December 22, 2005
The Midnight Clear
When I light the first Chanukah candle this year on Dec. 25, the mid-winter moon will be waning. Every night, as I add candles to the menorah, the night sky will be darker until, on the last night when we put our chanukiah in the living room window with all nine candles burning, there will be the first small sliver of moon to meet us. The rich and varied ways to understand this ritual -- the light that is about the miracle of survival, about faith, about trust, about refusing to give up your own difficult history for something easier -- still amaze me, 10 years after my official conversion to Judaism.
What does it mean to me that this year the first night of Chanukah falls on Christmas? In Simcha Kling's "Embracing Judaism" (The Rabbinical Assembly, 1987), one of the books I read while I was deciding to convert, the author declares that the hardest thing a convert may have to deal with is the loss of Christmas, the lights, the carols, the family around the table. I see this idea in the wide eyes of Jews who ask me, on learning of my conversion, "But what about Christmas?" For years I have breezily replied that it was a relief for me to opt out of Christmas with all its commercial madness. As a serious little girl, I was made anxious by Christmas; what was real behind the costumes and the decorations? What was it all about? A baby boy in a manger? A fat, bearded stranger in a department store? The queasy feeling of too many gifts and not enough gratitude? Snow? Big family gatherings?
I grew up in Phoenix, in a brand-new suburb populated by small nuclear families like mine who had moved half a continent away from snowy landscapes and complex, extended families. There was no Frosty the Snowman; we did not go over the river and through the woods or listen to silver bells while walking city sidewalks. Even though I went to catechism most Saturday mornings, the only part of Christmas that seemed real to me was the "midnight clear." The stillness of a cold, cloudless desert night, lights shimmering on houses and on the Christmas tree, the darkness, a star, the longing for peace and connection to something holy -- I could feel that.
My family had a somewhat haphazard relationship with ritual. My mother prefers personal, impromptu celebrations. My father, once we'd left his Catholic family in the Midwest, was uninterested and then too ill to participate. I always felt we were just outside the event, at the edge of the gravitational field of Catholic practice. Then, when I was 11, my father died and we drifted away entirely.
Among the things I did not take with me when I left the land of my childhood that year was Christmas. It was a holiday for kids, and especially for kids who were foolish enough to believe that if you were good nothing bad would happen to you. As for the church, what they offered to me seemed beside the point.
I like to tell the story of how I found Judaism -- the Jewish nursery school, my secular, nominally Jewish husband's mild alarm, my realization that I was starving for the specific experience of communal ritual, the fit of this Jewish conversation with my own nature. Only last Friday I found myself at services with my family feeling again flooded with gratitude for Temple Israel, this place where I feel safe and at home. It is much harder, I find, to think about what I left.
What was in fact hardest for me about conversion goes unmentioned in "Embracing Judaism." It was the loss of my family names, the way I became bat Sara v' Abraham instead of Bat Anne and Frank. What would the Maccabees have made of this surrender of my past?
I didn't have to do it. In the beginning of our lives as parents, my husband and I tried celebrating both holidays. I remember driving with my baby daughter in the car and feeling a surge of longing for the familiarity of Christmas carols. We had trees, we opened gifts, we even went to mass on Christmas morning. I could easily have held on to Christmas, kept a tree for the beautiful felt manger scene my mother appliqued when I was a baby, or gone to mass for the music and memories. But it wasn't what I wanted.
Changing religions is like moving to a new country, and for a long time, like lots of new immigrants, I preferred to think about where I was from rather than where I was from.
Chanukah is holiday of gladness and celebration when it is forbidden to give eulogies. We are grateful, we declare, for the miracles that brought us to this day. If, on the first night, I look back from this shore, what I see is that what I did carry with me from my childhood Christmas, from the cold, cloudless desert night and the lights shimmering in the darkness, was the stillness, the expectation, the possibility that has been filled with this, to me, essential present. I am exactly that same person, but now there are candles to light as the moon wanes, vanishes and begins to reappear in the winter sky.
Darcy Vebber is a fiction writer living in Hollywood; on Dec. 25 she will be celebrating Christmas morning with her mother in Phoenix, then flying home to light candles in the evening with her havurah.