ago, I had no idea where and to whom my life would take me. Twenty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I wake up in the middle of the night to someone crying in the next room. I look at my wife sleeping next to me. I walk past my baby girl breathing softly, past my middle child snoring, to my eldest who’s calling for Daddy, and Daddy is me. A wife and three kids. A family. People I didn’t know or who didn’t exit twenty years ago. Who would have thought all this was possible in just twenty years and at such a young age?

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The End of Innocence

My six year son is having regular, recurring nightmares. Even before he falls asleep, he tells me that he is scared because he doesn’t want to have “bad dreams”. Normally when I ask, he says he doesn’t remember them, but yesterday morning he snuggled next to me on the sofa and said, “Daddy, I know what my bad dreams are about. War.”

It all started last month when his class began studying Picasso’s Guernica. He was fascinated about the painting, especially because his book on Picasso said the painting was bigger than a soccer goal (and my son is obsessed with soccer). But one night before going to bed, he asked me why planes were bombing the town of Guernica and what happened to the people when they were bombed, especially the kids his age. I did my best to say that the war happened a long time ago.

He then said, “Daddy, what was World War II?” which he only knew about because according to his book it is when Picasso lived in Paris. I told him that it was a war that happened mainly in Europe a long time ago. When he asked if Grandpa was alive then, I explained that his great grandmother (who is still alive today) had two brothers who fought in the war and that one of them was awarded the special Purple Heart medal.

My great uncles were first generation Italian Americans, who like many first generation immigrants were the first to be drafted and sent to war. I didn’t get into details, but here is an extract from a short piece about the one who was wounded (not the one in the photo):

In 1942, as a very young man, Ralph was drafted into the U.S. Army 441st Auto-motored Weapons Co. His first time out of the Metro New York area was for Basic Training at Camp Stewart, Georgia. From Georgia, his world travels began in earnest with his unit being deployed to Africa. Ralph and his army unit then became part of the Allied Forces that invaded southern Italy in 1943. Ralph became a member of the four-man team half-track crew, which housed a twin 50 caliber machine gun. Ralph’s unit then moved from Sicily to Anzio, where they joined Patton’s 5th Army.

As the 5th Army proceeded next to Rome, Ralph was very seriously wounded and left on the battlefield for dead. By some stroke of very good fortune, Ralph’s cousin happened upon him and carried him to the medic station. From there, he was taken to a hospital in Naples for the start of his treatment. Ralph Perrotta was awarded a Purple Heart, during his stay at the Naples hospital. He was enrolled in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in recognition of exceptional sacrifice in defense of the U.S.

My son then wanted me to confirm that the war was a long time ago and that there were no longer wars or bombings. I told him honestly, yet gently that there are still some wars in the world, in particular one in Syria. He then asked if in Syria they bombed at night time and where the kids would go during the bombing.

I lied and said that the children were safe and that Syria was far away. But Syria is not far away, the kids are not safe, no one is safe, and no one can say that wars like the brutal civil war in Spain or the world war shortly thereafter won’t threaten my children in their lifetime. Certainly I cannot imagine what it was like for my uncles to be sent off to Italy to fight in a war, ironically they didn’t believe in (at the time many Americans, especially anti-communists like my great-grandfather, were very much against U.S. intervention in Europe).

Maybe it’s the man we now have in the White House, his utter disregard for the world order and all décor, the fact that on the other side of the Mediterranean, a horrendous war continues and that when a fire spreads, there is likely nowhere to hide – but I feel like I am losing the fatherly innocence that the world will be safe for my children. If my child is terrified by the 80 year old painting of a war, I cannot begin to imagine the life of a Syrian child or parent today.

* * *

A few weeks later, my sister and niece came to visit us in Madrid, and my son was very excited to go the Reina Sofa Museum with them to see the Guernica. “Daddy, it’s bigger than a soccer goal!” But when we were just turning the corner into the large room that holds the painting, my son began to cry and say that he was too scared to see it. After fifteen minutes of back and forth, I finally convinced him to take a look. He loved the painting, especially its size. It’s funny because I never thought much of the Guernica, but it is a real testament to Picasso’s art that 80 years later, his painting – which was intended to depict the horrors of war – can have such a profound impact on a child.

About the same time, Audi premiered its Super Bowl commercial about how girls face greater challenges than boys. I have two boys and a newborn baby girl. Until that commercial – even though I considered myself very conscious of the disparate treatment of women in society, I had never given a thought to the fact that the little girl before me would face a different reality to that of my sons. Who said art no longer has an impact?

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#ParisILoveYou

ParisIloveYou

Paris holds a special place in my heart. It was in Paris that I met my wife and in Paris that we were married on a sunny day beneath the red, white and blue French flag.

For three years I commuted between Madrid and Paris to be with the woman I love, and during 2010 while my wife was pregnant with our first son, I made 27 trips alone to the city to be with her. And we still travel frequently to Paris to visit friends and family.

The three cities I feel closest to are Washington, DC (my home town), Madrid (where I have called home for the past 15 years) and Paris. All three have suffered terrorist attacks since 2001. After the attack on the Pentagon in DC in 2001, my immediate sense was of doom, anticipating that my country would take drastic measures and that the world would forever be changed for the worse. I was in Madrid on the morning of March 11, 2004 during the Atocha train bombings and was (and continue to be) amazed by how the Spanish reacted calmly, without panic and without the thirst for revenge. Now today after the Paris attacks, I am left with only profound sadness. There are some many things I love about Paris, about France and its multiculturalism (which I generally see succeeding in ways it doesn’t always do in America), and my heart breaks.

No one has the right to take the lives of others, and certainly no murderous, sociopath terrorist has the right to speak on behalf of anyone other than himself or to invoke the name of a god he certainly does not share with a billion other people around the globe or with my children who are citizens of the great nation of France.

Thankfully our family and friends in Paris were unharmed, yet we know others – including friends of our friends — were not so fortunate.

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Musée Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne et Contemporain

musee-Mohammed-VI-2

Yesterday we went to the (relatively new) Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat, Morocco.

All of the artists displayed are Moroccan and there is plenty to enjoy.

Lalla Essaydi (converging terr)

My personal favorites were the above painting by Lalla Essaydi and La Foule by Amine Demnati.

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Give Me One More Thanksgiving Holiday

Charlie and EvelynEvery year since I started this blog, at this time of year I always eagerly write about how excited I am with the coming Christmas season. And today being Black Friday, I can now officially start playing my Christmas favorites and decorating the house.

And as much as I love Christmas, I think that if I had one wish. If I could ask for anything in the world. There is nothing that I would want more than to take my wife and son along with, say 30 years back, to spend just one Thanksgiving holiday with my grandparents just like I did as a child.

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