Sunday, December 28, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Have a happy holiday, damn it!
Late November through almost the entirety of December is generally a hectic time for me. A week after trying to lord it over my mother and sister for control over half of the Thanksgiving menu and debating with myself if it's even worth trying to keep kosher for the day before inevitably stuffing myself to the gills either way, I get to experience the unrestrained joy of acknowledging that I am a year older, and still miles away from being where I want to be in my life, and yet one step closer to "being old." Sometimes it's also Chanukah, which, here in Southern Oregon, is a relatively quiet time for me, where I make latkes and homemade apple sauce for myself, light candles on my menorah (or "chanukiah" for those of us in the Hebrew know), and sigh with yet more soul-crushing longing for life in Jerusalem. Gazing at the little flames dancing on their candle wicks, I know that I'm supposed to be reflecting on the never-ending-miracle-oil™ and the bad-assness of the Maccabean Revolt, but really, I just find myself wishing to once again stroll the streets of Jerusalem's Nachlaot neighborhood on a chilly night, with sufganiyah in hand while I marvel at all the pretty chanukiot all lit-up and on display in the cozy windows of the picturesque Jewish homes (note: I'm pretty sure I've never actually been merrily eating sufganiyot while simultaneously frolicking through the streets and admiring the lit-up windows of one of my favorite Jerusalem neighborhoods during a brisk Chanukah evening, but I also swear that I somehow have a memory of ice-skating while drinking hot-chocolate, hand-in-hand with jolly old St. Nick from around some Christmas during my gentile youth; pretty sure that never happened. I mean, I've never ice-skated in my life). This year, Chanukah went right up to the eve of Christmas Eve, and then it was suddenly Christmas day. And Christmas is, quite honestly, such a confusing time to be a gentile turned Jew such as myself, especially while living with my family.

Christmas is the same holiday today as it was from my childhood; there are colorful lights adorning the neighborhood houses, inexplicable pine trees sitting in living rooms, all decorated and lit up as well. There's a charming, bearded fat man, looking like a Rebbe in red asking kids if they've been naughty or nice while they gaze up in awe of him, perched upon his lap. There are images of reindeer that purportedly fly, and mom's sugar cookies baked in the familiar shapes of snowflakes and sleighs, hot-chocolate with peppermint canes melting in red and green mugs, and every channel on television plays movies with Chevy Chase, Tim Allen and Ralphie hilariously shooting his eye out with the highly coveted gift of a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. There's a cozy fire in the fireplace where my teddy bear stocking from childhood hangs, holding gifts for me from my enormously giving and loving family, despite the fact that this holiday is no longer mine. There's nostalgia in every scent from the baking Christmas goodies in the oven, and memories that arise like ghosts from the past and haunt every photo put out on display of me and my sister sitting on Santa's lap, looking like the WASPiest set of kid that ever came into existence. From my blazing white-blonde hair, red velvet Christmas dress and shockingly easy smile, the image of my past self bears no hint of the fact that I would grow up one day to realize that, well holy shit, it looks like I'm supposed to be a Jew! There are also little figures of Mary, Joseph, the three Wise Men and a baby Jesus hanging out in a manger and looking all doe-eyed and serene, but I've grown used to Christian symbols all around the house, juxtaposed strangely with the modest mezuzah hanging on my bedroom door, behind which, is where the seemingly random Jewish artifacts are kept with me in my lonely Jewish abode. Like I said, nothing has changed, except for me. Obviously, I've changed a lot since Christmas was one of my holidays.

It's hard to let go of Christmas, especially as I remain here with my family for the time being. Like last year, Chanukah comes and goes, while I try to explain to my gentile friends and family that Chanukah isn't the "Jewish Christmas-" that American Jews likely felt the need at some point to compete with the cultural dominance of Christmas, which it happens to share a season with, especially when raising Jewish kids; perhaps they wonder at some point why the Rebbe in Red doesn't come to visit their houses to leave presents like he does at the homes of their gentile classmates ("Are we naughty while the Christian kids are nice? Is Santa an antisemite? I mean, what gives?!") Giving gifts on Chanukah is a rather American thing, and not what the minor Jewish chag is all about anyway. It shouldn't have to compete with the grandiosity of an American Christmas, but by default, it understandably kind of does anyway.

I also find myself standing by the fact that latkes are not glorified hash-browns, and sufganiyot are not just Hebrew doughnuts--not after you've had them in Jerusalem, anyway. I give up on the idea that my family will ever dream of excluding me from the gift-giving tradition of Christmas, because to them, that just isn't right, and it has nothing to do with Jesus anyway. Granted, neither does Santa and his reindeer, the Christmas tree, or about a billion other Christmas traditions, but I still feel awkward as I do my own Christmas shopping for my family, because I can't possibly accept gifts and refuse to reciprocate because of religious differences, can I? What am I supposed to do on Christmas morning, anyway? Sit by myself in my bedroom, gloomily picking the wax off of my chanukiah, while my family gathers in the living room to exchange gifts and happily reminisce about holidays past? Those memories belong to me too after all, and there is a lot of happiness in them. They include my now deceased grandmother, and a simpler time when I was young, happy, debt-free, and not sitting around longing for things currently beyond my grasp, because chances were, those things that I was longing for were waiting for me under the Christmas tree, wrapped and decorated with love. I remember believing in Santa Clause when I left cookies and milk out for him, because believing was a nice thought, and that was good enough to satisfy me at the time.

I also find myself feeling a bit down when strangers ask me if I'm ready for Christmas, if I'm going out of town for Christmas, if I had a nice Christmas--and that’s not because you should buy into the tinfoil-hat wearing extreme Right's paranoia around the fictional "War on Christmas" in this country. Rather, I feel down because it is just assumed that I have easy, simple, fun, happy associations with the season, and that it is, of course, my holiday. Here, Chanukah is lonely, like every other Jewish holiday, and Christmas is some sort of guilty pleasure that I'm not supposed to indulge in anymore, and yet when I do, it grants me momentary relief from that holiday loneliness that I otherwise get to swallow for more than a month. It's not "Merry Christmas" that bothers me. It's not even the intent behind the questions about how "my Christmas" is going. It's that it isn't really my holiday anymore, and at the moment, I've got little else to fill the void here. It's like they're all saying, "Trade in your latkes for ham--who are you kidding? I’m sure it was fun being Jewish and all, but now it's time to take all those steps backwards and embrace reality. Now, tell me that you had a merry Christmas! It ruins it for everyone else if you don’t!"

All of these difficult feelings are, of course, due to my own insecurity over my Jewish identity that has gone too long in its half-dormant expression while I trudge through months-turned-to-years of getting back to where I once was, because I wasn’t done being a Jew in Jerusalem, or living in Israel, or settling into the Jewish life that I had chosen for myself. Perhaps if Chanukah weren’t so lonely, perhaps if I hadn’t just turned one year older, I’d have no problems with connecting to Christmas in a real and happy way, because after all, Christmas is a part of my own history. It’s a part of my connection with my family. It has nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity for me, except when I feel like the Jewish alternative of the season means more loneliness, more isolation, more longing for doors currently shut and firmly locked around me. It's disconcerting to have a grand Christmas when your Jewish holidays have been so difficult. I don't mean to compare, but I can't seem to help it.

The solution to all of this, of course, is “Next year, in Jerusalem!” Or perhaps, “Next year, in Bethlehem, because it’s right next door to Jerusalem and doesn’t Christmas in Bethlehem sound interesting!?” To be an outsider looking in is fine, if you have other outsiders with you. Otherwise you end up looking at all the happiness around you, surrounded with Christmas cheer, and try to smile while you pretend that something significant isn’t wholly and definitely missing in your Jewish soul. You know that you walked away from this, and you walked away for a reason, and while it’s nice to visit, you know it just isn’t home anymore, and never again can it be. Home is where you aren’t, and nothing can change that in the moment.

Plenty of people feel depressed around this time of year. Perhaps you've lost someone that you no longer get to share the season with. Last year, a childhood friend of mine killed himself just days before Christmas, and I think about him, his family, and that bitter dose of reality invading the general cheer of the season. Maybe you don't have the money you wish you had to give your loved ones the holiday you would like to give them; after all, extravagance is pushed on us from all directions during this time of year, even if that shouldn't be the spirit of things. Maybe you have no one to be with, and nowhere to go. Things could be so much worse, and I acknowledge that.

Perhaps next year Christmas can be my holiday again, because I'll have had a better Chanukah with fellow Jews in my life, because turning a year older won't be such a big deal, because other things will have finally fallen into place, because I will have made this Jewish life of mine work the way I envision it being. There's always the hope of next year, which is a very Jewish thing, indeed.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.