(reprinted from Central MA Jewish Voice www.jewishcentralvoice.com)
It’s the holiday that I can celebrate without any conflicts, without any challenges or questions. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m just as Jewish as everyone else. As a convert with very close ties to my family, Passover and Hanukkah aren’t as simple. I have to work at balancing out my desire to celebrate as a Jew, and also my desire not to hurt my extended family by refusing to participate in their celebrations.
Passover inevitably overlaps Easter. My family is nominally Catholic, and the Christian roots of the holiday have been mostly lost in our traditions. Easter is a celebration of spring, and an excuse to go overboard with decorations, baked goods and a massive egg hunt. My husband and I keep kosher for Passover, except for Easter. I let my kids do whatever they feel comfortable with when it comes to eating at their grandmother’s house on Easter Sunday. I make sure that there are Kosher-for-Passover treats available as well, but I work at minimizing any guilt.
Celebrating with my side of the family is a part of their childhood, and I don’t want them to feel as though they aren’t a part of the festivities. Sometimes they skip the baked goods, and focus on the chocolate covered matzo. Sometimes they don’t. Luckily, Passover lasts for eight days – and we make sure that the kids are able to participate in it as much as possible. We attend family Seders, and also make sure to throw a “friend” Seder on the last night. Creating our own traditions helps to make more our own.
Hanukkah is like a little island of peace in a sea of chaos and activity. As much as I try to make it stand out for my kids, I know it gets lost in the glory of the tree and the lights and the candy canes and all of the magic associated with Christmas. Like Easter, it’s not as much of Christian holiday for my family, but my mother’s decorating is legendary. She’d be devastated if I didn’t allow my children to participate as much as her other grandchildren. My favorite years are when they don’t coincide, when we can celebrate Hanukkah by itself and then dive into the merry mess that is the end of December. I breathed a sigh of relief that Hanukkah starts on Thanksgiving this year.
As a convert, I struggle a lot with balance. Because the truth is that without kids, I’d have a much easier time. I’d still attend Easter Sunday at my mother’s house, and I’d still love sitting in the living room, watching the lights twinkle on her tree in December. It would be so much easier to say that I celebrate with my family, but it’s not my holiday. But I’m also the mother of her grandchildren, and these holiday traditions are so much a part of my childhood. It feels wrong to convince my kids that they shouldn’t feel as connected to my family celebrations. Christmas and Easter are their holidays too – they just aren’t religious holidays for us. I try to remember the commandment of honoring my parents. I remind myself that their Jewish identity is going to be based on a lot more than what they do on Easter Sunday and December 25. I’m raising my children as Jews, in a Jewish family. We belong to a synagogue; have Shabbat dinner every Friday night. They don’t question their Jewish identity; it’s simple and clear for them; less so for me.
But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur don’t have any conflicts associated with them. It’s the start of the holiday season, a holiday season that I can embrace without any guilt or conflicting emotions. I love making a huge dinner for our extended family, and digging out all the New Year’s decorations from last year. We have oceans of PJ Library books specifically for the holidays, and I start reading them to the kids in the weeks leading up to the holidays. We listen to the shofar being blown, and recognize the call to action. Apple picking and baking, and every year I try to bake a round loaf of challah, and always fail miserably. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and discussion. We talk about resolutions, and what we wish we had done better and differently, and promise to try harder next year. At the end of the day on Yom Kippur, we break the fast with family and friends, and begin thinking about sukkah building and decorating, all leading up to Simchat Torah.
I suppose it’s not completely true that Rosh Hashanah is my favorite Jewish holiday. I love the Passover story, and the ritual of the Seder. I love the candles on Hannukah and the look on my children’s faces as they light them. But the fall holidays are the ones that I can celebrate without reservations or questions. As the air turns cool, and I start focusing on another school year, with the promise of new challenges and rewards, I find myself aching for the celebration of the New Year, for the reflection and prayer of Yom Kippur. I start thinking about where we’ll put the sukkah this year, and getting ready for the dancing of Simchat Torah. After ten years, the Jewish fall holidays have become a part of my internal calendar, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share them with my family.