"Will it hurt?" Harry asked.
"No. You won't feel anything. We numb a small patch of skin on the top of your of scalp with Novocain, and the rest is done under electro-acupuncture anesthesia. It won't hurt. That I can promise." The researcher spoke with the firm timbre of a man trying to end a long stream of questions by adopting a definite tone of voice.
"And your drugs and electrical currents won't change my personality?"
"Not at all. During the experiment, some perceptions and some memories will be altered. That's all. It won't change who you are or affect your driving or your ability to respond to danger . . ." The scientist, Peter Anders, a thin, bespectacled man with uncombed, brown hair, sighed with impatience.
"Will it do anything else?"
"As I said, you may feel a little dizzy when we are in the process of transmitting. I realize how frightening this all must be, but in fact it is a minor and harmless experiment."
"How can I drive if I feel dizzy?'
Anders smiled. "We don't transmit then. Please, Mr. Marsh, give us credit for considering the obvious."
"Will it affect how I do my job?"
"It's possible. You might think you are having a detailed conversation with a coworker, but in actuality you would be saying something like 'yes,' 'maybe,' or 'I have a headache'. Don't worry. We have connections with your employer. I'd bet you'll end up getting a raise."
A technician, a heavy set man with a black beard and a shining scalp, said, "Don't worry, Mr. Marsh. We've done this several times, and no one has been hurt in any way."
Harry, a muscular, bearded young man who looked as if he could hoist the experimenter and carry him up a flight of stairs, snorted at the mention of 'connections.'
"And you have to make me forget the whole thing afterwards."
"That part is essential. People are terrified of what they think is 'mind control'. This department and everything we do must remain classified as top secret."
Harry gnawed his lip and stared at the littler man. "It's just for three days and the funds will be transferred to my account when it is over?"
"Three days, yes, but no transfer of funds. As we told you, the hospital's plastic surgery department will have a convenient tax liability to remove by repairing Anne's scar." He cleared his throat. "They are very good and will leave no trace of the burn. You've already met the surgeon and have checked his qualifications and decided you were satisfied with the arrangement. When this is finished, your daughter will be able to live a normal life. Now, can we proceed?"
"Okay," Harry said, voice low. He picked up the permission slip, and started reading. "I, Harry Marsh, hereby and of my own free will, authorize the United States Government and its agent, Dr. Peter Anders, to perform on me a psychoinvestigative hypno-trance experiment on the nature of empathy..."
Two days later, Harry Marsh, hands in pockets, trudged past piles of dirty slush lining Fifth Avenue. His eyes looked downwards, away from the glittering holiday decorations lining the stores. Snow flurries stuck fine white flakes onto Harry's black hair and beard, making him look gray. A frown and wrinkled brow made him look old.
This depression puzzled him. Under normal circumstances, he was never depressed. He took a deep breath, buttoned his overcoat, and walked on toward his office. An old black woman in a dark green coat passed him, followed by a thin bearded man in a black frock and hat. A blue gray van splashed dirty ice water onto the sidewalk. Nearby, an automobile horn brayed, metal crunched and angry voices yelled. New York was status quo, looking and sounding, except for the holiday decorations, as always. But it felt so alien!
In mid-stride, Harry stopped. Noise reverberated in his head, and the top of his scalp itched. Noises plagued him these past few days, and also dizziness, the world spinning as if his balance were ruined. Did he have a cold? What was wrong? He squeezed his eyes shut. It didn't help.
Harry looked above the street where three-foot high words hung on holiday banners suspended from the lampposts for everyone to see and enjoy. He read the message and scowled. The letters had the curves and lines of Hebrew calligraphy but were English letters nonetheless, spelling out "Happy Hanukkah" to everyone below. The street lamps themselves bore coverings designed to resemble the eternal light of the bygone Holy Temple in Jerusalem. A huge, multicolored dreidle spun in the snow filled breeze. Men dressed as ancient soldiers lieutenants of Judah Macabee rang bells and collected charity from throngs of holiday shoppers. Plastic and painted menorahs in branched traditional styles and modern, imaginative forms filled store windows up and down the avenue.
Most Americans, born and raised as Jews, enjoyed this pageantry, thought Harry, but he, Harry Marsh, didn't. The more he stared at the holiday ornaments, the more his depression grew. These festivities were what irked him, he realized. This extravagant festival, this oppressive and unfair celebration was the cause of his discomfort. Though a minority, one out of every thirty Americans was Christian; here in New York it was one out of ten. Amidst all the Hanukkah hoopla, couldn't the city afford at least an occasional Christmas ornament? The injustice of it rankled. The wrinkles on his forehead deepened.
The dizziness waned when a gust of wind stung Harry's cheeks with a spray of tiny ice crystals, but when he entered his office in the Department of Urban Renewal, the spinning sensation returned. Inside, blue and white crepe paper scalloped along the tops of walls, golden dreidles painted with green Hebrew letters dangling from each loop. Plastic replicas of ancient clay urns stood brimming with candy (instead of olive oil) on everyone's desk, including, Harry noted with annoyance, his own. Six pointed stars, enough to fill the heavens, hung from the ceiling. And, adjacent to Harry's desk stood the inevitable five foot tall electric menorah. Harry clenched his teeth. No one noticed.
Another wave of dizziness hit him, so strong he had to grab a chair to steady himself. A radio blared a chorus of children's voices:
Oh Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah, a time of fun and joy,
A holiday, a jolly day, for every girl and boy.
Next, "The Dreidle Song" filled the room. Harry, overwhelmed by alienation and frustration, covered his ears. It wasn't easy to be Christian in Jewish America.
No further lightheadedness disturbed his work until coffee break, when he joined a half dozen other workers in the small bare lounge. The smell of potato pancakes reheated in a microwave assailed his nostrils. He frowned, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. The noise in his head returned, surrounding him, a wall of invisible cotton isolating him from the rest of the room and the people it in. The office boy, a pudgy young man with pimples and an ink stain on his shirt pocket, came and asked him for a donation. "It's for liquor for the office party tomorrow, before the candles are lit."
"Michael, isn't that inappropriate here?"
"No. Why should it be?"
"This is a government office. Tax dollars pay our salaries. Those tax dollars shouldn't buy parties and decorations. America is supposed to be a secular country. Doesn't all this make Hanukkah a national holiday, and Judaism a national religion?" Harry's voice rose. Michael stepped back, almost tripping on his shoelaces.
"I guess you're right, Mr. Marsh. I never thought of it that way." Michael hurried to another worker, who gave him three dollars. Face rigid, Harry sipped his coffee brewed minutes ago but now tasting bitter.
Back at his desk, the office radio, thank God, was playing elevator music. Elevator music? Well, anything was better than those unceasing holiday songs. A secretary changed the station. A saccharine female voice crooned:
Everyone loves Hanukkah, everyone I know,
Girls and boys and Moms and Dads, all will tell you so.
Harry muttered, "I'm a Dad. I won't tell you so."
See the candles burning bright, in the windowsill,
People always put them there, and they always will."
Harry shuffled his papers but could no longer concentrate. Something is just not right with the world, he thought. For one thing, an old college chum had once told him that Hanukkah was just a minor holiday, not a major Jewish festival. So why was there so much hullabaloo? A thought lingered like a humming bird just beyond the edge of awareness. It was as if . . .
The phone rang, Harry's wife, Betty, on the line. She drew a deep breath before speaking. "Dear, the children so desperate for a Hanukkah menorah this year. Would that be all right just this once?"
Harry's stomach churned. "No, it wouldn't! We're Christians and we're going to stay that way!"
"Harry, we're the only ones on the block without a menorah."
"That's too damn bad!"
"Will the children grow up Christian if all they get for it is deprivation?"
That was a dagger in his heart. Harry slammed down the phone. Even his wife and children were against him. How could he convince them, his own family, that a menorah in their house was assimilation, and assimilation was nothing less than betrayal? The rest of the day was shot, reports read and reread a half dozen times without comprehension.
At three P.M. he left the office for a parent teacher conference at his son's school. Holiday shoppers filled the streets as traffic inched forward with agonizing slowness. Harry clenched his teeth while waiting for hoards of package-laden shoppers to cross the avenue. They look like beasts of burden, he thought, sighing at the pointlessness of it all. When a blue gray van cut in front of him, he cursed with fluency.
In the third grade classroom, dreidles, caricatures of Uncle Judah Macabee the gift giver, and crayon renditions of the Macabees fighting the Assyrians decorated the walls. Mrs. Rosenberg, a fiftyish, obese, woman, was grading papers at her desk. She wore no makeup. Her chaotic gray hair with the suggestion of a part in the middle, looked like a wig. Harry noted with annoyance a large silver Jewish star hanging on top of her massive breasts. She sniffed with the disdain of teachers too long in the classroom and leafed through a pile of children's' papers, handing one to Harry, a paragraph with crude letters beginning, "I like Hanukkah because..."
"John has a good vocabulary, Mr. Marsh. Do you read to him at home?"
"Yes, we do. But why couldn't he write about Christmas instead of Hanukkah, Mrs. Rosenberg? You know he isn't Jewish."
The teacher frowned. "All the children write about Hanukkah. Do you want me to make him conspicuous?"
"Isn't there an alternative? The First Amendment guarantees freedom of and from religion. How can I raise my child in my tradition when the public schools teach him Judaism?"
The teacher's frown deepened. "These decorations aren't religious. They're festive. We don't recite prayers or sing hymns. We celebrate only secular aspects of Hanukkah. Should we deprive other children of their holiday because of your sensitivities?"
A chastened Harry raised no further objections, and left as soon as the conference was over. He didn't want to deprive anyone of their holiday; they could fill their homes with menorahs to the ceiling for all he cared. Just leave religious symbols out of schools and workplace. He didn't want their holiday inflicted on him. Why didn't Mrs. Rosenberg understand?
That night Harry and his family decorated their Christmas tree, a huge tree, almost three feet tall, the biggest Harry could find. Some people said a tree that large was ostentatious, but Harry ignored them. If six foot menorahs were acceptable--and they were--why not his little shrubbery?
As he hung red and silver balls from the branches and draped the tree with fine metallic wool, Harry's heart lightened. The best part was placing the star of Bethlehem on the tip of the tree. He would have liked to decorate the entire house for Christmas but, well, that would without doubt be ostentatious. His son John was more interested in television cartoons than Christmas decorations, but Harry Marsh, smiling, ignored that. "Tomorrow we'll go to church and sing carols, and if we find anyone under the mistletoe, we'll kiss 'em."
His son said, "Yuck!" Harry laughed.
Anne, his ten-year-old daughter, looked over the presents with a calculating eye. "Daddy, other children get gifts for a full eight days. Why doesn't Uncle Judah the gift giver come to our house?"
Harry went to his daughter and ran his fingers over her cheek, over the huge, angry, red scar on her cheek. "Don't do that, Daddy," she said, her eyes without warning filling with tears.
"Honey, it's going to be okay." He smiled, feeling calm for the first time in three days, though he couldn't quite remember why it was going to be okay.
"Well, what about Uncle Judah?"
"We're Christian, darling. We don't believe in Uncle Judah," Harry said with deliberate patience.
"At school today we heard a story about a mean old man named Scrooge who didn't like Hanukkah. Are we Scrooges?"
Harry clenched his fists, determined not to react to his scarred daughter's innocent ignorance. "No dear. We're Christians, not Scrooges. There's a difference."
The children spent the rest of the evening watching television. The first program, a cartoon, told about a bear that refused to hibernate for fear of missing Hanukkah. Next came a puppet story showing Judah Macabee's transition from soldier to gift giver. The final offering was another cartoon that dramatized the colthood of the donkey that brought the oil for the eternal light to the temple. "Inane and fatuous," Harry said. No one answered. "Why do they have this crap on the airwaves anyway." Betty, who hadn't spoken to him since he had hung up on her that afternoon, looked at him with reproach. A depressed Harry sighed his defeat and went to the bedroom to nap and escape the noise. Without warning, a song on the radio woke him:
Joy to the world, the Lord has come,
Let Earth receive her King.
How nice, Harry thought with sarcasm. The networks gave us a Christmas carol, like giving crumbs from the table to a dog. But, to his surprise, the following song was "Silent Night." He turned the dial and heard Christmas carols on all the stations. Harry turned on the nightstand lamp. A wreath hung on the door and holly on the walls. Funny, he hadn't noticed them before. His head felt clear now--no dizziness or noise, and no more feelings of unreality.
He bolted upright. Hanukkah was not the major winter holiday, and Christians were not a minority. How could he have ever thought otherwise? Memories of prior Christmas celebrations flooded into his brain. "I'm awake! Thank God. I must have been dreaming!" He ran into the living room, a forest of green and red holiday baubles dominated by a tree reaching all the way to the ceiling. He stared, wide-eyed, amazed. "This is the way Christmas is supposed to be," he shouted.
Betty looked at him with concern. "Harry, is anything wrong?"
Harry's mouth curled up into a huge, manic smile. He lunged for his wife and swung her around in a fierce bearhug. "Nothing's wrong. Merry Christmas, Honey!"
"Merry Christmas Dear," she said with nervous laughter. "I'm glad you're feeling better. You've been so sullen these past few days."
His son glanced away from a cartoon showing Santa Claus bringing Christmas gifts to Martians. "Dad's flipped," he said and turned back to the television. Harry ran outside, sans jacket in spite of the bitter cold. His neighbor, a thin, white haired widow, wore a little green glass Christmas tree on her frayed gray overcoat. He threw his arms around her. "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Johnson," he said with a kiss.
"Oh, my goodness, Mr. Marsh. Merry Christmas to you, too! Are you all right?"
He ran into the street, forcing the driver of a pickup to swerve, and that of a blue gray van to slam on his brakes. Candy canes and holly and reindeer greeted him. He laughed out loud, wishing everyone a merry, merry Christmas, and receiving like greetings from them all all except for one man with a black frock and a black hat and a black beard with long black earlocks.
Inside that blue-gray van, Doctor Anders turned away from his computer to watch Harry's antics. The technician sitting next to him smiled and asked, "Well, Peter, did it work?"
Anders gnawed his lower lip. "I'm not sure," he said.
The technician laughed. "What's there not to be sure about? You are studying empathy, which you tell me is identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. For three days this slob knew what it was like to be part of a minority--a minority that most people in essence don't care about. That part of the experiment succeeded beyond our expectations. But how long did the understanding last? As soon as the experiment was over, he ran outside and said 'Merry Christmas' to an orthodox Jew."
Anders looked at him and scowled. "I've been working on this project for more than a year. And that damned surgery for his daughter will gut my department's budget."
The technician laughed again. "Don't take it so hard, Doc. You celebrate Christmas, don't you? Let's go get some Christmas cheer."
x x x
A bit controversial, perhaps, but a well-told tale nonetheless. Anotherealm ends another year with this parable of the possible. It made me think--a sure-fire route to publication here. Best wishes to all and happy holidays. -GM