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Majority Rites

Can an American Jew tolerate the yearly Chicago tradition that is the Goodman's A Christmas Carol?




Goodman Theatre

It's hard to be an American Jew at Christmastime. However marginal you feel the rest of the year, you're negated entirely between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, when the whole culture seems to go on this bizarrely good-natured psychic pogrom against you. There are Christmas trees in the public plazas, elves on TV, and human interest stories about amputee orphans in the papers. Your neighborhood block club invites you to stuff Christmas baskets for the poor. Your newspaper deliveryman sends you his warmest greetings. Holly jolly waitresses ask your kid what he wants from Santa, and you see him flinch and whisper, "Nothing. I'm Jewish"—just the way you remember doing at his age. Truly, to be an American Jew at Christmastime is to get a taste of what it must be like to be an African-American all year long.

Of course, you develop your methods for dealing with it. I rant a lot: composing angry letters in my head, talking back to TV commercials. That helps soften the insults.

But not everything about Christmas is insulting. On the contrary, some of it's downright appealing—even to a ranting Jew like me. What do you do when the yuletide negation shows up in a form you honestly enjoy? What do you do when the holiday cossacks turn out to be fun guys?

Take the annual Goodman Theatre production of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, for instance. I honestly enjoy it. I've brought my oldest son to see it with me the last three years in a row—and I'll probably bring my younger son, too, when he's big enough. Still, there can't be many events more intimately identified with Christmas in Chicago. The problem for me, then, consists in reconciling this particular pleasure with my overall disgust. I rationalize it by telling myself that, despite its trappings, A Christmas Carol isn't actually a Christmas story at all.

This is easier than it sounds. A Christmas Carol isn't about the baby Jesus, after all. It's about human interrelatedness, and how oppression may finally oppress the oppressor as much as the oppressed. It records old Ebenezer Scrooge's pain and delight as he rediscovers that interrelatedness after long years of selfishly—and self-destructively—denying it. The fact that Scrooge's epiphany occurs in Christian terms on a Christmas Eve is nothing more than cultural happenstance. It could as easily happen to a Jew on Yom Kippur. Or to a Communist on May Day, for that matter—imagine Scrooge as a crabbed old commissar who learns the true meaning of dialectical materialism after visits from three ghostly comrades.

That's what I tell myself, and it works pretty well. Watching the show this year, I noticed how thoroughly comfortable I feel with it; how attuned I've become to certain nuances—not just of the story, but of what is by now a half-ceremonial Goodman production of it. Though this year's version features a new adaptation by Tom Creamer, the variations are negligible and you can still count on visiting all the landmarks.

Personally, I found myself savoring little things like John Mohrlein's crazy, happy, Harpo-like dancing during a party sequence. Or like the horrific appearance of Want and Ignorance from under the robes of Ernest Perry Jr.'s dying ghost of Christmas Present. Or like the great, long, almost jazzy laugh William J. Norris's Scrooge laughs when he's finally broken free of his psychic chains. Steve Pickering has taken over the role of Scrooge's old, dead partner, Jacob Marley, this time around—giving it a combination of earthiness and Dantesque terror that definitely establishes it as something to savor next year.

It's all such a pleasure, and I feel a share in it—an interrelatedness, you might say—right up to the curtain call, when the cast sings a Christmas carol to the audience and I'm brought up short: Reminded that I'm a Jew in Christmastime America after all; and that none of this is really for me or my children; and that Tiny Tim's "God bless us, every one" isn't quite as comprehensive as it seems. Then, at last, I feel a little ashamed at having forgotten myself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Leonard.

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