“Christmas Dreidels” in The Citadel 2020

The Citadel, a juried literary journal published at Los Angeles City College since the 1960s, includes my narrative essay “Christmas Dreidels.” In it, I explore my partner Jonathan’s and my experience of building an adoptive family built on the richness of African American and Jewish heritages, one in which widely diverse cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds add up to a new, organic whole.

Personal memories, interviews with my mother-in-law Tommie-Lee Taylor as well as the research into the images of the Elaine Race Riot in Arkansas, the 1920s’ maps of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co., and the 1963 Los Angeles Times editorials helped me write the essay, but more importantly, gave me an opportunity to juxtapose legacies of the Holocaust and WWII with those of racial violence in the US South and more covert racism in California’s Central Valley.

Below are just a couple of excerpts. To read the whole essay, please contact me for a copy. You can also get the full volume of The Citadel 2020 on Amazon as a paperback. I can’t recommend it enough – it’s full of compelling stories, poetry, and artwork.

The high school was far from the outskirts of Fresno where Tommie-Lee and her sister were waiting at dawn for the school bus. Seeing them for the first time, a new bus driver told the light-skinned Tommie-Lee to get on, but “you,” he pointed at her darker-complexioned sister, “gonna have to walk.” Tommie-Lee refused to get on the bus without her sister. That ended her high school.

The war was on, WWII, which would also become part of the family lore: Jon’s future father Louis fighting in Europe, his soon-to-be wife washing soldiers’ uniforms at the army base in Fresno.

“Hard work in this heat,” Tommie-Lee told me, “but there wasn’t any other for a young girl like me.”

She married Louis, a WWII veteran, in 1946. She kept order and stability in Jon’s childhood home, and yet retained a distinct sense of curiosity about the neighbors and their cultures. Enchiladas con salsa verde¸ which Tommie-Lee learned to cook in El Centro, were as much of a dinner staple as the traditional Southern mac’n’cheese, potato salad, and the unparalleled, in Jon’s memory, upside-down pineapple cake. [ . . . ]

I grew up with my grandparents, so the main point of reference in my childhood home were the years of their youth – the tumultuous 1920-40s, the era of the Bolshevik Revolution, the full emancipation of women and Jews, and WWII the years of great hopes and enormous suffering. [. . .]

Scores of their relatives in Poland and Ukraine perished in the Holocaust. My grandfather’s teenage cousins, the only two members of his family to survive the Nazi occupation of his shtetl, swam across the wide Dniester River fleeing the oncoming German troops. When the soldiers overran them, the two girls continued their perilous journey eastward by night. During the day, the younger one with olive skin and dark hair would hide in the forest, while her fair-complexioned older sister, able to pass for a Slav, would beg for food in the villages. Eventually, they made it to the Soviet side, and this is how I know their story.

My grandfather Yosif, like Jon’s father Louis, fought in that war. Wounded in the Battle of Kursk, he came home with a medal – and with a clock, a palm-size carriage clock he picked up somewhere along the front.

It stands as tranquilly on our dining room buffet as it did in my grandparents’. It still runs.

From “Christmas Dreidels” by Lane Igoudin, The Citadel, 2020.

PS. For more information about the Elaine Race Riot and the Arkansas Delta Massacres of 1910s-1930s, a tragic and overlooked piece of the American history, read The Smithsonian article, or visit the University of Arkansas online exhibit.