December 2, 1999
The December Delights, Dilemmas, and Disappointments, for Jews-by-Choice
Dealing with the holiday season is no easy task for a modern Jewish family. Tinsel, bright lights and department store Santas seem to leap out from every corner (certainly from every corner mall). Reinforcing the joy, and the values, of Chanukah can be a challenge to a committed Jewish parent.
For a convert to Judaism, or Jew-by-Choice, the issues become even more complex, the emotions more intense. We are, like other Jews, trying to balance the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. But for us the balancing act is personal: the former world is one we've embraced, the latter is one we've been raised in and left. Ours is the December Dilemma, and then some.
One problem for many of us is a kind of "holiday amnesia" around any Jewish festival. We have no childhood memories of lighting the menorah, eating latkes or playing dreidel with our friends. For myself, I wish I could download some Jewish memories into my mind. What's there now are wonderful memories of decorating our family Christmas tree, smelling the pine needles, and being amazed that Santa Claus filled our stocking. After eight years as a Jew-by-Choice, I have only begun to load up on my own family Chanukah memories, but this is the result of a conscious and at times difficult effort on my part. For many converts, this is a season of some sadness and disappointment.
Lisa*, who converted in 1996, is struggling with just such feelings, compounded by the fact that she does not see her family during the holidays. "When I first converted it was easier. I was in a new relationship with Judaism like the 'honeymoon' stage and was fine with not seeing my family and doing the tree." The feelings of love and family Lisa said she associates with Christmas, she now experiences each Shabbat. But still, her December dilemma remains. "I think I have just not dealt with it," she said. "And just pretending Christmas isn't happening is not working anymore. Now I am feeling angry and getting in touch with the loss."
Karen*, who converted in 1998 and recently had a baby, also has many feelings surface at this time of year. She and her husband light the menorah and observe Chanukah in their home and will spend Christmas with her mother. "My husband was born Jewish, was raised Unitarian and had a Christmas tree. Our struggle is simply what to do. There is no place to go and have a family dinner and celebration because we have no family here. I just feel sad and lonely. I remember the ton of presents under the tree, and our baby not having that feels like she is missing out on something. It feels like a loss in our house."