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Erica Heller Headshot

Merry Christmas, And Please Pass The Hamantaschen

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Happy New Year and L'shanah tovah to all my Jewish friends, family, enemies, acquaintances and as yet unmet creatures, but mea culpa, I actually had to look up that phrase on Google to get it right. (Googlestein?) Somehow, I always thought it was the name of a film I have always loved, by Louis Malle.

I am a disgraceful Jew. And not proud of it. I don't say it here to brag, more to confess. I have been known to ask friends whether they'll be lighting the mezuzah for Hanukkah or eating hamantaschen for Yom Kippur. To this day, I'm never sure of which holiday latkes are prepared for, only that I prefer them prepared with plenty of grated onion. For years I was convinced that the secret ingredient to my Grandma Dottie's, which were outstanding, was the blood of her skinned knuckles, from scraping the onion a bit too purposefully against the gaping jaw of her grater.

I worked for a year a while back, for a woman's non-profit organization, as a writer. It was a job, and writers don't always have an abundance of choices. They had a Zionist agenda about which I knew nothing. I remember scribbling little brochures for Jewish holidays. The myths and customs surrounding each one were fascinating indeed, but the minute it was time to write about the next holiday, I forget everything about the previous one. My brain was scrubbed clean and retained nothing. I do recall though that there were 43 paid days that we had off for Jewish holidays, which I relished but found secretly just a bit obscene. And this from an Upper Westsider! From an Apthorp resident, only about 124 steps from Zabars. And yes, I know, it -- and I -- are a shanda. What can I say? Atheists have to eat, too.

My father was the author Joseph Heller and in my recently published memoir, Yossarian Slept Here, When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, I recount how for my family, there was only Christmas and Easter, but the details of our Easters I saved for later. It's now later.

Our Easters were, in fact, usually held in July. Easter, for us, was all about Marvin Winkler, aka Beansy. He was my father's childhood friend from Coney Island who had years before, moved out to L.A. and had gotten into the chocolate Easter Bunny manufacturing business. Beansy's trick each year was to send us the stalest, most broken down leftover bunnies he could find, months after Easter, over the summer. By that time, they'd begun to turn white and were so stale, biting into them frequently created a dental emergency.

My family was loyal, ferociously so, to this awful dentist, to chocolate and to Beansy though, so year after year, when the box arrived for us and landed in the always chaotic Apthorp mailroom, with decapitated chocolate bunny heads rolling around inside, or chipped, dismembered tails or ears, or in just one great, dark melted puddle, we'd devour it instantly, swarming over it like febrile locusts. The package never came with a card or a note. It didn't require one. That was Beansy.

It was Beansy's wife Evelyn to whom my father uttered the first words about Catch-22 I ever recall being shocked by. It was just after it had been published and the Winklers were in New York from L.A. for a brief stay with us. My father spent entire weekend days trudging up and down the avenues with his childhood friend George Mandel and with Beansy, checking bookstore for sales, until they could walk no longer and hopped a bus. Returning home one such night, the Mandels and Winklers were gathered in our small, cramped Apthorp kitchen, and my mother was preparing dinner for us all. It was then, while warding off a sisterly kiss from Evelyn, that I heard my father ask her, "Don't you realize how many asses these lips have been kissing today?" It was the first time I grasped the fact that Catch-22 wasn't just a game or a hobby. It was serious business. In retrospect, perhaps Catch-22 was our religion. It came with its own holidays, code of ethics and conduct, with joy and with tsouris, not tsimmis. Synagogues, fasting and praying had no place in this faith, unless it was to pray for foreign printings, gargantuan sales and a possible movie adaption. Now that I have my own book, I can well embrace the ethos.

Today is a happy day. I can eat Matzoh Ball soup without fussing about calories and even more importantly, my building is quiet. The Apthorp's deafening, endless demolition has paused today, in respect for Rosh Hashanah. This means my dog, also not religious, does not have to whimper all day and I don't have to flee to the library in order to try to string two sentences together.

Things are good. Life is beautiful. Zei Gezunt to all, and to all a goodnight.

Erica Heller's book, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22, is out on Simon & Schuster