A Christmas Tree for Cogan Cogan didn’t enjoy playing poker and he was never good at it, but every other Tuesday he got together with his three oldest friends for a game. It was always at Dickie’s apartment. He supplied soft drinks and chips. Bring your own beer. Nickel, dime, quarter. With everyone busy at work, and with both Alan and Leon married, each with a kid, it was the only time the four of them could get together. On this Tuesday, Cogan left the poker game feeling tense. He had found himself in the odd position of defending Christmas to his friends. Dickie Slatkin started it off: “A week after Thanksgiving and the trees are up, the lights, the whole schmeer. Makes me sick.” “Good for business,” Alan Gordoff said. “We make as much in November and December as we do the whole rest of the year.” Leon Friedman, who never set foot in the synagogue, called it a pain in the ass. “Chanukah too for that matter.” “You guys blind?” Dickie replied. “Don’t you notice all the Christmas trees, the crèches going up around the neighborhood? The Jews are moving out and the goyim are moving in. That’s the real problem.” Cogan could see it had bothered Dickie. Did he feel threatened? “I don’t mind the decorations,” he had said. “They’re colorful. What’s the big deal?” “It’s not a question of business or decorations. This used to be our neighborhood. Now look at it. Am I right?” Dickie turned to Alan and Leon. “You’re right,” said Leon. “I was at the bowling alley the other night; didn’t see a person I knew.” “Yeah, things are changing. That’s for sure,” said Alan. “Not a problem for you, Herman?” Dickie asked. “You’re not sticking your head in the sand, are you?” “I see the change; I’m not blind. I just don’t see it as such a terrible thing. I’ve met some nice people.” Dickie shook his head. “Wait, Herman. Something will happen with these nice people and then you’ll see.” Maybe he should have kept quiet, but Cogan didn’t understand why Dickie was so down on non-Jews moving into the neighborhood. Everyone saw it happening. The post War boom was in its second decade and many of the long time residents were doing quite well. They were moving north to the suburbs and others were taking their place. Neighborhoods change. “Non-Jews.” Cogan remembered his rabbi pointing out that there were a whole lot of people out there who didn’t think of themselves as non-Jews. “They think of themselves as Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, or just as people. Like us. We should honor that.” “Of course,” Cogan had said, smiling. “I know we tend to see things from our own point of view. But I think I’ve adjusted.” Indeed, the small store he had rented next to Stern’s Drugs for his insurance business was an adjustment. With so many people he didn’t know, Cogan felt uncomfortable drumming up business solely by knocking on doors, as he had done for the last fifteen years. And so, the office. There was a sign on the window: “Herman Cogan, Independent Insurance Specialist.” He had a desk and a credenza along with two bookshelves. On the wall behind the credenza were a couple of pictures—a print of a Monet lily pad and a print of an unnamed seascape—and his Illinois Insurance Certificate matted behind glass in a black and gold frame. Two upholstered wooden chairs occupied the area in front of his desk, with a larger swivel chair behind. The office added a sense of professionalism that Cogan felt was lacking when he called on prospects and did his paperwork at home. ~~~~ Back at his apartment, Cogan thought about the conversation with his poker buddies. He actually liked the Christmas season. When he was young, he and his parents would drive around the Swedish neighborhood to the east of Albany Park and marvel at the Christmas lights and ornaments. “Not our holiday,” his father would say. “But it’s nice to see how wonderfully it’s celebrated.” Cogan had learned the words to most of the popular Christmas songs in grammar school, and even now loved to sing them. A few Jewish families had been putting up Christmas trees since right after the war. He guessed they thought of it as a sign of pride in America, of fitting in. Dickie called it “assimilation” and said it with a sneer. “Fitting in is one thing,” he’d say. “Becoming a goy is another.” He saw it as a slippery slope. Thanksgiving week had been slow, which gave Cogan a chance to catch up on his paperwork. But now it was time to drum up new business. When he got to his storefront office at seven the next morning, he found a small Christmas tree next to the door. It was tiny, with a red stand and little plastic ornaments; the whole thing would fit comfortably on a corner of his desk. “What’s this?” Cogan said aloud, although no one was around to hear him. The typed card said only, “Merry Christmas.” He put the tree in the small closet at the back of his store and tried to concentrate on his business. At nine-thirty, Lazaro Morales walked in. He had been in the store a week earlier interested in life insurance. “Good morning, Lazaro,” Cogan said, standing up. He went around the desk to shake hands with the prospective customer. “Have you been thinking about the alternatives we discussed?” Was it his imagination or was Morales spending an unusual amount of time looking around the office? “I’m still thinking, Mr. Cogan. But I was wondering if I might have left my umbrella here last week.” Together they looked from corner to corner and on both sides of the desk, even though Cogan knew there was no umbrella. “No,” Cogan said. “Haven’t seen it.” Morales moved toward the door, still glancing from one place to another. “Well thanks anyway. I’ll get back to you on the insurance thing.” Six months earlier, Morales and his wife had opened a grocery two blocks south. Cogan had introduced himself then and left his card. He and Morales had several meetings since about the grocer’s life insurance needs. With three children in Catholic school, he was clearly worried about how his family would get along if, God forbid, something should happen to him. Now Cogan wondered if Morales had left the tree at his door and was checking to see what Cogan had done with it. Cogan’s inclination was to give it away or throw it out. He took it out of the closet and walked with it next door to Stern Drugs. “What do you make of it?” he asked his friend, putting the tree on the counter. “Definitely a Christmas tree,” Stern said. “That’s the thing. It was left at my door. Is it simply a nice thing a non-Jewish customer did, not understanding that I don’t celebrate Christmas? Or is it something else? And why no signature on the card?” “Could mean anything. Are you going to keep it in your office? Put it on your desk?” “I don’t want it in my office. It’s not me. And what would customers think? The Jews would think I’d gone nuts. And the gentiles? I don’t know if they’d be pleased or feel pandered to.” “You could put a Mogen David on top of the tree,” Stern said, laughing. “That should satisfy everyone.” “Funny,” Cogan said without smiling. “A Jewish star on a Christmas tree. You’re no help.” He took the tree back to his office, put it in his closet and returned to his paper work. But the anonymous appearance of the tree had unsettled him and he couldn’t concentrate. It would be one thing if someone had brought it in: “Mr. Cogan, my wife and I would like you to have this tree to brighten up your office during the holiday season.” Something like that. Then he could have said, “Thanks, Mr. Johnson. That’s sweet and thoughtful, but Christmas is not my holiday.” Even that sounded harsh, sounded as if he was leaving something out. Like, “How can you believe in stuff like that?” If it was a tie or a trinket, Cogan thought, he could put it in a drawer, give it away. But this, this Christmas tree, was left at his office door. Whoever left it, whether as a nice gesture or a challenge, meant for Cogan to display it. “No,” he said, turning off the lights, flipping the sign on his door to “CLOSED,” and heading for the synagogue for the evening prayer service. “Do you think it’s something anti-Semitic, Rabbi?” “That’s certainly possible, Herman, but if it is, it’s pretty subtle. Why not the tried and true rock through the window?” “Pooh, pooh, pooh,” Cogan said. “If it is a subtle way of saying, ‘If you want to do business in Albany Park, you’d better understand the new reality,’ then it is serious,” the rabbi said. “Morales, the new grocer down on Kedzie, was in this morning, looking, he said, for his umbrella. But he kept looking around the office and it just seemed odd to me.” Cogan told the rabbi he was storing the tree in his closet. “So keep it there for a while. See what happens.” Cogan decided not to say anything about the tree at the weekly poker game. He felt it would just stoke Dickie’s anger. Luckily, the topics of Christmas and the exodus of Jews from the neighborhood didn’t come up. A few days later, a second tree appeared. Like the first, Cogan found it leaning against the door of his office. But this one was larger, about five feet tall. It looked ragged, with areas where the green needles had been rubbed off the branches. Again there was a typed card that said only “Merry Christmas.” Cogan dragged it in the office and laid it on the floor near the back. It was too big to fit in the closet. “Jesus,” he muttered. He locked the office door and went down the street to Chen’s Steam Laundry. “Mr. Chen,” Cogan said. “We need to talk.” They went in the back room where Mr. Chen brought out a teapot and two cups. Cogan explained about the two Christmas trees. “Anything like this ever happen to you?” “No, but people know I don’t celebrate Christmas. Sugar?” “One lump,” Cogan said. “Don’t they know I don’t celebrate it either?” “You have a point. I’ll keep an eye out. What are you doing with the trees?” “The small one I put in my closet. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the larger one. It looks mangy.” “What about the yard behind your office?” Cogan liked that idea. When he got back he dragged the larger tree into the yard and laid it against the fence. The following morning he told his friend Stern what he had done. “And what about the next one?” Stern asked. “The next one. You think there’ll be another?” “There are two, why not three? Or ten for that matter? Cogan went back to the rabbi. “Now I have two trees,” he said. The rabbi listened as Cogan told him of his conversations with Mr. Chen and Stern. “When you close up tonight,” the rabbi advised, “put the trees back out front where you found them. Take them away when you open the office in the morning and put them back at the end of the day. They’ll get the message.” “But since I don’t know why someone did this, I don’t know what my message should be.” “Cogan, there is only one message: Rejection. We don’t want their Christmas trees. Period.” The rabbi’s sharp tone startled Cogan. The clergyman had a round, pleasant face with thick brown eyebrows and curly dark hair. Still in his forties, he had the curved back and gait of a much older man. His voice was low and calming—so much so that there were times his sermons put Cogan to sleep. But this response, like a clap of thunder, got Cogan’s attention. “In the meantime,” the rabbi continued, “I’m going to talk with Father Gordon.” Cogan decided to leave the trees where they were that evening, the small one in the closet, the larger one out back. In his apartment, while preparing dinner, he worried that he had underestimated the effect of the new ethnic makeup of his neighborhood. It had been so comfortable before, like an Eastern European shtetl, where he knew everyone and everyone knew him. Violent crime was almost nonexistent. Even as a young boy, he and his friends could stay out after dark without anyone worrying about their safety. To be sure, it wasn’t all sweetness and light; there were disputes, grudges, even fistfights, but these were the foibles of family. If you were hated, it was for a good reason, not simply because you were a Jew. Is that what this was all about? The drawing of lines between Jew and gentile? He hoped not. He called Morales. He made a pretense about checking on the insurance and then he said, “By the way, someone dropped a Christmas tree off at my office the other day and since I have no use for it, I wondered whether you’d like it.” “That’s kind of you, Mr. Cogan, but we already have ours.” “Well, if you hear of anyone who needs one, let me know.” “Yes. Very nice. I appreciate the offer. Thanks. And by the way, I found my umbrella. My son had been playing with it and it ended up under his bed.” Either Morales was a great actor or he was not the one who had left the trees. Cogan’s only suspect seemed to have cleared himself. The next morning as Cogan approached his office, he grew apprehensive. Would there be a third tree as Stern had prophesized? He was relieved to find that there wasn’t. He was busy all day making calls, seeing clients and doing his paper work, and had little time to think about the Christmas trees hidden away like shameful secrets. At closing time, Cogan followed his rabbi’s instructions and put both trees just outside his front door. Before turning for home he checked to see if anyone was watching. So far, so good, he thought. That evening, he called his mother in Florida and told her what had happened. “You’re not going to put up a Christmas tree, are you, Herman?” He assured her that wasn’t in the cards. “Then toss them out,” she said. “Put them by the curb and the garbage men will take them away.” “That seems disrespectful. Maybe I’ll hide them until after Christmas and then throw them out.” “Ask your friend Dickie. He deals with them all day.” By “them,” Cogan’s mother meant gentiles. Dickie worked downtown as a file clerk in a fancy law office. And it was true that he was among gentiles for forty hours a week. Did this give Dickie any particular insight into the gentile mind as it relates to Christmas and the Jews? Cogan was dubious. The next day, after the evening minyan, the rabbi told Cogan he had spoken with the priest who promised to make it the subject of his sermon the following Sunday. St. Michael’s was on the south edge of Albany Park. It had been there for years, serving those Catholics living south of Irving Park and the handful living north. Father Gordon spoke that Sunday of the importance of tolerance, especially during the Christmas season. At one point he said it was a corruption of Jesus’ message to force Christianity and its customs on others. “A Jewish businessman recently reported finding a Christmas tree leaning up against his door with a card that said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ This may have been meant as a nice gesture, but as you can imagine, someone who does not celebrate Christmas—and would have no use for a Christmas tree—might view it as a threat: Be like us or we won’t do business with you. Well, that’s not who we are. So this Christmas season let us resolve to be considerate of the beliefs and mores of our non-Christian neighbors.” There were many amens. The trees were still there the following Monday. Cogan returned the small one to his closet and lugged the bigger one back into the yard. He decided he’d call Father Gordon about the trees. At noon he went to lunch with Stern at Lerner’s Hot Dogs. There they bumped into Dickie Slatkin, who had taken the day off. “Ready for our game tomorrow?” Slatkin asked. “We were talking about Christmas trees, Dickie,” Stern said. “Know anything about them?” Dickie coughed. He took a sip of water. “I’m not into trees,” he said. “Especially Christmas trees. Why the interest?” “No reason,” Stern said. “We were just commenting that they seemed to be popping up all over the place.” When he was in high school, Slakin had delivered for Stern Drugs, so the pharmacist felt he knew him well. After Slatkin left the restaurant, Stern said, “Have you considered that your poker buddy may be playing a joke?” Cogan let out a short laugh, which he then gulped back as if swallowing a ping-pong ball. He thought about the discussion at the poker game, about his defense of the changes in the neighborhood. “Don’t be silly,” he told Stern. But he knew the question was far from silly. That night he had trouble falling asleep. Of course it was Dickie. What was the lesson he wanted him to learn? Should he confront him, demand an apology? What good would that do? In any case, the damage had been done. He’d involved the rabbi, Morales, Mr. Chen, Stern, Father Gordon. A couple of hundred people who heard about it at St. Michael’s. And for what? The irrational fears of Dickie Slatkin? It also dawned on Cogan that Dickie’s fears were now, somehow, his fears. Cogan worried that from now on he would gauge every look, every snub, every comment on a scale from benign to anti-Semitic. “This is how it starts,” he said aloud to himself. to edit.