December 21, 2006
Saying ‘shalom’ to Santa Claus
The dishes represented another part of my life, a part that was past, and I had to move on. I was never a devout Christian, but we always had a tree when I was a kid, and Santa Claus came every year. The Christmas dishes were given to me by my former mother-in-law, who gave me a place setting every year.
Having celebrated Chanukah only two times, I was still new to its joys. My latkes were greasy; I stumbled over the dreidel song but still sang along easily with the Christmas carols on the radio. The menorah, with its nine tiny candles, was not as festive as the neighbor's house that glittered and shone as bright as a Las Vegas casino.
As I considered giving up the dishes, I remembered the story of Ruth and Naomi. When Ruth declared to her mother-in-law, Naomi, "Your people shall be my people, and your God my God," I wonder if she took a plate or two with her as she departed. Conversion is a commitment to a new life but also requires relinquishing some remnants of the old life that are deeply engrained. It takes time.
The day the Recycler came out, I got a call from a woman who wanted to see the dishes. When my prospective buyer arrived, I welcomed her and showed her the dishes that were displayed on the coffee table. She sat on the couch, and I could see she loved them. I had priced the dishes at a very affordable $100, and she didn't quibble about the price. I knew she would cherish the dishes as I had. It was at that moment that I fully let go of my old life.
My conversion class took 17 weeks, but it took much more time to feel, think and react like a Jew. It took years before I said "us," when talking about Jewish issues. On the rare occasions when "born Jews" were less than welcoming to me, I felt that sting and reminded myself that, although Jews turn away a potential convert three times, once the commitment is made, I was just as Jewish as anyone. Paradoxically, their rude comments made me feel more Jewish.
I learned that Chanukah is a minor holiday as Jewish holidays go. Over the years, I have developed a deep attachment to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and begun to refer to them as "the holidays" and no longer use that term to mean Christmas and New Years. By the time Christmas comes, my holidays are pretty much over.
In my 22 years as a Jew, I have seen the commercialization of Chanukah increase and watched the small displays at bookstores and in mail order catalogs grow every year. I succumbed to their charm and now have Chanukah towels in my bathroom, a battery-operated menorah and a small dreidel collection. Even though I enjoy putting out the items every year when Chanukah comes, I am grateful that Judaism's most solemn holy days will never be overwhelmed by consumerism, as Jesus' birth has.
Last year, I threw a Chanukah party and learned from the hands of a master how to cook latkes. She told me to get a decent food processor as she watched me grate five pounds of potatoes by hand. She taught me how to get them brown and crisp -- simply give up on the notion of good nutrition at this time of year and pour on the oil. I can sing Chanukah songs by heart, though I still sing Christmas carols with the radio. If Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand can sing them, so can I.
Occasionally, as I light a candle on the menorah on a dark December night, I think about my former Christmas dishes and the woman who bought them. I imagine that she lovingly sets them on her table, as she prepares her Christmas dinner, and I smile.
Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia and is a proud Jew-by-choice. She can be reached at valleeview.net.