Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love, Chocolate, and Cultural Alienation

Valentine's Day is one of those days on the American calendar that makes me think about that ubiquitous adolescent debate from the USY kinnusim of my youth: Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew? Obviously, I'm both: American in many ways (ask my British friends), Jewish in many ways (ask my gentile friends).

I grew up in the American suburbs and I know all about riding my bike around quiet streets with no sidewalks, backyard barbecues, baseball games and the Super Bowl. At my Jewish summer camp there was always a 4th of July celebration, complete with square dancing, and in my Jewish school we celebrated Martin Luther King's birthday. But, at that same school there was nary a mention of Saint Valentine's Day. Same at home: no flowers, and no chocolates. My parents wouldn't even mention it. It was like Christmas! Just a regular day.

Not until my children went to a secular American school (in London, as it happens), did I first discover that it is customary on Valentines Day for children to distribute cards to everyone they know with chocolates attached to them. In kindergarden, Bella was assigned to make Valentines cards for all of her classmates (educational value? Writing the kids' names, I told myself...). I thought it was odd--what does a holiday about romantic love have to do with kids?

Well, my kids could answer that question in two seconds: anything having to do with chocolate is clearly meant for kids. The love stuff? Secondary and incidental. (We like good chocolate, and Bella and Ruby have developed a taste for what we call in our house "grown-up chocolate"-- that is, the 70% dark stuff. We used to be able to buy it and keep it to ourselves, but no longer.)

Some may say that Valentine's day is a "Hallmark" holiday, like Mother's Day, designed for consumer consumption. Certainly, when I walk through CVS this time of year, I see a lot of red and pink products for sale. It's the same aisle that's covered in orange and black in October, another month when I'm reminded of the ways in which I was raised within, and yet apart, from some American cultural obsessions. Halloween, when I was a child, meant sitting inside the front door of my house and waiting to give out candy to the neighborhood children. Does that sound cruel to you? It never seemed like anything but good fun to me, which is part of the strangeness of this particular type of cultural alienation. If you haven't done it, you don't really miss it. I don't seem to have the muscle memory for Valentine's Day or Halloween.

Perhaps our twenty-something babysitter was surprised when she asked if we were going out tonight, and I said no. After 18+ years together, Josh and I are good. (I love you, honey.) We can toast our relationship any day: ideally one when the restaurants don't all have over-priced pre-fixe menus.

I think I'll go buy us all some chocolate, though. Tomorrow, when it's on sale.

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