That Easter, I had watched “The Robe” on television one afternoon with my sister, Linda. There is a wonderful scene in which Richard Burton, playing Marcellus, a Roman tribune, arrives at Pilate’s palace, along with another soldier, a centurion. The scene opens with Pilate washing his hands. When Marcellus walks in, Pilate says that he has a final task for him before the tribune goes off on a new assignment on Capri. “An execution . . . three criminals. One of them is a fanatic. There might be trouble.”
Pilate says that he’s had a “rough night” and, looking dazed and distracted, requests a bowl to wash his hands. A slave tells him that he just washed them a minute ago. “So I did,” Pilate says, and he exits, zombie-like.
Then the centurion asks Marcellus perhaps the most hilarious, deadpan question in the history of cinema: “Your first crucifixion?”
“Yes,” Marcellus mumbles, staring down at the scroll containing his orders.
“What?” the centurion says. “Never driven nails into a man’s flesh?”
“The movie where they make Jesus carry the big cross up the hill,” I explained to my father, “so they could hammer the nails into his flesh and hang him up on it.” My sister, who was six years older than me, had given me a graphic description of the crucifixion, with spurting blood and splintered bones.
“You mean ‘The Robe,’ ” my father said. We were both silent for a few seconds, contemplating the pink plaster infant in his mother’s arms with the very bad death in his future.
“Linda says Jesus was Jewish, but the Jews wanted to kill him anyway. What was he, Daddy, Jewish or Christian?”
“He was Jewish,” he replied. “Christians hadn’t been invented yet.”
“But the Jewish people wanted him dead?”
“We have to go, David,” my father said, pulling on my arm.
“But . . .”
“I’ll tell you all about it, but now we have to mosey.”
“Do they kill the camels to make our coats?” He didn’t reply to that one.
We started walking. “Here’s the deal with Jesus, in a nutshell,” he said. “When he grew up, he started telling everyone he was the son of God, and . . .”
I looked back toward the church and pointed. “But wasn’t he the son of Joseph and Mary? Didn’t he come from his mommy?”
“Yes, but he kept saying otherwise. He kept saying his mommy was a virgin.”
“Round yon virgin,” I thought. But she hadn’t looked round.
“He told everybody that God sent him directly to Earth to be his son and save the world. Supposedly.”
“Then what happened?”
“He started wandering all over the place in Israel, teaching people about religion and collecting a bunch of followers who started claiming that he was performing miracles. . . .”
“Tricks. Like magic tricks. Like walking on water.”
“But you can’t do that,” I said. But I was already thinking that I would give it a try the next summer when we went to the beach.
“That’s why they’re miracles. But you’re right—it was all a bunch of baloney. Anyway, the other Jews, the ones in charge, started hearing he was saying he was the son of God, and they got mad.”
“He got too big for his britches.” This I understood. I had been yelled at many times, and even spanked once or twice, for the very same crime.
“So when he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut, they complained to the Romans, who were in charge of the Jews and everyone else back then, and the rest is history. But nobody blames the Romans. Everyone blames the Jews, which is why we’ve had so much trouble from the Christians. Even today.”
“They hate our guts. Linda told me.”
“Not all of them. Some do, but not all of them.”
For a couple of blocks, I thought about the Christians I knew—my teacher, a few friends at school, our cleaning lady, our elevator man—wondering which ones hated my guts. At Lexington Avenue, we turned uptown. In front of Bloomingdale’s, we passed a Salvation Army Santa.
“Is Santa God?” I asked. “Is he Jesus’ father?”
“What? No. Enough with the questions, David.” Now we could see the shop a block away, and my mother’s head in the window.
“Is he Christian?”
“Yes, he’s Christian. He’s based on some saint. The one in charge of presents. Speaking of which . . .” He held up the paper bag and smiled at me. “Don’t tell your mother what’s in here.”
“Is that how he can get into our apartment when we don’t have a chimney and all the doors are double locked? Is it a miracle? Like walking on water?”
“I don’t know. Ask your mother.” He pulled me along as he picked up the pace.
“Why do we have Christmas, since Santa is Christian and we’re Jewish and some of them hate us?”
“Because we’re Americans,” he answered. His eyes were on the shop.
“But if they hate us . . .”
“Enough with the questions, David!” He looked at me and gripped my hand tighter. “It’s just a holiday. So we can have presents, understand? That’s it. Case closed.”
“But Hanukkah has presents.”
“Oy,” he sighed. “Hanukkah’s too long. Doing it all in one day makes more sense. Some of us have to work.”
“What’s a virgin?” I asked, as I stumbled after him across Sixty-first Street.
“Someone from Virginia,” he replied.