For Christians worldwide, Christmas is a day of celebration. For Orthodox Jews, it’s just another day on the calendar. For me, it’s complicated.
My mother converted nearly thirty years ago. While my dad’s side of the family is pretty right wing Jewish, my mother’s side is frum Catholic. My parents raised me in an extremely open-minded and independent environment, and our home was completely observant: kosher, Shabbat, minyan. Raising a child, especially an Orthodox Jewish child, is never easy. Parents make hard choices about what to expose their kids to and what not to. Because of their background, my parents' job was even more challenging.
In my house, we celebrated Hermit Day, as I called Christmas in my head, by specifically staying home and doing absolutely nothing. Every year, my grandparents would ask us to come to Christmas dinner. My mom would ask my dad. He would say no. She would agree. We wouldn’t go. That was that. They're reasoning was because we were Jewish and didn't celebrate Christmas. That, I think, makes complete sense. And, to this day, I agree.
But then, we had some other wacky Christmas practices. My parents were never social on Christmas, so neither was I. They never used the phone, so I didn’t either. [I once asked if the reason for that was because it was a holiday like Passover, and my dad adamantly responded “chas ve’shalom! God forbid!”] We just let the day fade into nothingness; it was a non-event. That was how my parents chose to straddle the problem of being Jewish while having some non-Jewish family. It was weird though, because my parents would try so hard not to celebrate Christmas that we, inadvertently, created out own Hermit Day traditions.
But my parents did get one message across loud and clear: we do not celebrate Christmas. No problem: as I learned in summer camps growing up, I'm a Jew and I'm proud. That being the case, however, this always felt weird to me: I get that I couldn't go to Christmas dinner- kodesh, God made the Jews separate, but why couldn't I even wish my family happy holidays or a merry Christmas?
That’s not to say I had a bad relationship with my Catholic family- quite the opposite, in fact. My parents toed the line of maintaining family relationships and I saw my Catholic cousins and grandparents all the time.
But it didn’t mean I felt a sense of total identification with them. There were incidents that highlighted our subtle discrepancies. For example, once, my cousin Christopher, at the age of 10, asked to see my father’s horns under his yarmulke. My aunt awkwardly scolded him, insisting it wasn’t true, and we never spoke of it again.
I’ve turned to rabbinic authority in the past to help me handle the complexities of my family situation. Sometimes it helped, other times, it didn’t. In sophomore year of high school, after I learned the laws of kashrut and felt conflicted about going out to eat at non-kosher restaurants with my grandparents, my teacher got me a heter from a prominent North American rabbi accommodate my grandparents’ wishes without violating Jewish law. But not everyone has been so open-minded. While I was studying abroad in Israel during college, a rabbi in my school taught us the laws about Jews entering churches. While he didn't give us a definitive answer about whether or not we, his students, were permitted to enter churches by Jewish law, his interpretation of the sacred texts, the gemarah and rabbis’ commentaries on it, were clear: he thought it was forbidden. I approached him after the lesson and explained that half my family wasn’t Jewish. I love them, I told him. What happened when they die- what happens when my uncles die? Can I go to their funerals? After much hemming and hawing, he said I could cross that bridge when I get there, but, if he to give me an answer on the spot, he would say no.
Three months after that conversation, on the first night of Passover, my Pop-Pop died of a massive, unexpected heart attack. I was home from Israel and had seen him earlier that day. I was broken: I didn't even get to say goodbye. My rabbi encouraged me to neither attend the wake nor the funeral. My father’s rabbi, on the other hand permitted my parents to attend the wake, but not the funeral, as it was in church. I decided to follow my parents. It just didn’t seem gracious, compassionate, or kind for me to not say farewell to my grandfather.
This was a defining moment for me in forging my identity as an Orthodox woman whose mother is a convert to Judaism. This led me to understand that although some halachik opinions dictate, say, that I not enter a church, even to say goodbye to my pop-pop, the Torah is not dictating the way I relate to my Catholic family and certainly not asking me to cut ties with them. Torah is about tolerance and being respectful of others. Torah Judaism is ultimately about remembering where we come from. We are a nation of converts, born from a convert (with some bravado) Avraham. The language of the Torah itself indicates that Judaism is not the only religion that exists in the world, and as such, we should strive to live in harmony alongside one another, as a family would. Though Judaism doesn't proselytize, conversion is common. Many of our leaders are celebrated converts. Ruth. Onkelos. Yitro. It is important, in my opinion and experience, that we have authorities guiding us today who understand the complexities of a family of conversion and to relate to them with halachik sensitivity and some personal sensibility.
With the conversation of Jewish conversion returning to the forefront of the Orthodox conversation yet again (read: the Israeli rabbinate, Syrians, and Rabbi Freundel), I think it's important for us to keep these sensitivities in mind. We have to be mindful about what people are sacrificing in order to enter into brit avraham. And how that sacrifice doesn't stop when they've emerged from the mikveh. It's a lifelong decision that our rabbis and communities must keep in mind and value. And it's a decision that directly affects their children that we must learn how to nurture through all of it's complexities. My parents were careful in maintaining a balance of influence on me as I grew into adulthood and I feel confident to know that I will make the right choices. Choices that I feel proud to represent them by.
So this December 25th I won't be celebrating Hermit Day and I will wish my Nana a Merry Christmas because I know how much it will mean to her.
Rachel is a freelance religion journalist based in New York City. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Diplomat, and Tablet Magazine. Follow her on twitter @RDBENAIM.
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