Crossing holiday boundaries with huffy neighbors

Many of the weekly stories we share on our Friendship And Faith website are new—and we encourage women to send us new stories about cross-cultural friendships. You can learn more about that at the end of today’s story—or you can click on the “How to share your story” link at right.

Sometimes, we share a chapter from our book. For the Christmas holiday, we’re sharing a story written by Elaine Greenberg, an active member of her Jewish community—and also a professional musician, cancer survivor and activist for greater compassion in health care. It may seem odd to hear from a Jewish writer at Christmas, but that’s the kind of daring cross-cultural reflections we encourage. Sometimes our most important experiences with neighbors come in packages we might never expect to unwrap!


When I was a young girl, Hanukkah was not a big holiday, and gift-giving was not what it is today, so our family—my uncles, aunts, grandmother—put our names in a container, and everyone picked out one name and that was the person they were to buy a gift for. My Uncle Hy had my name one year and bought the complete score (on 78 records) of Walt Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. I still have that album. When my children were small, my family still wasn’t making a big deal about Hanukah, but one year we decided to give the children eight gifts—one for each night of the holiday. I tried to be very clever, and on the last night, each one of our children—ages 4 to 10 (well, maybe not the 4-year-old)—got a key to the house. They thought that was fabulous! How times have changed!

But my favorite story of all is from the earlier years of my life. This goes all the way back to 1944, when I was just about to turn 9 years old and my mother and father finally saved enough money to buy us our very own home. Such excitement! The house was everything my parents could have asked for, with the exception of the outer color of the house, which was dark red, almost brown, and the ceiling in the kitchen, which was a blinding, bright red.

We had a fireplace, although it wasn’t lit too terribly often. To my father’s delight, we even had a screened-in porch that ran the entire width of the house. My father spent many a hot summer night sleeping on that porch and, since there was no such thing as air conditioning, we all spent many summer days and nights on that front porch. In the corner of the kitchen, there was a small shelf about chest-high that served as a telephone shelf. On the white walls surrounding that telephone shelf were a ton of telephone numbers. You see, my father would call Information (no charge in those days) and didn’t have paper readily available, so he wrote the numbers on the kitchen walls. I do believe, when we sold that house, the numbers were still on the walls.

On one side of this house, we had what was called a four-flat where four separate families lived. But on the other side of our house, there was a single-family dwelling that was somewhat smaller than ours. The husband and wife who lived there were Frank and Marie Honel. Unfortunately, our first encounter with the Honels was not a pleasant one. It involved a lamp that had come with our new home—one of those things the previous owners had left behind.

When Mrs. Honel paid us her very first visit, we found out that she and her husband had come from Germany in 1938. When we moved into our home in 1944, the war was still going on in Europe, so here we had a Jewish family and a German family living next door to each other. In itself, this could have caused problems.

But the lamp touched off the conflict. Mrs. Honel came to visit us because she insisted that the previous owners were aware of her affection for this particular lamp—and had promised that it would be given to her in the transition. When the lamp never made it to Mrs. Honel’s house, she apparently decided she would come over and claim it from the home’s new occupants. My mother knew nothing about this supposed arrangement. In fact, she rather liked that lamp. You can imagine the altercation that followed! It ended with our neighbor walking out of our house in a huff, mumbling something about “Jews.” We didn’t speak to them for quite a while. I don’t know how long.

But, eventually, a kind of peace settled in between the two families. When our neighbors emigrated from Germany, they brought with them a household full of furniture. Their house was cozy and comfortable with antiques and all kinds of other interesting stuff they brought with them from their homeland. Among their belongings were beautiful Christmas decorations, including heirloom tree ornaments that they used every year.

Mr. and Mrs. Honel had no children. As I recall it, Mrs. Honel seemed almost reluctant one winter when she surprised me by asking if I would like to trim their Christmas tree with them. Their ornaments were beautiful, and I wanted to help. I had to ask for my parents’ permission, of course. They were Orthodox Jews, but my mother still gave her permission. And we hit it off! From then on, the Honel tree wasn’t trimmed until “their girl”—and that was me—was there to help them.

How well I remember those figures under their tree that depicted the birth of Jesus. Of course, I didn’t know that one day I would visit Israel and, as part of my trip, I would visit Bethlehem and see where Jesus was born. We even exchanged gifts. The Honels got Christmas gifts from us. We got Hanukah gifts from them.

I treasure those memories of sitting in their home, a young girl sharing with this elderly couple. In their wonderful kitchen, I would talk with Mrs. Honel as I helped her bake goodies in an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.

Why do I cherish this memory? Because of the love I felt in that connection with the Honels—and the forgiveness that allowed us finally to cross over all that had separated us and finally share that love.

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