God Rest Ye, Murray Hendelman
My Christmas gift to you.
It was really my fault for inviting Carl Anderson onto the committee. We would have been so much better off if I had asked instead the church janitor. Or a mop. But we were caught short. Our music director, a quiet young man named Fred Swensen, had been summarily dismissed just before Thanksgiving. The board gave no reason why, though there were rumors that young Mr. Swensen had been caught in a compromising position in a men’s lavatory down in the Warehouse District. Nevertheless, St. Brigit Lutheran Church had gone caroling through the streets of North Minneapolis for over forty years—which had always been organized by the music director—and I foolishly thought I could be the one to save Christmas that year.
I thought I had all the right pieces in place for the ad hoc committee—the pastor, the organist, and the leaders of each of the choir sections (I led the tenors)—anyone who was remotely connected to a leadership role in our church’s ministry of music. It helped that Carl both led the basses and headed up the church board.
But I should have been able to tell we were in trouble when the meeting convened, because we all fell into our predictable roles. Our pastor, George Svaan, was gracious and accommodating and generally a milquetoast. The organist, Edna Tschida, asked everyone to repeat everything two or three times and muttered about the batteries in her hearing aid going dead. The section leader for the sopranos, Juanita Miller, steered the conversation toward her solo at the Christmas Eve service, while the alto lead, Florence Olsen, rambled on about her son Timothy’s streak of three shutouts as goalie for the Minneapolis North High hockey team. And Carl and I butted heads.
I assumed that we would do things the same way we always did at St. Brigit: assemble in the church parking lot at 6:00 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and keep to the same route we’d used for at least two decades. After all, I figured, we were a part of many of these families’ Christmas tradition. But Carl said we should think bigger, that the church wasn’t just about us, that we should envision how to minister the gospel in a grander way, worthy of the baby boy whose birth we were celebrating. He told us he had a big plan, and that he would take care of everything, just leave it to him.
And I acquiesced. My big mistake.
But, on a certain level, I can’t entirely blame myself for wanting someone else to take charge. My Anna had died that June. She was running errands downtown when she was struck by a car as she crossed Nicollet Avenue. And now, suddenly, I was both father and mother to Becky, my little firecracker. After the summer break, she started acting up at school—back-talking her teacher, failing to turn in schoolwork—and I was at my wit’s end trying to both discipline her and give her space to grieve. I figured, if all of this was too much for a thirty-five-year-old widower, how much worse for a seven-year-old girl.
And so I handed everything over to Carl. The snake.
It was not an easy drive over to St. Brigit. Becky was fussing: she was cold, she was tired, she didn’t want to go caroling. I promised her that if she could just do her best this evening, she could open one of her presents that night instead of waiting the three days until Christmas. This seemed to do the trick.
When I pulled into the parking lot at St. Brigit, it was nearly two-thirds full. I had to give some credit to Carl; he was a go-getter. I got out of the car and helped Becky out. Just then Juanita rushed over to me with a stack of mimeographs. “It’s the map of the route,” in a tone indicating she doubted my ability to read.
We had never used a map before, and for good reason. Like I said, we’d used the same route forever. We kept close to the church. One glance at this map, and I knew we were in trouble.
Instead of a nice little loop-the-loop in the environs of St. Brigit, Carl had us marching nearly a mile down Sixteenth Avenue over to my neighborhood, and then up Sheridan Avenue.
This was 1962, in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Jewish folks hadn’t yet moved out of the neighborhood over to the suburb of St. Louis Park, and the black folks hadn’t moved into the neighborhood yet. Mine was one of only two Gentile households on the block. What on earth was Carl thinking? I scanned the crowd for the towering Swede so I could find out.
I shoved the map in Carl’s face. “What’s the meaning of this?”
He looked down at me with guileless blue eyes, smiled, and replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I mean this. You have us—” I traced my finger along the route “—schlepping halfway across town in the cold, and for what?”
“I took into account where our parishioners lived. I thought you’d want to drop out early and put that little one to bed.”
Then why didn’t we stick to this neighborhood, where the majority of the parishioners lived, I didn’t say.
“But Carl,” I said, “what’s the point of caroling in a Jewish neighborhood?”
Carl stared off to the fingernail snip of a moon on the western horizon. “They’re His people too, you know.”
But they don’t go barging into your neighborhood with their religion, they keep to themselves and let me live in peace, I didn’t say.
“I really think this is a bad idea,” I said.
“Well,” he beamed with infinite grace, “you should have put yourself in charge.”
Becky struggled with the walk down Sixteenth. Though it was a cold day with a biting wind, she thwarted my attempts to keep her bundled up, peeling off scarf and mittens, saying that she was too hot. I reminded her that if she kept it up, she wouldn’t get to open a present that night, so she whined and bundled herself back up.
How this was going to expand our ministry, I had no idea, because Carl had us sing at maybe a half-dozen houses down Sixteenth. My dread grew with every block. Oliver Avenue. Penn Avenue. Queen. Russell. Sheridan.
My house was the second one in. The house at the corner belonged to Murray Hendelman, a sexagenarian who had never done anything to me beyond nodding hello to me on the sidewalk. We had the mutual tacit respect and minding-of-one’s-own-business that I had always valued in a neighbor.
Dear God, I prayed, please don’t let us bother poor Mr. Hendelman.
Carl turned around to face us carolers. He demonstrably cleared his throat and intoned, “Look around you. These are Jews. These are Jesus’s people! And tonight, we’re going to sing to them of the miracle of his birth.”
I don’t know what got into me, but somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my heart, I shook off all of my Minnesota-born reticence. I squared my shoulders, and with as booming a voice as I could muster, I said, “No, Carl.”
Carl turned to me. “Excuse me, Peter, did you say something?” I guess I didn’t boom as much as I had thought.
“I said, no, Carl. We’re not going to do this.”
“Peter—” Carl made a grand, sweeping gesture “—we have the opportunity to minister to God’s own people.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe they don’t need ministered to? That they’re doing just fine? That maybe they’re even doing what God wants them to?”
Murmurs arose from the crowd of carolers. I was violating the first rule of being a Minnesotan: don’t make a fuss.
“Need I remind you that we all need the love of Jesus, that we all need to hear His Word?”
“And do I need to remind you that you don’t always need to be stroking your damn ego?” Now I was booming.
And just at that moment, Mr. Hendelman stepped onto his porch. “What is all this?” he asked.
I had to speak before Carl opened his fat mouth. “Mr. Hendelman, it’s me, your neighbor, Peter Hansen. Don’t mind us, we’re just going to be on our way.”
“Oh, Peter,” Carl cut in, “come now. Let’s give Mr. Hendelman his gift.”
“A gift?” Mr. Hendelman asked.
“Mr. Hendleman,” I said, “it’s nothing. I’m sorry we disturbed you.”
Carl glowered at me. “You are not going to deny us this opportunity, Peter.”
“What opportunity?” asked Mr. Hendelman.
“Carl, what the hell do you think was going to come of this? That you were going to convert this whole neighborhood to a bunch of good Lutherans all in one night? That you were going to put some big fat star in your crown by making all the Jews into good little Christians? Just how big is your ego?”
“I was simply—“
“And another thing. Do you honestly think that you were going to get away with this, that the board wouldn’t find out, that Pastor Svaan—“
“Pastor Svaan is a sniveling old man! I’ve got him wrapped around my finger!”
It got so quiet, you could hear the snowflakes fall.
One by one, from the back of the crowd to the front, the carolers dispersed back down Sixteenth Avenue. Juanita was one of the last to head back to St. Brigit. She shot me a look that I don’t think I have since seen on a human face, an admixture of befuddlement, awe, pity, embarrassment, and resignation.
It was four of us: me, Becky, Carl, and Mr. Hendelman. Carl stared me down. “May God have mercy on your soul,” he said. And then he glanced over at Mr. Hendelman and said, “And on yours, too.”
Then he lumbered back towards St. Brigit, and (I am not exaggerating) sang at the top of his lungs, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen/May nothing you dismay”—and then practically shouted, “Remember Christ our Savior/Was born on Christmas Day…”
I took Becky’s hand. Through all this, she hadn’t uttered a peep. I was mortified. I didn’t appreciate my daughter having seen me blow my stack like that, and, to the best of my recollection, she had never heard me swear before that night.
“Come,” I heard. I turned to Mr. Hendelman. “It is a cold night. I will make you some chocolate, that would be nice, no?” It was clear this was not a question.
We followed Mr. Hendelman into his house. Ten years we had lived here, ever since Anna and I were newlyweds, and I had never been in his house.
His furnishings were modest but well-kept. And upon the mantle stood a menorah. Becky noticed it immediately, pointed to it, and asked, “What’s that?”
“Becky, now, it’s not polite to—“
“Oh, it’s a menorah,” Mr. Hendelman interrupted. “You see, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah.”
“What’s Hakka— Hanka—”
“Hanukkah. It is a holiday that my people celebrate.”
“Well,” he reached to touch the menorah, “not exactly. Christmas is one day, but Hanukkah is eight days.”
“Eight days! That’s a lot more fun!”
Mr. Hendelman chuckled, “I suppose you could say that. You see, at Hanukkah, my people remember when our enemies seized our city of Jerusalem—”
“Jerusalem? Isn’t that where Jesus lived, Daddy?”
“Well, some of his life,” I replied, “but let Mr. Hendelman continue his story.”
“The armies laid siege to the city for eight days, but there was only enough oil for the lamps for one day. So, do you know what happened?”
“What?” Becky was Mr. Hendelman’s newest fan.
“God was able to make the oil last eight days. And then God helped my people defeat our enemies.”
“That’s a neat story, huh, Daddy?”
“Yes, honey, it is. I don’t think I’ve had it explained to me like that before. Thank you, Mr. Hendelman.”
“Now,” he cleared his throat, “I have two matters to take care of. First, understand, Hanukkah is more a holiday for the children. I do not have children. Not now. I put up the menorah to remind me of my daughter Rebecca—”
“That’s my name!” cried Becky.
“Sh, honey, let Mr. Hendelman speak.”
“My daughter, she has married and moved away. California. She says that is where the future is. Myself, this city has always treated me well.”
“Until tonight,” I muttered.
“Let me explain something to you, Mr. Hansen.”
“Please, call me Peter.”
“And you may call me Murray. Short for Moritz. Now, where was I… Yes, you must understand, Peter, my Ruth and me, we moved to America in 1928. I think you know your history. Ruth and me, we were very lucky.”
“Indeed.” I swallowed a lump in my throat.
“I have always been grateful for this country. I have lived here in this house, what now, thirty years. I raised my Rebecca here. And my Ruth, we made a good home here. I lost Ruth last year, you know.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” In all honesty, I only half-knew. I was mortified that I knew so little of my neighbor of the past decade.
“Oh, I keep getting sidetracked,” Murray sighed. “There were two things I need to do. First, Hanukkah is a holiday for the children. I put out the menorah to remind me of my Rebecca. The children, they get a present every night of Hanukkah.”
“That’s—” Becky counted on her fingers “—that’s eight presents!”
“You have a smart girl there, Peter. Now, what can I give—”
“Murray, I must decline, especially after all we put you through tonight.”
“Is this a matter for you, Peter? This is between me and your daughter. Now, what would make a good present for Hanukkah…” He rummaged through a knickknack shelf to the left of his fireplace. “I think this would make a good gift.” He pulled out a lace doily, obviously handmade, most likely by his late wife. “It looks like a snowflake, no?”
“Oh, Daddy, it’s so pretty! I can use it as a tablecloth for my dollies!”
“What do you say?”
“Thank you, Mr. Hendelman!”
“It is my pleasure. Now, there was one other matter… I promised you chocolate, no? I hope that Ovaltine will do.”
“I love Ovaltine!” said Becky.
And so the three of us settled into hot mugs of Ovaltine. I imagine Becky thought herself the luckiest girl in the world, because she was celebrating two holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah.
Murray was in that house another ten years. I found in him both a wise elder and a comrade as we navigated widowerhood together, and Becky thought of him as a long-lost relative she was happy to find. I even got to know his daughter Rebecca and her husband Michael when they would make the occasional trip from California. I would have invited Murray to Becky’s high school graduation had he not died during her senior year. When Rebecca and Michael flew in to make arrangements, she confided to me that Murray thought of me almost like a son, and she thanked me for looking out for him in his later years.
I am so grateful that Murray was in Becky’s life. He opened her up to a new world, igniting her imagination and developing within her a deep appreciation of other cultures. Becky entered the Peace Corps after graduating from Berkeley (where she lived not twenty minutes from Rebecca and Michael). After that, she entered a career in education administration and dedicated herself to desegregation efforts.
I never remarried. I developed a certain gratitude for what I had in my life. I was, indeed, a rich man.
Oh, it might interest you to know that I never darkened the door of St. Brigit after that night. It wasn’t so much that I was against the church in general, as it was that I didn’t want to be around Carl, and I didn’t want to subject Becky to him, either.
I went to this church and that over the years, and even made a visit or two to a synagogue. But I’m an old man now. I don’t have the energy to get out like I used to. I prefer to stick around this house and maintain my friendships with my neighbors. I’m the only white man on my block. There’s this young couple living next to me right now. They have the brightest little girl.
Yes, I have much to be thankful for.
And all because Carl Anderson made an ass of himself.