Fourteen Christmases and a Chanukiyah

Update 11/30/10: I am absolutely honored that the official Reform Judaism blog has cross-published this blog post today…

I’m getting a bit tired of the inner amazement with which I keep experiencing my Reform Jewish conversion journey. My rabbi recently asked me to do a writing assignment about the hardest aspects to accept about Judaism. I didn’t have much to write about without hedging. The truth is, I keep finding an intense amount of myself in Judaism. The experience is almost as if I’ve always been Jewish, and only now have finally realized it. Intellectually, the journey involves lots of study and deliberation. Emotionally, I’m right there already.

All of which goes out the window a month before Christmas. Close friends have always known to give me a wide berth in the weeks prior to Christmas, specifically when I’m decorating my house. My artificial tree is 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 thousand multi-colored lights around the outside. I have a box of ornaments a large family of cats could live in. The whole thing takes 18 hours to put up and decorate, with me complaining through the tedious, marathon event.

And I’m becoming a Jew and Chanukah’s in two weeks. Huh.

I knew a big choice was coming for me. I thought it would be a harder one to make. I thought it would be painful. Really painful. It hasn’t been. Not yet, at least. And that’s been a huge surprise.

I like to say I was raised as a lapsed Catholic. I took religion class in elementary school, but it never really took to me. Even as a young child I never identified with Catholic doctrine. As a result, my annual Yuletide fervor has always been secular. That big, bright tree has always reminded me of the (admittedly too few) happy times of my youth, when my mother, grandmother, and screwy siblings would all call a truce and come together in a sense of joy. Before she died, the last time I saw my mother alive was Christmas Day 1995. Since then, Christmases have also become a second Mother’s Day for me, a time to mark my mother’s life and my love for her. Well, that and to remember the pain of telling her I would be back to visit her the next week…and not doing it.

That’s a lot of pressure for any holiday to live up to. For years, I would look forward to Christmas, enter the season aggressively, demand it cover my yearlong need for checking in with a sense of ephemeral wonder and joy, of awe and gratitude towards God, and of remembrance. It never worked. Come January 1st, I always felt an intense sense of loneliness and disappointment–compounded by the fact that I’d have to wait 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 feel spiritually homeless anymore. My lifelong sense of lacking wholeness just isn’t there anymore. As Christmas approaches, I’ve been realizing that 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 a daily basis, through a new, Jewish lens. My ritual practice (eating kosher, saying blessings over food, keeping Shabbat–the Jewish sabbath, daily prayer, among others) has been like a get-into-the-spirit-free card, one that I can play over and over.

It isn’t as if God has changed. But I have. Or, more clearly, my new Jewish vocabulary has let me get in touch with who I really am–a person of faith with a need to honor that faith more than once a year. I just never had a framework to let that happen. Now I do, and I’m overjoyed to know that.

Even though I may be back in my own apartment before the end of December, I won’t put up a Christmas tree this year. For one, I’d feel like a giant hypocrite if I did. I know my Jewish identity inside and in good conscience, I know I just don’t have another tree in me. That makes me a little sad. But at the same time, I’m astounded that the feeling of Christmas, all the spiritual things I used to associate with it, 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 visit Christmas 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 chanukiyah, or Chanukah 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 (Chanukah starts the evening of December 1st this year), learning how to spin a dreidel, and figuring out how not to burn the living daylights out of myself while frying up latkes.

My major emotional investment this season won’t be in what really amounts to a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, though. There’s one last piece of Christmas that is about to find a home on my Jewish journey. My mother’s yahrtzeit–the anniversary of her death–arrives in December. For once, I’ll be among the members of my congregation standing and reciting the mourner’s kaddish prayer.

And somewhere, I know an Iberian Christian mother will be smiling.

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