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Choosing Judaism, Missing Christmas

“I miss Christmas like I miss my mom.” I read that touching statement on this website, and thought, “How succinct! How perfect!”

When people who have chosen Judaism feel a tug toward Christmas, it’s not that they feel guilty for abandoning the baby in the manger; it’s that they miss the idea of Christmas. The idea of happy families cozied up around the fireplace, of sleigh bells, of enticing aromas, of sparkling lights, of freshly fallen snow ….

I have to admit that Christmas was never like that when I was a child. On Christmas our family got together, argued, ate, argued and departed! Still, I have special memories of the holiday season, such as helping my mother to decorate the Christmas fruitcake. First we rolled out the almond marzipan, then mounded the white icing into snowdrifts, and then carefully placed the special plastic figurines of evergreens and deer in the “snow.”

There was the annual getting of the Christmas tree (until we went artificial), the annual untangling of the tree lights, and the annual last-minute trip to the mall with my father to purchase my mother’s present. And then there was the advent calendar. I always anticipated that brightly-coloured box with its 25 tantalizing doors and the mysteries contained behind each one. It didn’t matter if there was a picture or a chocolate behind the door; I loved to open one each day, counting down to Christmas.

Fast forward twenty years to 1996 and I am now a Jewish mother in Victoria, British Columbia, having married a Jewish man and converted. My husband is in Jerusalem attending Hebrew University and is making noises about becoming a rabbi. Hanukkah is coming up, and so, of course, is Christmas. I am missing Christmas like I miss my mom, but have the fortunate advantage of having a Christian sister just down the road, and we are going there for Christmas day. I don’t feel the desire to celebrate Christmas in our home, but rather, feel the need to decorate for Hanukkah! Even more than that, I feel the need to pass down this need to my four-year-old daughter, to share the forms of celebration that I loved best as a child.

So, I tried to find some decorations. Victoria, while having the warmest and most spiritual Jewish community one could ever hope to find, lacks in Jewish decorations. And what there is, is, well, you know. My sister found some Hanukkah window stick ’ems and gave them to me. In my husband’s absence, I felt liberated enough to put up some plain white lights in our window, just for Hanukkah (they came down before Christmas!). And we had a huge party that year, with latkes and other delights that I cooked up myself! Need to decorate and celebrate fulfilled. But what I really wanted to share with my daughter–my joy at opening the little doors on the advent calendar–I could not… or could I?

A few days before Hanukkah, I got to work on making a flat box, about a foot square and an inch deep. I drew a hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) on a piece of felt and cut it out. I made candles out of different coloured felt. I pasted said felt down on the box front and, above each candle, drew a wick. Then, I cut doors around the wicks, opened them, and pasted a yellow felt candle flame inside each one. I had found some chocolate Maccabees, and they fit perfectly inside my Hanukkah “calendar,” so that behind each door, and over each flame, was pasted a chocolate treat. I closed all the doors and presented it to my daughter. We already “counted up” the days of Hanukkah by lighting the hanukkiah each night, but here was an activity that she could do all by herself, and I finally felt that I had passed down something of myself to her.

My daughter loved the calendar and eagerly anticipated opening a door each night, just as I had many years before, in another life. Next Hanukkah, we pulled it out and refilled it with new chocolates, and she augmented the design with Hanukkah stickers stuck at odd angles around the face of the box. It was the first time my husband had seen it, and he was similarly delighted. When our son became old enough to feel left out, I made him one as well.

As a person who chose Judaism, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my husband’s faith, by his traditions, by his history, and by his long road to the rabbinate. Sometimes I feel as if our own family unit has only one branch on its tree, the branch representing my British family of origin having been lopped off when I converted. As time passed, I felt the need to fight for my identity, and I realized that it was perfectly OK to bring my history into our new family unit. Part of that history included family ritual. The Hanukkah “calendar” that I made eight years ago was my first foray into bringing forth one of my family rituals in a manner that would fit with our Jewish practice.

I continue to look for opportunities to bring these rituals forward, so much so that last year I started making Hanukkah calendars commercially ( OK, my husband had been bugging me for years to sell them). Coming from a different background allows me to view critically the way we Jews celebrate and the tools we use, and ask the question: “How can we do this differently?” and “What can we adapt from other traditions?” As a result, I have questioned the need for mishloach manot, food gifts exchanged on Purim, to be unhealthy (I described Purim to one non-Jewish distributor as “Halloween on steroids!”) and have introduced a mishloach manot filled with natural and organic products that we deliver nationally. I also recalled how my kids enjoy piñatas at parties, and am now in the process of creating a Haman piñata for Purim carnivals. Even the company’s name–Aberley–is an attempt to bring something of my family’s past into the here and now; one of my long-gone relatives, according to family myth, was a gypsy named Aberley (because the name is so obviously not-Jewish, I have resisted the temptation to highlight the ABE part of the name…).

But more than this, I feel stronger in my Jewish identity because I have come to terms with my non-Jewish identity. I am in the process of grafting my branch back onto our family tree and letting my children know that their British heritage is as much a part of who they are as their Jewish heritage. One of my daughter’s seventh grade school projects in her day school this past year was to research her family history and write a report. I have always been a bit leery of these types of projects, especially as the school’s theme this year is 350 years of Jewish history in America; how sensitive would a Jewish day school be to including the non-Jewish side of the family? I needn’t have worried, as a number of families in her class are blended families, so to speak, and while research projects are not our daughter’s favourite sort of project, she delighted her bubbe by asking all sorts of questions about the Jewish side’s exodus from Europe and her nana by inquiring after her experiences in England during World War II. The project provided the impetus for us to delve into my family’s history and fill in the family tree (our tree is liberally sprinkled with “Israels” and “Hannahs” but they seemed to be solid church-goers and unfortunately not Jewish!). This process is ongoing and I think she is beginning to feel solidly grounded in her interfaith history, and I am starting to feel as if my identity is more complete.

These days, while I still miss my mom upon occasion, I never miss Christmas.

Laura Brambly

Laura Bramly is a graphic designer, writer, and partner in Aberley Gift Company. Having journeyed from Victoria, British Columbia, to Israel, to New York, she, her husband and two children now reside in Stratford, Connecticut.