Sixteen Christmases and a Chanukah Bush
What a difference a year makes. Or two. During the 2010 holiday season, I celebrated my first Chanukah and spent my first year without a Christmas tree–thinking it was the first of many. Last year, I proved the lie of that expectation by creating a way to celebrate a Jewish holiday season without relinquishing cherished family traditions. At the time, I was pretty apologetic about my decision to put up an Eitz Moed (holiday tree in Hebrew.) My 2011 holiday blog post was a carefully conceived, detailed justification for my tradition-melding new minhag.
This year, my Eitz Moed went up much more easily. I guess the more time passes beyond your conversion date, the more secure you feel in your Judaism and your Jewish choices. We left the old (17 million individual branch, unlit) evergreen back at Marina City when we moved north to Edgewater. The new, three-piece, pre-lit pine showcases our somewhat handcrafted, fully symbolically Jewish ornaments much better–which is a good thing since I had to squeeze into the back seat for Ryan to fit the box into the car and drag it home from a southwest suburban K-Mart.
Since the day after Thanksgiving, it has sat in a living room full of Chanukah bling and, closer to Christmas, cherished cards and decorations from both of our pre-Jewish lives. We shared a feast on the first night of Chanukah with two convert friends, playing dreidel by the light of four menorahs and a Hanukkah Bush–a term that unlike last year I fully embrace–with no sense of irony at all.
Much less qualms. I get that many Jews-by-birth have a hard time disassociating Christmas trees from evil acts committed against our people in olden times. But I also think it’s kind of haughty for so many Jews to dig their heels in and declare Christmas trees religious symbols when millions more Christians declare over and over that in their experience–people for whom it should actually be a religious holiday–Christmas is really secular and commercial. In this, as I’ve blogged before, the alleged December Dilemma really is self-imposed.
When you get right down to it, if a Jew or their children become somehow motivated to no longer be Jewish by the mere act of putting up a tree or hanging a stocking, their problems run far, far deeper than Christmas. “Sorry, ma, I’m not coming to shul anymore. I put up mistletoe and now I accept Jesus Christ as my savior.” If religion really worked that way, Halloween would have turned most of America pagan by now.
Still, the C7 multi-lights were a bit much. I wanted some retro theming this year and was bummed that we had bought a tree pre-lit with white lights. But the new tree and lights ended up working really well with our handmade lulavs, etrogs, and etc. And unlike last year, we didn’t have a sense that our tree was upstaging our chanukiyot or Chanukah decorations. (Though the life-threatening monotony of Pandora’s ill-conceived Chanukah station did send us running to Christmas music a couple of times.)
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned this year is you have to be your own Jew. True to your experience and understanding of Judaism, and to your experience and understanding of the larger world around you as framed by those values. You have to be true to your own, God-given Jewish self.
Sometimes that means you run with the crowd. Sometimes it means you stick to your principles and stand alone. (Complacency is not Jewish value, but we often forget that debate, dissent, and turning things over to see every angle are.) Being Jewish doesn’t mean agreeing with all other Jews. It means engaging with other Jews both when you agree and when you don’t.
When I count up my blessing this year, Ryan, our continued incomes, our apartment, our health, our congregation, Camoes, all figure into it. But something else does, too. This year, I’m most grateful for learning that perhaps the height of living a Jewish life is the courage to be grateful and stand your ground at the same time.
No one said Judaism was easy. Or life, for that matter. An easy life might be keeping your head down and your opinions to yourself. But it wouldn’t be much of a Jewish one. If nothing else, our people are known for two things: our capacity to transcend this world with love; and our willingness to give voice to our values.
It’s not always a comfortable balancing act. But it is a sacred one.