On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, and the start of the holiday season, I went over to B & H Photo and Video on 34th Street and 9th Avenue to return some merchandise. The store sells photo and video cameras and equipment, and it’s also a great place to buy computers, TVs and other tech accessories at great prices. The store is owned and operated by Orthodox Jews. After my return transaction was completed, I wished the man behind the counter a Happy Thanksgiving, and a Happy Hanukkah.
“You know it falls on the same day this year—Thanksgivukkah,” the man said.
“Oh yea, that’s right!” I answered.
“Actually, it starts on Wednesday evening.”
“Yes, at sundown. You know, my Aunt Eliza, my grandfather’s sister, converted to Judaism back in the ’60s.”
The man’s eyes lit up. “Oh really?!”
“I know, you can’t tell by looking,” I smiled, referring to my African-American heritage. The man smiled back. “But yea, my Aunt Eliza died and was buried a Jew.”
Anytime one of the Jewish holidays come around, I say a little prayer in memory of my great-aunt, Eliza Reilly. She was one of the sisters of my maternal grandfather, and lived up in the Bronx with her sister, my Aunt Ina. The two of them never married or had children of their own. Back in the day, they would’ve been called a couple of old spinsters.
Aunt Eliza and Aunt Ina argued like cats and dogs. They were of different temperaments. Aunt Eliza was more of a “live and let live” type of person. Aunt Ina was more critical in her ways; everything had to be done in a certain way. Both of them, like the rest of my grandparents’ generation, were Victorian in their approach to children. They were firm believers that “children should be seen and not heard.” In the era of the 60s and 70s with all the social turbulence, and the change in attitudes toward child rearing and the role of women in the family, they were like fish out of water. But it didn’t stop them from taking the grandchildren of their brother for a couple of weeks during the summer, where the highlight would be a bus trip across the Hudson over to the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.
I wonder what my Aunt Eliza would’ve thought of this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of the first day of Hanukkah with Thanksgiving Day. Here in New York City, it’s been a huge deal, with the local news is featuring special recipes and tasting restaurant dishes who have their own special take on dishes like sweet potato latkes and pumpkin pie-filled donuts.
Now I have to admit that my Aunt Eliza was not the best cook in the world. As a kid, she invited my grandfather to bring us kids over to her house for a Passover Seder. The ceremony was lovely; but extreme caution had to be taken with the food. The turkey she roasted was bone dry, and served without gravy. The pound cake she made for dessert was drier still. You were liable to choke if you didn’t wash it down with some milk. We smiled politely and endured the meal. It became one of the high points in our life with Aunt Eliza.
The importance of the occasion was not lost on us kids. We had been bused out to an all-white school in Flushing that had a sizeable Jewish population. Once a week, this group would leave early in order to attend Jewish lessons. My older sister, my oldest cousin and I were members of the St. Albans Children’s Chorus, and we had a Jewish song in our repertoire. Aunt Eliza’s Passover Seder was an opportunity to give her brother’s grandchildren a living lesson about her chosen faith. It was also an occasion to bring the family together. Her brother and sister-in-law, my grandparents, were the ones who gathered the family together during the holidays. When relatives came up from St. Croix, their visit was not complete without a stop to our home.
I’m not sure if my Aunt Eliza was influenced by the conversion of famed singer/actor Sammy Davis Jr.’s of the time. I don’t know if she, like many black people during the era of civil rights, had wondered about her unquestioned belief in Christianity, a religion that was used to justify the enslavement of African people. What I do know is that a religious conversion in that era could cause such a family controversy that the person could cast out or disowned. Especially in a family like my grandparents, who grew up in St. Croix as members of the Moravian Church, and brought their faith with them to New York. Every time we went to service, we would meet Cousin this, Aunt that, Uncle somebody else. It was like the entire church was made up of family.
While Aunt Eliza caused an uproar when she came to our house and announced that she would become a Jew, it was more important to my grandparents that the family stay together. Later on in the 1980s, my family would change our faith from Christianity to Islam. My grandparents didn’t flinch. Aunt Eliza had already converted to another faith, so for them, our conversion was old hat. But Thanksgiving would be the one occasion where everyone made it a point to come together. It was a non-religious holiday, and one, most importantly, where just about everyone had the day off. I would like to think that, if Aunt Eliza was alive today, that she would’ve relished the chance to bring the family together to celebrate both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving at the same time. This story from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly expresses the sentiment that I think Aunt Eliza would have felt: http://to.pbs.org/1idFUOd.
The last time I saw my Aunt Eliza was in October 1985 at the funeral for my grandfather, her brother, Eugene Reilly. My grandmother, Aramintha Jackson Reilly, had passed away just months earlier in July, but Aunt Eliza was too sick to attend. In fact, they kept the news from her until my grandfather had passed, and then they broke the news to her that the both of them were gone. When I arrived at the Moravian Church, she was sitting in her wheelchair, tears streaming down her face as she sang a Jewish song of mourning. Aunt Ina tried to shush her, saying, “Nobody wants to hear you singing that!”
I couldn’t tell my Aunt Ina that her sister’s mournful wail reminded me of the time when I was a kid in an all-black chorus, where we sang a Jewish song that would bring people to tears. After all, I was still a child, in her eyes, still supposed to be seen and not heard. So I just smiled at my Aunt Eliza, then bent down to give her a kiss and a hug, hoping it would bring her some comfort. I was still a practicing Muslim at the time, and wore a hijab.
Aunt Eliza stroked my head covering, pointed between the two of us, and said, “You know, we’re not that far away, me and you,” referring to my Islam and her Judaism.
“Yes,” I nodded. And, just as I had done with my grandparents, I placed my one-year-old son, Kintu, in her lap. That April, I had gone over to visit Moyee and Pa, my mother’s parents, and my Grandma Marie, my father’s mother, to give the blessing of the elders to my firstborn child. By that October, all my grandparents were gone. My maternal grandmother passed that July, my father’s mother in August, and my maternal grandfather in October. Aunt Eliza was always one of my favorite aunts, and I was not going to let this occasion pass without the opportunity for her to see my son. My Aunt Ina, still ever critical, did not think my grandfather’s funeral was the place for a child, especially when he began to fidget and make noise. As usual, my Aunt Eliza admonished her; and I knew my grandparents were smiling from above. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
Aunt Eliza passed away in January 1986. Died and buried a Jew. At the United Moravian Church in East Harlem, her name was added to the wall of members who passed on, along with the names of my grandparents.