A friend of mine just wrote a great post about Interfaith families, well *her* interfaith family that is (check it out here), and all I could think was – yes! This. This is my family! (At least around the holidays.)
You see, we celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas in our house. And it’s fun, albeit busy and seemingly a never ending, yes – continuous – amount of holiday celebrating and organizing throughout the late part of November and all of December. But it is fun, and special to dedicate this time to being with our family. And I appreciate that my children are learning a bit about their Jewish heritage. A bit. Because as the Jewish parent, the mom (so yes, my kids are technically Jewish by birthright) I know very little about Judaism. In fact I know very little about any and all religions.
I am an atheist, and was raised that way.
Or maybe I’m agnostic, because though I am sometimes spiritually inclined, I do not (in any way) believe there is a God or higher power. Though at times I wish I did, because I am terrified of death, but anyway….
Because of my upbringing, I grew up celebrating Christmas in the most atheist/agnostic way.
It was: All. About. The. Presents.
Well that and tense family dinners complete with massive amounts of artery stopping, scrumptious, feasts.
Then, while I was still a young mom with only one child (so long ago) I was stopped by a Rabbi on Queen street while I was out on a date. The Rabbi asked if I was Jewish and I said, “no – not really” which created some curiosity and questions ensued. I explained that my mother’s mother was a Jew, but that she coverted to christianity after meeting my grandfather because his family (not him) was extremely predjudice against Jews (that and in addition to surviving the Holocaust as a child in a concentration camp was just too much for her to take at that point in her life). Of course, converting to Christianity did nothing to change their opinions of her…she was, after all, still a Jew.
But the Rabbi said to me “Well, my dear, you ARE Jewish!” and he explained that my Nana converting was not going to change that. He then handed me a small metal minora and some shamesh candels and sent me on my way to be, well, Jewish. That menorah sat in a box for many years in my basement, mixed in with our Christmas tree decorations and Christmas wrapping paper. I didn’t know anything about Hanukah, nor did I want to then. I was happy being an Atheist, proud even, and it felt (to me at the time) that celebrating Hanukkah was wrong. How could we do eight nights of presents without believing in Jewish religion (yes. I thought Hanukkah was about candles and eight nights of presents). How could we light the menorah when I didn’t even know which day Hanukkah started on! (This was before Google folks). So there it sat, at the bottom of our box marked “Christmas stuff” till one day Pups declared that she wanted to, and we should, celebrate Hanukkah. She had learned about the holiday at school and – through the incredible art of listening when we weren’t speaking directly to her – she had knowledge that she was, in fact, Jewish by birthright.
So, in the way that we celebrated Christmas, we did it – sans religious meaning and with no real clue of what we were doing, or why, we lit the menorah and gave gifts for eight days. Pups was loving it. First eight gifts and then more on Christmas Day. She had this holiday thing in the bag.
As the years passed, and we celebrated Christmaskah (or Hannumas) in our own way. We lit the candles, but there was no traditional Hanukkah food included, nor any prayers sung. And we broke our wallets giving eight gifts of Hanukkah and then doing Christmas shopping. Slowly I started to realize that perhaps I was doing this Hanukkah thing wrong. As if I was jumping in on something that I wasn’t supposed to be involved in. Like a man at a table of gay women claiming he too was a lesbian because he was attracted to females. There was common ground to be sure, but a man is not a lesbian. He just isn’t.
Side note: Yes, I realize that being an Atheist did not stop me from celebrating Christmas and that Christmas itself is *actually* a religious holiday, and I certainly didn’t feel guilty about that. *cough*. But Christmas wasn’t a religious holiday for me. For me it was a time to come together with family. To be especially generous and to believe in magic. It was tradition and spirituality mixed into one without the added God factor. And I admit, I love it.
But then something started happening. Without searching it out, information about this Jewish celebration started being given to me, in one way or another. At first I was unknowingly learning about the game of “dreidel” by overhearing a couple of co-workers chatting about it, and then I was told by a Jewish friend of mine that you don’t actually have to give any gifts at all during Hanukkah. That sometimes she did, and sometimes she didn’t. Seriously, she just sometimes didn’t! in fact she explained that Hanukkah (as opposed to Christmas in my atheist – but still lover of gift giving – eyes) was not about gifts at all!
Then we were lucky enough to be invited to share in our friends Hanukkah diner, and that changed everything. As her child sang the prayers before the candles were lit, and we ate an incredible amount of delicious latkes, I was struck with a feeling of something more. A realization that I could follow our own path within Judaism. That it wasn’t all about religion, it was also about culture, and tradition and community. My Aspie brain had always made it either black or white. I felt that without actually being Jewish in every way, everyday, we were not supposed to partake or to claim that we were Jewish. But something changed that night. I was struck with a sense of pride at my history and my culture. I decided that if we were going to celebrate Hanukkah, even as atheist or agnostic or whatever, we were going to do it right. Or at least as right as I could muster. So now, when we celebrate Hanukkah, we will also make the delicious food that comes with it. We read the stories, play dreidel with Gelt and nuts and we sing the prayers. And we don’t do it because we believe in God, or because we condone war and violence (The Maccabees against Antiochus), or because we believe in miracles because – the truth is, we don’t – we do it because we love coming together this way. Learning about our culture and our history. Celebrating our ancestors their dedication to the culture. Remembering that we come from a rich history full of trials and tribulations, but also of deep cultural traditions born from a community that stuck together and stood up for themselves.
Do we follow every single Jewish tradition? No. Nor do we go to church on Sundays or say thanks before every meal (though that one ain’t half bad and worth considering). But, every year we turn on the computer where we have bookmarked a page that has the prayers written out and includes a recording of a Jewish man who sings the prayers very slowly for the newcomers, the forgetful people, or any interested in these traditions (us). And in our way we celebrate the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days in the rededicated temple after the battle of the Maccabees and Antiochus.
Perhaps one day we will include more Jewish traditions into our household. We have started to read the stories from Jewish folklore and the Torah which has inspired in Bean a deep interest in Judaism. Perhaps she will be Rabbi when she grows up. Until then we attempt to work towards a simple goal: eventually knowing the prayers by heart and not having to listen to the slow monotonous voice of the Jewish man in our computer that leads us through the prayers…