Jewish Journal

Lights Were Last to Go

by Kathleen Vallee Stein

Posted on Dec. 25, 2003 at 7:00 pm

My family never went to church but celebrated Christian holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child and counted myself lucky that I didn't have to spend long, boring hours at church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church. I don't know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way -- until I fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know more.

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband, they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights, gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor's roof, with huge spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas -- from afar. I sing along with Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow's Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to get my latke's crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays and heartily respond, "Merry Christmas" to my Christian friends, knowing in the deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew.  

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

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