A Haskell Christmas
December 25, 1967 (This exclusive entry from Haskell’s Journal, dated 12/25/67, is only available in this blog. If you’d like to read Haskell Himself, it will be available wherever books are sold beginning January 19, 2020.)
Last year on Christmas Day, Mom closed an escrow in the morning, met with a client in the afternoon, and then we planned the usual: a film in the Village followed by Chinese food in Chelsea.
I wanted to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It had just opened.
No, no, no, no. She wanted to see Mr. Blanding Builds his Dream House and The Apartment, a double feature in Midtown at the Little Carnegie Theatre.
I know I’m hard on her, but in retrospect my mom can’t do anything that doesn’t involve real estate. When we’d go to out to eat, she’d inevitably hand her business card out to the couple sitting next to us and tout some new apartment project going up on the West Side.
I wished that someday we’d get invited to a big gentile Christmas party with a big tree and lights and music and a honey baked spiral-cut ham. Maybe Ella Fitzgerald would sing “Jingle Bells,” and in the best of all possible worlds, she would even ask me to accompany her on the piano. It’s now a year later, 1967, and my wish sort of came true today.
I know it’s hard to believe. Mom’s in Antwerp for a full year with her boyfriend, Old Bob. I’m finishing my senior year at Encino High, living with my aunt, my uncle and cousin Hope here in the Valley, and we’ve been invited to Uncle Ted’s Christmas party at his boss’s house – The Nussbaums – in Beverly Hills.
I’m thinking of not going. I am recovering from a punch in the nose, and I don’t want people staring at me.
My aunt rolls her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. You sure you don’t want to join us? You are only a little black and blue under the eyes.”
Aunt Sheila smiles, takes me by the hand, and sits me down in her bathroom on the cushioned divan. She puts on her glasses, rolls up her sleeves, and then pulls out a tube of something and proceeds to apply some “concealer” to the spaces below my eyes, around my nose, and on my cheeks. “There! Now no one will be able to tell that you had surgery only weeks ago. You should join us!”
I take a look at my reflection in the small silver hand mirror she hands me. That stuff is amazing! “Do you think Ella will be there?” I ask.
Ted’s boss knows everyone.
“You never know who might show up.”
We arrive several hours into the celebration. After wandering the estate and checking out the steam room and the heated indoor pool and billiards parlor, I end up going back into the living room.
I gasp as my heart beat faster. The most beautiful creature in the world is staring at me, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.
A Bosendorfer all decked out in Christmas clothes. The piano legs wear red and green socks. A giant stuffed elf dressed in a kimono leans across the shiny brown lid, her legs dangling, her mouth wide open as if she were about to sing “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly.
To some, she isn't as sexy as a Steinway, but for me -- the Bosendorfer is the bombshell of the party, all dressed up and ready to be played.
“Sit, sit. Play something,” Mrs. Nussbaum beckons. She is old enough to be my grandmother, yet she dresses as if she were 19 in a sparkly red and green mini-skirt, wearing a diamond tiara in her grey hair. “Your aunt said you can play anything. Play!”
I smile to myself as I ease onto the same bench where Victor Borge or Liberace might have sat weeks earlier. I let myself go, allowing my fingers to run freely across the perfect keys as I nod my head up and down. I lose myself as I perform “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Just as I am about to play “How Long Has This Been Going On?", I feel this hand on my shoulder, which startles me at first, bringing me back to the room and the party. “Can I join you?”
I turn my head and look up. It is not Ella.
“I’m Cantor Nussbaum, Gertie’s brother, from Wilshire Boulevard Temple.”
An older brother, I suspect, with a full beard and a yarmulke. He wears green golf pants and a red buffalo plaid shirt. His pair of sneakers have little reindeer antlers strapped onto the laces.
Who dresses these people?
“Mind if I sing along?” he asks. “Do you know some Christmas tunes?” Turns out he has this gorgeous tenor voice. He joins in as I play “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow,” “Santa Baby,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire,” “Silver Bells,” and finally “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
I ask him how he knows such a broad repertoire of Christmas songs, being, well, a cantor and all.
He takes a deep long breath. “All written by Jews. Everyone you played.” He lifts himself off the seat with a big Oy! “And these songs are not about Jesus. They’re about sleigh bells and Santa and the trappings of Christmas. Many are written by immigrants. They’re a kind of national celebration of being Jewish and assimilating into America life. I embrace this music.”
“Me too,” I tell him.
I ask him if he wants me to do an encore, like maybe an Avinu Malkeinu or something from Fiddler on the Roof. “Or hey,” I say enthusiastically, “I can play the entire set of songs from The Best of the Barry Sisters!”
He pats me on the same shoulder and says, “Sometimes it’s not so good to know so much.” Then he leaves me – stunned – without an encore or a thank you. He simply fades back into the party as he strolls over to the buffet table.
On the drive back from the party, I feel so embarrassed. What is wrong with me? Am I too, too full of myself? Should I not reveal certain parts of me to other people? Do I wear not just my heart but my soul on my sleeve?
Why would he say something like that?
I don’t have an answer, but I’m putting this on my To Do list for tomorrow: Ask my friends for the truth. Am I too much?