Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah

Of course everyone knows it’s the holidays, but in our house this means Hanukkah, not Christmas. Actually, because we’re living with my mum and stepfather, it means Hanukkah and Christmas. Not a combined celebration (in the way many interfaith families celebrate), but side-by-side celebrations that are sometimes a bit confusing for everyone involved. Especially this year, when Hanukkah and Christmas overlap on the calendar, we’re are in full-blown double-holiday season. There are presents wrapped in silver and blue and red and green. There are menorah and dreidel crafts and Christmas Trees. My Jewish family is giving Christmas parents to my family, and my Christmas-celebrating family is offering Hanukkah presents to The Children. But like I said, our family doesn’t celebrate Christmas; we celebrate Hanukkah. I’m so confused some days.

Let me start at the beginning. I wasn’t born Jewish, but converted shortly before I married Matt. I didn’t grow up in a home that identified with a particular religion so I didn’t quite leave a tradition when I spent a year learning Hebrew, learning how to make challah, or when I promised that panel of three rabbis that I would raise my children in a Jewish home. I had developed a closeness to Jewish traditions before even meeting Matt, when I was working for a Jewish professor during my master’s program, spending a lot of time with his family on Shabbat and holidays. A couple of years later, around the time that I knew I would marry Matt I realized, too, that I would become Jewish. It wasn’t a simple decision, but an easy one. My immediate family was completely behind my decision (while the rest of my family oscillates between indifference, curiosity, and slightly offensive comments). But no matter how much I adopted these traditions as my own--welcoming Shabbat on Friday nights, following a new calendar of holidays, committing to a lifelong cycle of learning--it wasn’t always easy to separate myself from my non-Jewish family. Of course no one asked me to put up a wall between my Jewish and non-Jewish life, but becoming Jewish meant not being and not doing other things. While we didn’t observe all of the laws as Orthodox Jews, we still kept kosher and marked Shabbat as a day more special than the others, and this meant that we often couldn’t share the food my family prepared and said no to going shopping on Saturdays.  No matter how much I maintained a bridge between the two worlds, roadblocks still happened sometimes, and that’s just the way it was going to be.

Let me start even more at the beginning. Matt wasn’t born Jewish, either. I won’t share with you his reasons for converting, but I can tell you that he converted on his own (not in preparation for marriage, which is the most common reason for converting) four years before we started dating. It’s not very common to meet two married Jews with no Jewish family, but here we are. In practical terms this means that we make our own party, so to speak. We have no family traditions on which to build, no challah recipe to pass down, and no mother-in-law to remind me that I’m supposed to make brisket this way. It also means that when holidays come around (which they do a lot, because Jews know how to mark historical events like nobodies business), we find ourself in this strange new world of wanting to share our celebrations with a family that doesn’t share our traditions.  There are many wonderful things about our unusual little family, including the freedom to create our own traditions and habits, and the pure amazement both Matt and I feel as we watch Alyce recite a prayer in Hebrew or play Shabbat with her dollies. But December presents some challenges for everyone around here.

It’s a little easier for Matt because he doesn’t have many opportunities to interact with his non-Jewish family. Maybe it’s because he converted long before me, or maybe it’s just because he’s always been an independent sort (that’s the polite way to describe his anti-social tendencies), but whatever the reason Matt finds it easier to draw a firm line between Christmas and Hanukkah. And we do draw a firm line in our own home, where the only mention of Christmas comes in the form of Dora’s holiday special. But even when we’re not living in my mum’s Christmas house, we still have to negotiate how the two holidays will mingle because we do see a lot of my family (hi, mum) and a lot of our friends aren’t Jewish. How do we share in gift-giving? Are they Hanukkah or Christmas gifts? Are we participating in someone else’s holiday or just in the same room for moral support and a good meal? And while Alyce has no problem telling strangers on the street that her family celebrates Hanukkah, and they say isn't she just the sweetest thing, I’m terrified that she’s going to march up to a bunch of children and tell them that Santa isn’t real. I’m really afraid of that. I don’t want my child to be the one who spoils Christmas for her entire kindergarten class.

Most of these details are just that, and ultimately there isn’t much to worry about. But some days Matt and I struggle trying to define our own traditions in the middle of all these competing forces. Sometimes I wish people didn’t assume that everyone celebrates Christmas or that my children are somehow missing out on the (M. Bloom wrote about this earlier in the week and it got me thinking), like when my sweet uncle begged me to let Alyce and Shira believe in Santa. To him it has nothing to do with being Jewish or Christian, but only with magic. I get that, I really do. But Alyce and Shira have a lot of magic in their life and they are not made any worse for not having Christmas. They receive plenty of surprises on the eight nights of Hanukkah and love lighting the candles each night. And they have the magic of lighting the candles each Friday night throughout the entire year, so there’s that, too.

But from all of this confusion comes good things, new traditions. Tomorrow morning, for instance, Matt will be teaching Alyce’s entire kindergarten class (and some older students, too) about our Hanukkah traditions. Alyce’s school is pretty old-fashioned when it comes to marking holidays, and Christmas is a big deal there. But her teacher tries hard to incorporate her Jewish traditions, and this is why we found ourselves making an enormous batch of sufganiyot tonight, ready for Matt to share them with 30 four and five year olds. He is also bringing a bag full of dreidels, and an episode of Sesame Street where Elmo learns about Hanukkah. I’m sad that I can’t be there tomorrow (but not sad that instead I have a job interview!), but I’m already smiling at what I imagine will take place in Alyce’s classroom tomorrow. Matt is an excellent professor, but a room for of kindergarteners might prove a bit more challenging!

For those of you celebrating Hanukkah, chag sameach! For those celebrating Christmas, you might want to stay clear of Alyce. Or at least keep her away from your children.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, won't you please, please, please mail me one of those sufganiyot? No? okay, I understand... It probably wouldn't fare well on the long journey to California...

    My little Mr. wanted to me to fry up latkes for his entire 3rd grade class. I said no. I am, however, sending him to class loaded with dreidels for everyone... hooray!


    P.S. Alyse is free to tell my children she doesn't believe in Santa... my children don't believe in Santa either (however, if she told them there was no such things at the mid-winter fairies, that would be another matter altogether!)