Be the change you wish to see in the world...

- Gandhi

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Celebrating Hanukkah As A Convert

VeegMama celebrates Hanukkah

Another version of this post was originally published on my friend, Christie's blog, last week as part of a special holiday series she's hosting, where she features other writers as they reflect on how their families have grown their experiences of the holidays.  I'd like to give a special "thank you" to Christie for inviting me to participate!

Before I was Jewish, my husband and I celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas in our house.  I was baptized Catholic, but not raised very strictly in the religion.  I grew up with a strong spiritual relationship with God, and an appreciation of other religions, always encouraged to explore and ask questions.   I didn't identify with prominent aspects of the Catholic religion, but instead nurtured a deep connection with Source (with God).

Christmas was my favorite holiday and I delighted in everything that comes with the season - Santa, stockings, Christmas lights, carols, and all of the other magic.  Although we were raising our kids Jewish, my husband and I agreed to celebrate both holidays in our home so that our children would have exposure to my traditions too.  We would put a tree up in the house, decorated in blue and silver.  It would stand alongside our table, decorated with a menorah and other Hanukkah decorations.  We'd host a Hanukkah dinner with both sides of our family, and he would join me at my family's Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities.  We celebrated this way, mixing both holidays in the home, for the first five years of our marriage.

Then, in January of 2006, I converted to Judaism.  It was never my intention, nor my husband's expectation.  I made the decision after a very spiritual experience during Rosh Hashanah holiday services alongside my daughter, who was two years old at the time (and I was pregnant with my second.)  As we sang the Shema (a Hebrew prayer), I was overcome with a divine desire to connect with my daughter and future baby as a fellow Jew.  I was raising them Jewish, but I wanted to be the same as them.  I wanted to share in the holidays, their religious exploration, and spiritual discovery, together in the same religion.  My children brought me to Judaism.  I experienced no conflict or wavering in this decision.  My heart knew this was where I belonged and I never looked back.

When it came time for the holidays 10 months later, I casually mentioned to my husband that we didn't need a tree that year.  He looked at me shocked (and a bit appalled), "What do you mean?  Why not?"  I explained very matter-of-factly that Jews did not celebrate Hanukkah with Christmas trees, so there was no need to decorate one in our house anymore.  Hanukkah was now our holiday.  Seeing the disappointment on his face, I assured him that we would still decorate a tree with my parents, but we now had new traditions to create in our home.

This new separation of the holidays - Hanukkah in our home and Christmas at my parents' -  has made the season so much richer for me (and my children).  As I reflect 8 years later on all of this, I realize that I have created more traditions in our family by solely focusing on Hanukkah in our home.
I admit that I used to feel a bit overwhelmed as to how to "compete" with Christmas.  When I first converted, I worried my children wouldn't enjoy Hanukkah with the same awe that I enjoyed Christmas as a kid.  I wanted to make the season as special for them as it was for me.  I did the only thing that I knew to do: celebrate big with love and showcase the meaning of the season.  This was how we celebrated Christmas as a kid, and was how I would celebrate Hanukkah with my kids.

Hanukkah has become even more meaningful in our home because I go "all out" to make the Festival of Lights truly just that.  We feast at get-togethers with different family and friends each night, full of latkes and traditional foods.  We collect menorahs and light the candles together each night.  My kids receive a new present for each of the 8 nights of the holiday.  We read books together about the Maccabees and how they fought for our freedom.  Hanukkah is a fun and festive time in our household.

And then there is Christmas.  My family still gets to decorate Christmas trees, build Gingerbread houses, open stockings and presents from Santa, and play Elf on a Shelf.  It just all happens at grandma's and grandpa's house.  We get to experience all of the mainstream "magic" that comes with the season, while strengthening our Hanukkah traditions.  My kids are clear about their Jewish background and what they celebrate, but they have the benefits of maternal grandparents who celebrate Christmas.  In a community that does not have a lot of Jews, I feel good that I am instilling Jewish traditions by keeping Hanukkah the only holiday celebrated in our home, but I am also grateful that my family does not have to miss out on the splendor of Christmas that I grew up with and love so much.  We have the benefits of both worlds.

I have no personal childhood experience to draw from when celebrating Hanukkah.  I am told from fellow Jewish friends that we celebrate more enthusiastically than other households.  The reality is that Hanukkah does not have the same religious experience and importance in the Jewish religion as Christmas does for Christians.  I am grateful to my Christmas traditions for influencing me to kick my Hanukkah celebrations up a notch.  My husband mentioned to me the other night, "You make the holiday so fun for the kids.  They are so excited for Hanukkah.  They have been talking about it all month,"  "Really?" I mused, still a tad insecure as to whether the kids enjoy Hanukkah as much as I enjoyed Christmas as a kid.  He went on, "Growing up, we received gifts the first one or two nights, not all eight.  And we didn't celebrate with friends and family every night.  You have made this holiday really special, something we all look forward to."

These words were so rewarding to hear, especially as I continue to explore and expand on my Jewish path.  There are also the new traditions that sprout up, reminding me that my kids are what brought me on this journey and continue to influence our celebrations.  This year, as I planned my Hanukkah menu, my oldest daughter and I enthusiastically dreamed up a sufganiyot, (a traditional jelly doughnut dessert at Hanukkah), cupcake!  I know it will be a surefire hit at our table this year, and no doubt, a new Hanukkah tradition.