I am a Jew who enjoys Christmas. Something I thought would never happen, especially because I always yearned for a Jewish practicing home.
I was raised by very secular parents. When I was a kid, I observed my dad bowing mockingly to the east on Rosh Hashanah. And while I know Jewish food doesn’t make a home religious, I wasn’t surrounded by food from my Ashkenazi culture. Sadly, my mom never made a brisket in her life. I was so oblivious to the Jewish calendar that during High Holidays I would be taken aback by friends going to shul, or when they attended Shabbat dinners. Meanwhile, the intensity of Christmas was overwhelming. What’s a non-Jew, non-Christian to do: continue feeling like she doesn’t fit in, or create a space to belong? I looked at my own team, the Jewish one, and made a choice to get involved.
I started my adventure by dating the Rabbi’s son. Like a curious student in a foreign land I was eager to learn their religious customs. What I remember about this time was unscrewing the light bulb in my fridge so I wouldn’t turn the lights on during Shabbat. And tying the belt of my parka around my purse so I wouldn’t be carrying on Shabbat. I went from extreme nothing to extreme everything.
I eventually married a Jewish lawyer and created the home and hearth I wanted for my own children: long tables with many seats filled with friends and family at Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Shabbat dinners. I gave my kids what I didn’t get from my parents—a home filled with Jewish traditions, a place to come from. Yet, after many years of seemingly being the picture-perfect Jewish family, my marriage crashed and burned. The structure collapsed like an empty sukkah in a harsh wind.
I have remarried a wonderful non-judgemental man, who is not Jewish. Are my Russian and Polish ancestors spinning in their grave while I celebrate Christmas with him? But I’m not the only one. My sister, and my two sons, are all happily ensconced around their own separate Christmas celebrations in separate cities across Canada.
The enjoyment of twinkling lights in the neighbourhood accompanied by a full meal with all the trimmings feels like entering a magical land, yet as a new inductee it can be a hollow experience. When I light the Shabbat candles I feel connected to the long history of Jewish practices. It’s not just my hand guiding the light, but the hands of all the women that light Shabbat candles. During Passover, I slide into a well-worn track and feel present when I lead the Seder.
There is some relief in being able to participate in the dominant culture. I don’t have to avert my eyes from the sparkly Christmas décor, or feel guilty about singing along to God rest ye Merry Gentlemen. I have given myself permission to be firmly in touch with my Jewish roots as I host the weekly Shabbat Zoom with my family, even as I am planning to sing carols with my new family. On our Zoom calls my sons do the blessings from their respective cities on the wine and the challah, while at my home we’re blessing the challah my loving husband bakes every Friday. I happily lead my family in Judaic traditions, and also go to Church with my husband during the holidays, singing along in a major key. By sharing our unique customs we have grown closer.
The secret, I’ve discovered, is to have an open heart. I can have my fruit cake and eat it too. With a husband that embraces and respects my heritage I am free to do the same for him. There is no contradiction as long as we each don’t claim to “own” the truth. My kids know where I stand: be clear about your birthright, but don’t let it isolate you from the joy of sharing other cultures. I now know I can partake in Christmas festivities on a superficial level without sacrificing my Jewish identity. As it turns out, being sure where you come from will lead you to the place you ought to go.
For a long time, I thought I would only find belonging in the Jewish community, but when I opened myself to new possibilities I found the balance that I was looking for.
Header image by Shelley Werner.