Fourteen Christmases and a Hanukkiyah
I'm getting a bit tired of the inner amazement with which I keepexperiencing my Reform Jewish conversion journey. My rabbi recentlyasked me to do a writing assignment about the hardest aspects to acceptabout Judaism. I didn't have much to write about without hedging. Thetruth is, I keep finding an intense amount of myself in Judaism. Theexperience is almost as if I've always been Jewish, and only now havefinally realized it. Intellectually, the journey involves lots of studyand deliberation. Emotionally, I'm right there already.
All of which goes out the window a month before Christmas. Closefriends have always known to give me a wide berth in the weeks prior toChristmas, specifically when I'm decorating my house. My artificial treeis seven-and-a-half-feet tall,with 85 branches and 2,400 branch tips. For the past 14 Christmases,I've strung 200 white lights around the core and another thousandmulti-colored lights around the outside. I have a box of ornaments alarge family of cats could live in. The whole thing takes 18 hours toput up and decorate, with me complaining through the tedious, marathonevent.
And I'm becoming a Jew and Hanukkah's in two days. Huh.
I knew a big choice was coming for me. I thought it would be a harderone to make. I thought it would be painful. Really painful. It hasn'tbeen. Not yet, at least. And that's been a huge surprise.
I like to say I was raised as a lapsed Catholic. I took religionclass in elementary school, but it never really took to me. Even as ayoung child I never identified with Catholic doctrine. As a result, myannual Yuletide fervor has always been secular. That big, bright treehas always reminded me of the (admittedly too few) happy times of myyouth, when my mother, grandmother, and screwy siblings would all call atruce and come together in a sense of joy. Before she died, the lasttime I saw my mother alive was Christmas Day 1995. Since then,Christmases have also become a second Mother's Day for me, a time tomark my mother's life and my love for her. Well, that and to rememberthe pain of telling her I would be back to visit her the next week...andnot doing it.
That's a lot of pressure for any holiday to live up to. For years, Iwould look forward to Christmas, enter the season aggressively, demandit cover my yearlong need for checking in with a sense of ephemeralwonder and joy, of awe and gratitude towards God, and of remembrance. Itnever worked. Come January 1st, I always felt an intense sense ofloneliness and disappointment-compounded by the fact that I'd have towait another 11 months to try and feel spiritually whole again.
In one of my essay answers, I remarked to my rabbi that I don't feelspiritually homeless anymore. My lifelong sense of lacking wholenessjust isn't there anymore. As Christmas approaches, I've been realizingthat the sense of wonder, and awe, and gratitude-not to mention a deep,everyday connection with God-are all things I've been experiencing on adaily basis, through a new, Jewish lens. My ritual practice (eatingkosher, saying blessings over food, keeping Shabbat-the Jewish sabbath,daily prayer, among others) has been like a get-into-the-spirit-freecard, one that I can play over and over.
It isn't as if God has changed. But I have. Or, more clearly, my newJewish vocabulary has let me get in touch with who I really am-a personof faith with a need to honor that faith more than once a year. I justnever had a framework to let that happen. Now I do, and I'm overjoyed toknow that.
Even though I may be back in my own apartment before the end ofDecember, I won't put up a Christmas tree this year. For one, I'd feellike a giant hypocrite if I did. I know my Jewish identity inside and ingood conscience, I know I just don't have another tree in me. Thatmakes me a little sad. But at the same time, I'm astounded that thefeeling of Christmas, all the spiritual things I used to associate withit, I already have access to, every day of my increasingly Jewish life.So I can let go of my tree fetish in love. (And I can always visitChristmas in many happy places-the homes of close friends-anyway.)
This week, after much window-shopping-and calling out Target for offering to deliver one by Christmas Eve-I purchased my first hanukkiyah, or Hanukkah menorah. I quietly said a shehecheyanu to myself as I headed back to the 'L' from the Spertus Institute gift shop. (Watch Carol Dane's loving musical interpretation of the blessing here.) I felt like a six-year-old, looking forward to lighting the candles next Wednesday night (Hanukkah starts the evening of December 1st this year), learning how to spin adreidel, and figuring out how not to burn the living daylights out ofmyself while frying up latkes.
My major emotional investment this season won't be in what reallyamounts to a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, though. There's onelast piece of Christmas that is about to find a home on my Jewishjourney. My mother's yahrtzeit - the anniversary of her death - arrives in December. For once, I'll be amongthe members of my congregation standing and reciting the mourner's kaddish prayer.
And somewhere, I know an Iberian Christian mother will be smiling.