Having Returned to the Religion of His Ancestors, a Former Hidden Jew Remembers Christmases Past

Dec. 24 2018

Around the time of Thomas Balazs’s confirmation into the Lutheran church, his father sat him down and explained that he and Thomas’s mother had been born and raised as Jews, survived the Holocaust in Hungary, and converted to Christianity upon their marriage to spare their children the danger and indignity of growing up Jewish. Thomas returned to Judaism in the fifth decade of his life. But it was several years later—ice-skating with his own son to the sound of Christmas carols the day before Thanksgiving—that he first found himself missing the Gentile holiday of his youth:

Until that moment, the first ten years without Christmas had been surprisingly easy for me. . . . So it was odd when I found myself singing [“Jingle Bell Rock”] along with Bobby Helms as [my son] and I skated around the rink. . . . [But] I don’t have any Jewish memories to compete with [my fondest memories of childhood Christmases] because, of course, I wasn’t raised Jewish, didn’t even know I was a Jew until I was thirteen. But then again, I do have at least one kind of Jewish memory of Christmas in the ’70s. . . .

I wanted something special for my mom. Our neighbors were having a garage sale, and there was this blue ceramic vase shaped like a fish that I thought was pretty cool. It only cost 50 cents, so I got it for my mom, and she kept it with our other tchotchkes for the next 40 years or so. But when I bragged to one of [my older brother’s] friends that I had bought this vase for my mother at the garage sale, his response was, “You bought your mother a present at a garage sale? What, are you a Jew?” I was, but I didn’t know it yet. It’s always been a bit of a mixed-up holiday for me, I guess. . . .

If it’s true, as some say, that one can never stop being a Jew, it’s also true that you can never quite shake off Christmas once it has worked its way into your system; it’s cultural DNA. In my case, it’s also a by-product of growing up in a traumatized Jewish household of modern-day Marranos. It’s the result of living as a Christian for four decades. And it’s a consequence of there being some really great Christmas songs.

Did I mention my boy’s name is Judah? There are lots of reasons we chose that name. One was so he would have a moniker that both his American and Israeli cousins could pronounce (as opposed to, say, Yitzḥak). . . . A bigger reason, though, for me at least, was that it was based on the name Judah—that is, from the tribe of Judah—that the people once known as Hebrews and Israelites came to be called “Jews.” Unlike me, my son will always know he was a Jew. He can’t help it. The word is built into his name. His name is the foundation of the word.

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More about: Christmas, Holocaust, Judaism, Marranos, Religion & Holidays

 

The Syrian Civil War May Be Coming to an End, but Three New Wars Are Rising There

March 26 2019

With both Islamic State and the major insurgent forces largely defeated, Syria now stands divided into three parts. Some 60 percent of the country, in the west and south, is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. Another 30 percent, in the northeast, is in the hands of the mostly Kurdish, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The final 10 percent, in the northwest, is held by Sunni jihadists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, under Turkish protection. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, the situation is far from stable. Kurds, likely linked to the SDF, have been waging an insurgency in the Turkish areas, and that’s only one of the problems:

The U.S.- and SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates is also witnessing the stirrings of internal insurgency directed from outside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “236 [SDF] fighters, civilians, oil workers, and officials” have been killed since August 2018 in incidents unrelated to the frontline conflict against Islamic State. . . . The SDF blames Turkey for these actions, and for earlier killings such as that of a prominent local Kurdish official. . . . There are other plausible suspects within Syria, however, including the Assad regime (or its Iranian allies) or Islamic State, all of which are enemies of the U.S.-supported Kurds.

The area controlled by the regime is by far the most secure of Syria’s three separate regions. [But, for instance, in] the restive Daraa province in the southwest, [there has been] a renewed small-scale insurgency against the Assad regime. . . .

As Islamic State’s caliphate disappears from Syria’s map, the country is settling into a twilight reality of de-facto division, in which a variety of low-burning insurgencies continue to claim lives. Open warfare in Syria is largely over. Peace, however, will remain a distant hope.

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More about: ISIS, Kurds, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, Turkey