Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Santa and the Maccabees

The holidays are over and quiet resumes in our small household. We love the hubbub of family, but it also deepens our appreciation of the quiet we so often take for granted.

The holidays also force a different reflection on my part. As a secular Jew married to a non-Jew I say the blessings over the Chanukah candles even as we debate what to get for Xmas presents for kids and grandkids. We don't have a Christmas tree in our home, but we enjoy the festive atmosphere at my stepdaughter's home and the family gatherings that go with it.

One evening one of my stepdaughters asked me to explain about Chanukah to her daughter. I demurred thinking about all those times I was asked to do that in grade school, the only Jewish kid for many years. I wasn't sure I could do it justice, but I also thought of it as a bit player in the whole scheme of Jewish holidays. What can I say...It's a minor holiday promoted so Jewish kids don't feel left out. I think about the question behind the question. How do you explain to a child that there are many different traditions? And for me, the larger question of how do I explain that being Jewish is an important part of who I am even though it doesn't appear to be.

It is a question that faces every secular Jew. Why does this matter? I didn't always realize it did. My former husband wasn't Jewish and I remember Christmas celebrations with his family. An aunt would always propose midnight mass and I would catch my husband's eye with a look of desperation. "Get me out of this!" it screamed. Celebrations are fine, but hold the religion. Somehow we never went. I wonder if they did when I was no longer on the scene.

In our own home my ex had wanted a Christmas tree. It was a part of his tradition, but made me feel as if I were abandoning what little linkage I had to my heritage. We compromised by hanging an ornament on a spindly palm tree in our home. My ex then did a sumi painting of it on rice paper on the cards we sent out that year. Wishing you a warm holiday season. An artistic homage with a twist.

Then of course there were the gnarlier questions. How would we raise those theoretical children that I wasn't even sure I wanted to have? Why Jewish of course. I couldn't conceive of anything else. My then-husband was puzzled. I didn't seem particularly Jewish. Why did it matter so much? I wasn't quite sure myself except that it would have felt like a betrayal of who I was.

So who exactly was I? So often being Jewish in a Christian culture is defined by otherness. I related a story to my stepdaughter of when I grew up. It was a time when everyone decorated their home at Christmas. Everyone but us. As nighttime approached and the lights came on, our house was the only one that remained dark.

My parents struggled with how to raise their Jewish kids so they didn't feel left out. At Christmas they made a mild concession. They let us hang a stocking. I still remember getting little figures of people in my stocking. Then they began to feel a bit guilty and decided they had to stop this before it got baked into a tradition. This was complicated by the fact that we believed in Santa so it wasn't just a matter of them stopping the gift giving. It had to make sense to us. I would love to have listened in on their conversation as to how to tackle this dilemma. Their solution was to go directly to the man. They called Santa at the North Pole to tell him we were Jewish and that he must have stopped at our house in error. My brother and I were not bothered in the least by these ill-gotten gifts and screamed in the background for them not to tell him.

Chest with Star of David pulls- Sorolla Museo

Much of my experience of being Jewish was being outside looking in. I lived in a Christian culture and with friends I decorated Christmas trees and painted Easter eggs. No confusion there, it was their culture, not mine.

I often think of a drawing I did as a child. The assignment must have been to draw Christmas in a time before cultural sensitivity was expected. I drew a Christmas tree. I stood next to it, but behind me was a dresser. Each drawer had a drawer pull shaped like a Star of David. Some part of me was hidden in that chest. I am amused at the way I covertly asserted my heritage, a hidden Jew of sorts. On a recent trip to Madrid, I was startled to see a chest with Stars of David on each drawer and flashed back to my drawing. I wondered what stories filled these drawers.

Every child reacts differently to being an outsider. Some press their nose against the glass and want in. Others come to embrace their otherness. Otherness can be a gift, allowing one to see the world more clearly, creating a space from which to appraise the world at arms-length. That perspective often serves as a creative engine and it allows one to challenge and question. Now imagine a culture in part defined by otherness, an otherness not always visible. I begin to understand why many of the people I have developed friendships with are Jewish. I am drawn to differences, people with a bit of attitude who question and challenge the norms, creative people. It is a constellation of traits found in otherness.

But Judaism is more than otherness. It is a religion, a culture and a heritage. I grew up in a Reform temple and went through the religious school until I was 16. We had a comparative religion class where we attended different churches and learned about their beliefs. I was fascinated and rather appalled at the idea of dogma. Why would you ever believe something because someone told you to? It was a foreign concept to me for questioning was clearly encouraged in my family. In my confirmation class we debated if God existed and if so in what form. The rabbi led the discussion and it felt like the ultimate in questioning. I think it was then that I decided I could be Jewish.

My relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. My exploration of family history drew me closer and my reading about the experience of Jews throughout history formed a self-created curriculum of sorts. For several years I've participated in a Jewish artists' lab which has deepened my understanding and built a community of like-minded creative people. My artwork too has explored the Jewish experience.

Yet as many American Jews, I live in both worlds. My current husband is not Jewish, but our values and beliefs are very similar. He is an artist also and perhaps as such has a touch of the otherness I seek. The fundamental aspect of Judaism that spoke to me at 16 still speaks to me. I need to be free to question, to challenge and to explore. I am grateful to be part of a heritage that gives me the room to do so.


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