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Christmas For All

By Frank Gruber

"Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans, 12:21

I am Jewish, but as I have written in prior years, when it comes to Christmas, I am a thorough enjoyer.

We have a few Christmas CDs that we over-play each year in much the same way that we overdo the potato pancakes during Hanukkah: "Hipster's Holiday," "James Brown's Funky Christmas," and the Phil Spector Christmas Album.

But don't get the idea that musically it's all irony all the time, either. I had Berlioz's "L'enfance du Christ" in the CD changer all last week. I first heard this "Sacred Trilogy" sung two years ago at the L.A. Phil and I hoped the Phil would make it a Christmas tradition.

"L'Enfance du Christ" recounts the Flight to Egypt; the climactic moment in the piece occurs after Romans and Egyptians have rebuffed the Holy Family as "vile Jews" and "vagabonds and lepers." Joseph and Mary then find shelter in the humble home of a family of Ishmaelites.

By 21st Century standards, Mr. Ishmaelite has a charming naiveté when it comes to whether love should be "tough" or not:

"Come in, come in, you poor Jews!
The door of our house
is never closed to those who have encountered misfortune.
Poor Jews, come in, come in!"

Then, after Joseph and Mary enter the house, miserable, with bleeding feet:

Goodness! What affliction!
Come quickly and see to their needs!
Daughters, sons, servants, show the kindness of your hearts!
Wash the sores on their bruised feet!
Give them water, give them milk and ripe grapes."

There's a Jewish teaching, too, that one should treat whomever you meet as if he might be the Messiah, but these days discretion has rather overwhelmed valor. Instead of betting that one of those homeless people sleeping under the Fourth Street overpass is here to save me, I will make a donation to the Ocean Park Community Center and try to go about my business.

Another family tradition we have is to go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve. This old Jewish custom dates from when American culture was more monolithic, and the only people not celebrating Christmas were Jews and Chinese. It didn't hurt that in many cities immigrant Jews lived in crowded neighborhoods near Chinatown and were willing to suspend the Kosher laws to eat Lobster Cantonese.

We would normally go to a Chinese restaurant on the Westside, but this year we went to a "real" Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley. The reason for the extra effort was that my sister Ruth, who lives in Europe, has been staying with us this past month and we wanted to give her an L.A. touristic experience.

We went to NYC Jumbo Seafood in Alhambra. The food was great; not overwhelmingly better that what we can find nearby or in Chinatown, but subtly more interesting. What was special was the ambiance; the cascading generations of language, from 100 percent Chinese at some tables, to a mixture at others, to unaccented English among young Chinese-Americans.

There was only one other table in the restaurant of Occidentals; they looked Jewish, too, but I didn't ask. The restaurant had a couple of those Buddhist altars with oranges, so I don't imagine the proprietors were Christian. We and everyone else were wishing each other "Merry Christmas," though, and we all meant it. Peace on earth, goodwill -- dear Christians, thanks for sharing.

My sister has been staying with us because she had a month-long fellowship at the Autry Museum. Ruth is writing a book about the European fascination with the American West, and the Autry has a major collection of relevant materials.

One of the little benefits of Ruth's visit is that while she's been here, we've watched a lot of westerns, including one of my favorites, John Ford's "Stagecoach." "Stagecoach" has always had a Christmas feel to me, although there is nothing explicit about Christmas in it. True, a baby is born on the journey, in rustic circumstances, and the baby's mother is surrounded by (mostly) men, some of whom are wise, but neither mother nor child occupies the center of the story.

The Christmassy moments for me come at the end; after the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) has exacted revenge on the "Plummer boys." They had killed the Kid's father and brother. This is not what one might call a New Testament moment: the Kid is not turning his other cheek nor would he offer drink if the Plummers were thirsting.

But the Kid is also full of love; he loves the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), and, notwithstanding that she makes sure he knows what she is, he comes back for her, as he promised.

Two wise men, the Sheriff and the Doctor, then send the two off to flee and find their peace across the border.

Is the Kid a Christ-figure, wielding vengeance but also love? I don't want to get literary-allusional; but can we focus on this unconditional love thing? Isn't that something we can all celebrate? Isn't that something we can all do, no matter how mortal we are -- and no matter in what or whom we believe?

* * *

If you have some time off this week, I recommend two exhibitions at the newly-opened Santa Monica Studios at the Santa Monica Airport.

Santa Monica Studios (Photo by Frank Gruber)

The Sherry Frumkin Gallery is showing a timely exhibition of photographs by Barbara Grover depicting Israelis and Palestinians, accompanied by their own words describing their feelings toward the land they live in -- land that is often called holy. When you see the show, I suggest looking first at each face in the photographs, ignoring clothing and furnishings. Try to guess who is an Israeli and who is a Palestinian before reading the texts.

The second exhibition, at the Arena 1 Gallery, is a wonderful collection of artworks created by twelve artists who have had extensive relationships with Santa Monica: Larry Albright, Lita Albuquerque, John Baldessari, Sam Francis, Charles Gaines, Frank Gehry, Maxwell Hendler, Luchita Hurtado, Rachel Lachowicz, Lee Mullican, Astrid Preston, William Tunberg.

Former Arts Commissioner Bruria Finkel curated the show, and Santa Monicans should be proud that she could assemble a collection of such quality. There are plenty artists she left out, too -- perhaps the show will be an annual event, and ultimately lead to Ms. Finkel's goal of an "archival" museum of Santa Monica art at the Civic Center.

Both shows are open this week, but call the galleries for information about hours (phone numbers below). The Barbara Grover exhibition has been extended until Jan. 8, and the Santa Monica artists show runs until Feb. 8.

As a bonus, the corridors of the Studios are providing display space for lesser-known local artists, and much of that work is quite good and priced "for every pocketbook."

Happy New Year.

Santa Monica Studios
3026 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica Airport
Sherry Frumkin Gallery: 310-397-7493
Arena 1 Gallery: 310-397-7449

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