"Uncle Jay? You have a minute?"
I poke my head inside the office, but stand on the threshold. The room intimidates the heck out of me, even after all those years. It's like some kind of museum from the last century, only I know the people in the photos so it's... I can't even explain it. Like something I have to live up to, but can't.
Uncle Jay turns away from the photo collage above the bookcase, smiles, waves for me to enter.
"Of course, Eddie. Always time for my favorite nephew. What can I do for you?"
Chanukah at Uncle Jay's is a huge family tradition, and one of the reasons it's my favorite holiday, Jewish or not. We don't have to dress formal; the food is great- Alex is an amazing cook- and there are only two rules. One, no Manischewitz wine allowed. No, I have no clue why; maybe he's allergic. Two, anyone can say anything while at the table. So big family announcements, especially ones that could start a fight, usually happen at this house, come Chanukah time. That one, I kind of know why; and that's the reason I'm in his office right now- to confirm.
"I, uh..." I freeze up. It's what I do. Anything important needs saying, and my mouth disconnects from the brain like I'm a broken robot in a sci-fi movie. "I have a question," I finally manage.
Uncle Jay points me to a chair- I must look like I'm about to pass out because that's how I feel- but I'm too nervous to sit. I come up and join him at the photos. I've seen them all before, including a laminated newspaper clipping, from decades ago, of Jay and Alex getting arrested at a rally. That picture used to inspire me, but now it's not helping.
"You have to actually ask a question, kid. That's how it works."
"What? Oh." I break out of my trance, enough to take a deep breath and blurt out the words. "Is it true you came out on Chanukah? I mean... uh..."
"I know what you mean, Eddie. Yes, it's true. Mind you, it's one of those stories that got bigger as time went on because of what happened later, but..." He trails off, looking suddenly much younger than his fifty-something years, then comes back to reality, his eyes meeting mine. "You want to tell me why you're really here?"
I look away, but, incredibly, he understands.
"You know what? We got a few minutes. Let me show you something."
Uncle Jay reaches into one of his desk drawers, pulls out an ancient-looking piece of electronics, plugs it in and presses a few buttons.
"Here you go. I was messaging with Alex the whole time, but you get to see only my side. I know it's silly of me to keep it, but... I don't know... never felt right to throw out."
I nod, somewhat shocked, and take the device. The screen is worn, covered in tiny scratches, but the text is clear. I settle into the chair as Uncle Jay quietly leaves the room, and I am now alone with his memories.
Hi, it's Jay. And I might die today.
Did I just speak in rhyme? Yeah, well, shows you how fried my brain is. Sorry about that. Seriously, though, Alex, I want to make it official. If I don't make it, you're getting my music player. I just got complete Three Days Grace collection downloaded. Took forever to find, now that it got banned, but totally worth it. No way I'm letting it go to waste. In fact, I want Chalk Outline played at my funeral.
What? You don't appreciate my sparkling sense of humor? Fi-ine.
Anyhoo, I don't think Dad would literally kill me, but you never know. It's not like there's precedent in the family, that I know of at least. I think my second cousin Pete might be one of us, but he's like thirty-five and I can't exactly come right up to him and ask. Wouldn't be polite, you know?
OK, Mom needs something downstairs. Guests are coming in a few, so I'll keep in touch. Have your phone on; I'll be updating. Wish me luck!
Oh crap, I forgot. They're serving frigging Manischewitz. Why is beyond me. A full liquor cabinet and they're putting out the gross stuff. Somehow they decided it's a Holiday tradition. Oookay. Don't know any holiday that requires drinking crappy wine, but whatever. My problem is, the whole plan to wait till everyone's a little buzzed? Yeah, not happening. As of now, I'll have to give them time to fill up on soup and latkes. Maybe they'll get sleepy. In retrospect, should've done it at Thanksgiving. My timing stinks.
Food looks great, though. The latkes are actually fried. In real oil, if you can believe it. And the brisket- I didn't even know it was still legal, what with the new anti-meat regs and all. Turns out, Mom has a little rebel in her. Too bad it's only when it comes to food. Dang it, I should be enjoying myself right now. Maybe I should just come out and tell right away, get it over with? What do you think?
Alex? You there?
Oh. Sorry. Forgot you're also with family, duh. Take your time.
Yeah, you're right. Let them eat in peace. I guess I should get some food myself, or they'll notice something's up. I'm probably all nervous-looking enough as it is.
You have a good time, though, alright? Appreciate you being there for me and everything, but it's my problem, not yours. Don't ruin your Holiday for my sake.
Oh come ON. I'm doing this because I want to, OK? I'm 18 for crying out loud; it's time. They'll accept it or they won't. Might as well know. Seriously, relax. I'll live. Maybe. KIDDING! Bad sense of humor. That's why you like me, remember? Fine, I'll shut up for now. Time to eat. Last meal and all that. I know, I know, not funny. Later.
WHEW! I told. Wish you were around to see it. So get this... They're finishing up the meal, and Uncle Mike starts talking politics. The poor this, minorities that, the President still farting rainbows--of course. Everyone's nodding, fine, whatever, standard crap. Then he starts on how we should respect the differences and stuff. I'm thinking, it's my chance, right? A little pause in conversation, I clear my throat, as if for a toast. Family loves toasts; it's an Old World thing. So I get everyone's attention... and I tell.
Quiet. For, like, 30 seconds- crickets. Then Grandma, bless her, asks if anyone wants more food, and people start talking again. About food. Like nothing happened. AWKWARD!
I'm in the bathroom right now so I could message you. Probably won't be able to do more till everyone's gone.
Oh and Cousin Pete is definitely one of us. He totally winked at me when no one was looking. How he'd kept it to himself all these years I'll never know, but at least someone would be supportive if things get bad. The rest, we'll see. Just feels great to let it out in the open. Thanks again for being there. You're the best.
Going up to my room with a bunch of cousins. Might be offline a while, so no worries. Don't have TOO much fun without me!
Hey, sorry didn't get to message you last night. Stuff happened. Bad news is, I got in a fight with Seth, one of my older cousins. Stupid. Make it moronic. Couldn't help it. He called me... well, you know. So I said at least I wasn't a loser living in Mom's basement, TOTALLY forgetting he's majorly into martial arts.
Yeah, you're right. Hence the "moronic" above. The best I can say, at least it was over quick.
I'm OK. Sort of. I think he tried to break my arm, but the others pulled him off. Could've been worse.
Alex? Chill. It happens. Comes with the territory. Didn't expect this crap from family, but hey, might as well learn to deal. You have, right?
True. You family's different. Oh well, can't pick 'em. But speaking of good news: maybe because they feel bad I got beat up, but my parents have been quiet so far. Mom gave me the whole "We love you no matter what" spiel. Dad's glaring, but at least no yelling so that's something.
Give me a few. Have to get some ice packs.
NO, I'm not telling you for where. What kind of question is that? Sheesh, Alex, really? So help me, you better not be laughing.
Well, maybe it's a little funny. Still... not a word.
Sorry, got intercepted. Parents wanted to ''talk." What am I, five? I know what I'm getting into. I guess it's good they're worried rather than mad, but these next few months before graduation might get annoying.
Anyway, I know what you want to ask. I'm not a total idiot. Not when it comes to you, at least. No, I didn't tell them about us. Too much, too soon.
If you're OK with it,
Sorry. Brain still fried. What I was going to say, I thought it would be best if they just met you. I'm sure you'll charm their socks off, and maybe it'll make them feel better. What do you think? Would you do that?
YAY! Did I say you're the best?
Of COURSE I'm still in! That's the reason I had to come out this week, remember? Let me pull up the proof on my computer.
Alright, here's what I've got:
GREENVILLE TEA PARTY PRESENTS:
RESOLVE to BE FREE!
A Very Special New Year Celebration
December 31, 2022 @ 8 PM
Friends, Fun, Freedom
and Jay Savitzky
Can I put your cell for RSVP? You sure?
You know, once I post, there's no going back, right? No idea how people would react. Probably get us in all kinds of trouble.
OK, then. Hope you saved enough bail money for both of us.
Love you too, Alex.
I feel vaguely guilty, as if I intruded on something private even though Uncle Jay wanted me to read it. And now I have no choice. There's no way I'm passing up the opportunity - in this house, on Chanukah, now that I know the truth of how the tradition began.
Not just our family tradition, either. My own uncle and aunt had managed to resurrect a whole movement, thought dead and buried back then. It took decades, but so many things are better now because of what they'd started. There's no banning music or books anymore. It's pretty easy to get whatever food you want; even meat is allowed again. True religious Holidays are coming back- you can even put a menorah in the window or have Christmas decorations outside with no problems. Doesn't sound like much, but it's a start. Something for my generation to improve on, anyway.
I know my views can still get me in trouble, and many even in my family will despise me after today. I'm OK with it. I've got good examples to follow. It would be great if at least my parents were accepting, but it's not a given. All I can do is try.
In the dining room, everyone's already seated. I take a chair and meet Uncle Jay's eyes across the long table. He nods, just a little.
I sit quietly through the first toast (with scotch, no less!). Some Old World traditions never go away, that's for sure. I wait till everyone has some food on the plate. Then I stand up, and start talking.
I see Aunt Alex smile at me as she takes Uncle Jay's hand in hers, and I know that no matter what happens tonight, I would be just fine.