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I'm not sure if people really, truly understand how much fun it is to be Jewish on Christmas day. It's the one day we all get to take a break from running the banks and the media, and just roam around cities like urban C.H.U.D.s. It's completely public and brash and noisy and wonderful. This tribe may be lost, but they absolutely know how to find their way to the movies.

I prefer to travel in packs under these circumstances - often creating a human chain to block out the rabid, missionary Lubavitch Jews who stalk you with herring on their breath and tfillen hidden in their beards. For this, my first Jewish Christmas in New York - my first Christmas in recent memory without a girlfriend who could part my hair conservatively, throw a red v-neck sweater over my head and sneak me into her Protestant or Catholic home - I traveled with my optometrist and his 67 year-old mother, Marilyn. Together, we were the paragon of our Jewish ethnic culture. The two of them argued incessantly, while I remained on Tickets and Junior Mints duty. Our plan: pay for the first feature, sneak into the second, and then eat corned beef sandwiches. (Did a 67 year-old woman who wasn't even tall enough to ride the Cyclone at Coney Island have a problem with some of the morally ambiguous behavior associated with this plan? When we suggested the half-price double-feature on the car ride over, her response: "Sure, what do I care?")

The first movie went off without a hitch, except for a brief altercation involving Marilyn's cell phone. (She wanted to call her other son - the good one, the one who wasn't a "degenerate gambler" - and the previews were starting and she had to call him to say hello.) There were some high decibel comments from our row (and, more specifically, Marilyn's seat), regarding logical or sentimental implausibilities in the film and, immediately following the final fade-out, an announcement loud enough for the entire half-filled theater to hear: "OK, but not really for me." But all of my energy was focussed on the excitement and guilt associated with sneaking into our second feature.

Unlike our first screening, this one was almost at full capacity. It presented a new dilemma for me: what right do I have being here? what if I unintentionally leave a legitimate ticket-buyer without a seat? As I trembled through this addition to my own personal "Book of Questions", Marilyn scooted by me and grabbed a lone, free seat toward the back of the theater, where she began chatting up her neighbor almost immediately. She created a force majeure, so I surrendered and made it my first priority to find a free seat and puzzle out my latest moral crisis from there.

The theater continued to fill, and some families were forced to separate. As I looked around me I noticed something incredible: I couldn't find one non-Jewish face in the crowd. Young and old, anemic-looking Orthodox Jews sharing arm rests with St. Thomas-bronzed Upper West Siders. It was like the new Coen brothers film had become a cultural salon for Jewish minds. Jewish minds who were fighting over seats and snacking on granola and sodas they'd sneaked in from the bodega across the street. It was pretty wonderful. And boisterous.

But within seconds of enjoying this powerful moment of solidarity, my panic swelled even greater than before. People were starting to really have a hard time finding seats. Had they over-sold this auditorium? Were there others who shared our idea of sneaking in? Were we going to cause trouble for the rest? Would security begin inspecting ticket stubs? Would they discover that my papers were not in order?

I started conjuring up non-Jewish variations of my last name -- Levigne, Leon, Lentini, O'Malley, Goebels -- in case I was taken in for questioning. I didn't want to be marched out of the theater, a charlatan and sycophant. Imagine how embarrassing it would be for a grown man to be caught sneaking into the movies on Christmas day. (I know what you're thinking: imagine how embarrassing it would be for a 67 year-old woman. But I've given this consideration and decided she had a viable out. She could always blame senile dementia. I find that, in larger cities, people generally detest the elderly, but they still respect them through clenched teeth.)

We we never caught. We weren't taken off to see movies about prison camps. In fact, it was a great Christmas day. We even followed up the movie with a trip to a kosher delicatessan in Queens, where Marilyn was on a first-name basis with the waiter. Pickles on every table. The smell of brine and fried membrane thick in the air. If the teachings of my religion provided us with a Christian notion of heaven I was there, drinking cherry colas and getting hen-pecked by my optometrist's mother. (Who, realizing at some point in the evening that she was not going to get her way, screamed out to no one in particular: "I'm the mother, and what I say goes!")

So stop feeling sorry for your Jewish friends on Christmas: for us, it's like getting the keys to Disney World after-hours. Well, maybe it's not that exciting - but it sure beats money-lending.


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