Fourteen Christmases and a Chanukiyah

by Mike Doyle
Originally posted on Chicago Carless

I’m getting a bit tired of the inner amazement with which I keep experiencing my Reform Jewish conversion journey. My rabbi recently asked me to do a writing assignment about the hardest aspects to accept about Judaism. I didn’t have much to write about without hedging. The truth is, I keep finding an intense amount of myself in Judaism. The experience is almost as if I’ve always been Jewish, and only now have finally realized it. Intellectually, the journey involves lots of study and deliberation. Emotionally, I’m right there already.

All of which goes out the window a month before Christmas. Close friends have always known to give me a wide berth in the weeks prior to Christmas, specifically when I’m decorating my house. My artificial tree is seven-and-a-half-feet tall,with 85 branches and 2,400 branch tips. For the past 14 Christmases,I’ve strung 200 white lights around the core and another thousand multi-colored lights around the outside. I have a box of ornaments a large family of cats could live in. The whole thing takes 18 hours to put up and decorate, with me complaining through the tedious, marathon event.

And I’m becoming a Jew and Chanukah’s in two days. Huh.

I knew a big choice was coming for me. I thought it would be a harder one to make. I thought it would be painful. Really painful. It hasn’t been. Not yet, at least. And that’s been a huge surprise.

I like to say I was raised as a lapsed Catholic. I took religion class in elementary school, but it never really took to me. Even as a young child, I never identified with Catholic doctrine. As a result, my annual Yuletide fervor has always been secular. That big, bright tree has always reminded me of the (admittedly too few) happy times of my youth, when my mother, grandmother, and screwy siblings would all call a truce and come together in a sense of joy. Before she died, the last time I saw my mother alive was Christmas Day 1995. Since then,Christmases have also become a second Mother’s Day for me, a time to mark my mother’s life and my love for her. Well, that and to remember the pain of telling her I would be back to visit her the next week… and not doing it.

That’s a lot of pressure for any holiday to live up to. For years, I would look forward to Christmas, enter the season aggressively, demand it cover my yearlong need for checking in with a sense of ephemeral wonder and joy, of awe and gratitude towards God, and of remembrance. It never worked. Come January 1st, I always felt an intense sense of loneliness and disappointment-compounded by the fact that I’d have to wait another 11 months to try and feel spiritually whole again.

In one of my essay answers, I remarked to my rabbi that I don’t feel spiritually homeless anymore. My lifelong sense of lacking wholeness just isn’t there anymore. As Christmas approaches, I’ve been realizing that the sense of wonder, and awe, and gratitude-not to mention a deep,everyday connection with God-are all things I’ve been experiencing on a daily basis, through a new, Jewish lens. My ritual practice (eating kosher, saying blessings over food, keeping Shabbat – the Jewish sabbath,daily prayer, among others) has been like a get-into-the-spirit-free card, one that I can play over and over.

It isn’t as if God has changed. But I have. Or, more clearly, my new Jewish vocabulary has let me get in touch with who I really am-a person of faith with a need to honor that faith more than once a year. I just never had a framework to let that happen. Now I do, and I’m overjoyed to know that.

Even though I may be back in my own apartment before the end of December, I won’t put up a Christmas tree this year. For one, I’d feel like a giant hypocrite if I did. I know my Jewish identity inside and in good conscience, I know I just don’t have another tree in me. That makes me a little sad. But at the same time, I’m astounded that the feeling of Christmas, all the spiritual things I used to associate with it, I already have access to, every day of my increasingly Jewish life.So I can let go of my tree fetish in love. (And I can always visit Christmas in many happy places-the homes of close friends-anyway.)

This week, after much window-shopping-and calling out Target for offering to deliver one by Christmas Eve-I purchased my first chanukiyah, or Chanukah menorah. I quietly said a shehecheyanu to myself as I headed back to the ‘L’ from the Spertus Institute gift shop. (Watch Carol Dane’s loving musical interpretation of the blessing here.) I felt like a six-year-old, looking forward to lighting the candles next Wednesday night (Chanukah starts the evening of December 1st this year), learning how to spin a dreidel, and figuring out how not to burn the living daylights out of myself while frying up latkes.

My major emotional investment this season won’t be in what really amounts to a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, though. There’s one last piece of Christmas that is about to find a home on my Jewish journey. My mother’s yahrtzeit – the anniversary of her death-arrives in December. For once, I’ll be among the members of my congregation standing and reciting the mourner’s kaddish prayer.

And somewhere, I know an Iberian Christian mother will be smiling.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email
Guest Blogger

About Guest Blogger accepts submissions for consideration. Send your posts to Please include biographical information, including your affiliation with any Reform congregation or institution.

19 Responses to “Fourteen Christmases and a Chanukiyah”

  1. avatar

    Mike’s story touched my heart and rang true for me as well. Being a lapsed Catholic who never really internalized the religous teaching I was given growing up this could be my journey to a T. I am a Jew by Choice now and the only Jew in my entire family including my husband of many years. As Mike, I embraced Judaism as if I belonged heart and soul. I am very pround to call myself a Jew.
    My husband was supportive during my journey and understood this was something meaningful that I had to pursue. Since he has no interest in taking this journey, I can not dismiss the fact that he enjoys Christmas along with my family. I put out my hanukiyah, say the blessings and eat lots of latkes. I have become a bystander while my family enjoys Christmas. It is no longer my holiday but theirs.
    May Peace be found in all our homes both holiday seasons.
    Bonnie Wieczorek

  2. avatar

    Iberian? As in Spanish-Portugese? There were so many Jews who were force-converted (under penalty of exile / death) to Catholicism, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re already a Jew by maternal lineage.

  3. avatar

    In defense of Catholics (I am a faithful, practicing Catholic myself), I have to say that Mike’s references to saying blessings over food (check), keeping Shabbat-the Jewish sabbath (Mass on Sunday, check) and daily prayer (before bed with my wife and kids, check), are not at all different from the ritual practices of Catholics.
    So, although many Americans have fairly successfully been able to carve out the inherently Christian rituals associated with Advent and Christmas, many of us have not. And for those of us who haven’t, we Catholics are able to appreciate Advent as our own little “get-into-the-spirit-free card.”
    And, shockingly!, we feel the same way most of the 11 months between these increasingly secular yuletide celebrations that we Americans have found ourselves in.
    So good wishes to Mike, but please keep in mind that there are plenty of Catholics who haven’t lapsed … and who still are in awe of our own faith.

  4. avatar

    Bonnie, I understand the sense of being a bystander. It’s funny. I offered to put up a friend’s Christmas tree as a birthday present for him while he was out of town. I figured it would be a contact high of sorts since I wouldn’t be putting up my own. It turned out to me a litmus test–because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. He came home to nine freshly washed and folded loads of laundry, instead.
    Former Reform Jew, I can actually trace Jewish lineage matrilineally about four generations back, but the documentation doesn’t go back that far, and no one was raised as a Jew passed that time. I suspect the same thing about having Sephardim ancestors.
    Happy Chanukah to all :-)

  5. avatar

    David, you misunderstand. Catholicism was never my faith. It was my family’s faith. I remember quite clearly being six or seven years old, sitting in a Catholic elementary school, and wondering why I was being taught things in religion class that I didn’t believe. At no time in my life have I ever believed or been a practicing Catholic. In my family’s eyes, that made me a lapsed Catholic. To me, it just gave me a sense of spiritual homelessness.
    You seem to be defending Catholicism here, and I don’t understand why. No one is bashing Catholicism and I made it clear this is my personal journey. Judaism spoke to me in a way that Catholicism didn’t. To my mind, that’s why we have a world with multiple religious traditions–so that God can have a chance to find us one way or another.
    While I respect and, in fact, am happy that God found you through Catholicism, God happened to find me through Judaism. If you have a problem with that, I suggest you take the matter up with God.

  6. avatar

    Being a Reform Jewish woman I feel I live my Jewishness everyday. The laws are written for this life not the here after. Be good, be kind be charitable, take care of your family. Your reward will be in this life. When we die and have lived a good life we will be reunited with loved ones. Partial motivation for me to be the best I can be as well as treating others as I would like to be treated. One high holiday several years ago the Rabbi asked “what is more important, to be good or to be happy”? I think they go hand in hand a lesson I learned by studying with the Rabbi.
    I am married to a Christian who agreed to raise our children in the temple. He participates in all festivals and holidays. He prays with me when we are in temple and is the best he can be. He embodies Jewish law without the label. We have been married 26 years and I have never asked him to convert because he holds so many Jewish laws close to his heart and if he is ever ready he will take the plunge, that will be his choise. In the mean time we have a good and happy Jewish home.

  7. avatar

    Sorry, Mike. I’m just so used to defending Catholicism from society’s knee-jerk hypocrisy of deeming anything remotely critical of Judaism (and claiming it anti-Semitic) while bashing Catholicism as a medieval throwback run by pedophiles.
    It’s just not that way, but we (and I don’t mean you or I) always seem to come back to that.
    I would love tolerance of all religions … including my own. But in Western culture, and particularly in the U.S., it’s almost fashionable to claim oneself as a “lapsed Catholic” or – at best – “spiritual” rather than simple coming out and identifying oneself as “Catholic” – nothing more and nothing less.
    Don’t believe me? Just peruse through your list of Facebook friends. I’m pretty sure that the Catholics identify themselves largely as “lapsed.” The Jews? They’ll tell you up front.
    The reason? More than likely your Catholic friends are tired of the criticism and (dare I say) stigma attached to being an American Catholic in 2010.
    I’ve got friends who are non-practicing Jews. But, interestingly, they don’t identify themselves as “lapsed” but rather, simply, “Jews.”
    If it were only so simple for Catholics to claim the same for their own faith.

  8. Larry Kaufman

    What David is missing is the difference between lapsed Catholics and non-practicing Jews — the fact that identifying as being Jewish does not necessarily imply practicing the Jewish religion, but rather having been born into the Jewish people. I would imagine that anyone who was not born into the Jewish people but who along the way opted in would stop identifying as Jewish if, later, they opted out. I would equally imagine that someone who was baptized as a Catholic but who later came to identify with some other faith would identify with the new faith and would drop the lapsed Catholic term. I hear in the term lapsed the possibility of again picking up the practice.
    That’s a somewhat different distinction than that David finds himself defending against — the difference between the Catholic religion and the Catholic Church. As a practicing Jew, I got a new appreciation both for the religion and the distinction from reading James Carroll’s excellent book, American Catholic.

  9. avatar

    For years I have been jealous of those Christians (including Catholics) who fulfill their Sabbath duties with the simple act of going to a prayer service. Little League on Sabbath? No problem, just go after mass! Need to get some grocery shopping done? Pick it up after church! Finish your dinner and you don’t even think about running the dish washer.
    Sorry, David, while I agree with you about the Catholic bashing out there, I have to point out that going to Mass on Sundays is not the same as keeping Shabbat.

  10. avatar

    Jennifer, I thought that this was a forum for Reform Judaism. You know, the group of Jews who believe that the individual person determines whether to follow prohibitions while keeping Shabbat.
    In other words, little league, grocery shopping and – yes – even washing dishes or ironing or whatever can all be considered valid leisurely practices of the typical Reform Jew (and even if you’re more conservative, there’s always those handy pre-set timers).
    I suppose I’ll take up this discussion with someone a little more tolerant … like Aryeh (although as a faithful Catholic, I can’t separate “the Catholic religion” from “the Catholic Church”).
    BTW, Aryeh, if you’re looking for some insight into the average American Catholic, James Carroll certainly is not the place to start. By far he does not speak for the majority of us.
    Anyway, thanks for enlightening me a bit.

  11. Larry Kaufman

    @ David
    Again, I come at you with some more distinctions. Reform autonomy accepts that we may choose not to keep Shabbat, or not to do so with all the stringencies some other streams of Judaism observe — but once we are grocery shopping or doing laundry, we are not keeping Shabbat, we are not maintaining the distinction between the sacred and the secular. As a Reform Jew, Jennifer has chosen certain activities as off-limits for herself on Shabbat, and these are activities that are not off-limits in many Christian denominations. Her choices do not make her any the less Reform, or any the less tolerant.
    I might have chosen my words differently in articulating the distinctions related to Catholicism — and contrasted the religion with the hierarchy, rather than with the Church. As for James Carroll, I would not expect him to speaking for or as the average Catholic. His book gave me a more sympathetic understanding of the symbolism and theology of the Church (using it here as you would) than I had had before — and I am impressed by his abiding love for an institution whose priesthood he gave up. But I confess, I did not go to his book looking for insight into the average American Catholic, but rather for insight into James Carroll, whose books I have long admired.

  12. avatar

    I have certainly submitted blog postings whose tone, upon further review, I have come to regret. I have no way of knowing what Ms. Einstein intended, but the tone of her commentary regarding Christian observance struck me as being snide.
    Since it’s not my life, it’s really none of my business, but why would a Reform Jew conform to the degree of Shabbat observance that Ms. Einstein describes if she considers it to be such a burden that she is consumed with envy for those who do not accept this onus?

  13. avatar

    Jennifer, of course going to mass on Sundays isn’t the same as keeping Shabbat–because Christianity isn’t Judaism. Is your point to say that Christianity is lacking because it isn’t Judaism, or Christians are lacking because they aren’t Jews, or because they aren’t as observant as you are–or as you think a good Jew should be?
    As a Reform Jew, your level of Shabbat observance is your decision. Because it’s your decision, no matter how strongly you feel about it, you can’t use it as a basis from which to criticize sabbath observance for anyone else, Jew or Christian. Your personal observance is no better or worse than that of the majority of Reform Jews who think that carrying, working, driving, and cooking are all A-OK on Shabbat. It’s also no better or worse than what a Christian might choose to do with their sabbath.
    I wear a kippah seven days a week. Most Reform Jews would think I was nuts to do that, but it speaks to me. (If I consider my life as my prayer–as I do–then I cannot imagine a time when I wouldn’t be moved to be wearing it.)
    But I don’t expect that to work for other Reform Jews, and I don’t expect non-liberal Jews to find me wearing one at all to be in their comfort zone. And if my nonstop kippah causes any problems for me, including fond desires for the time when my days didn’t all begin by making sure my clips were fastened securely, I can’t blame anyone else for my decision to wear it.
    If your Shabbat observance is so onerous for you, as it seems to be from your comment, maybe it’s time to rethink it?

  14. avatar

    I didn’t mean to sound snide; I don’t think that ever contributes to a conversation.
    The point I was trying (and failing) to make was that I disagreed with the idea that Michael should/could have felt all the things he felt living Jewishly if he had followed his family’s faith and become a practicing Catholic because Catholics do the same things that Jews do. I was trying to be specific but in retrospect, I think I should have said the following:
    Catholic rituals are very different than Jewish rituals. The intent is similar, but the acts themselves are so different that I don’t think that one can necessarily get the same things from both of them. But that goes both ways. It wouldn’t mean anything to me if someone were to offer to wash my feet at a service. I imagine that someone who is Catholic would find it deeply meaningful.
    Also, I don’t observe to the level I described and I apologize for not stating it more clearly; I was just trying to describe why I don’t think that keeping Shabbat has the same effect as going to mass on Sunday. Going to services on Friday night is a much better comparison to going to Mass on Sunday. The difference is that if I go to services on Friday night and don’t acknowledge the Sabbath in any other way, I haven’t really “kept” Shabbat. (Aryeh hit it on the head.) If a Catholic goes to Mass, he has kept his Sabbath. And it isn’t like I think that he hasn’t “really” kept his Sabbath because my Sabbath is so much better than his. He has.
    On a side note, I don’t agree that there are a lot of Reform Jews who think it is a-ok to work on Shabbat. For me, what I take out of being a Reform Jew is the power to say that carrying, driving and cooking aren’t work and that is why they are okay to do on Shabbat. Unfortunately, it seems to me that there are two types of people who call themselves Reform Jews: Jews who philosophically agree with the ideals with the Reform Movement and Jews who decide not to do anything religious and think they have to pick a category.

  15. avatar

    @ Mark Tasch
    Let me try to answer your question, “why would a Reform Jew conform to the degree of Shabbat observance that Ms. Einstein describes if she considers it to be such a burden that she is consumed with envy for those who do not accept this onus?”
    One of the reasons we Jews, Reform or otherwise, do some of the ritual things we do is to set us apart and to accept as obligations various behaviors that are not obligations to those who don’t feel commanded to perform them. The only time we are commanded to eat matza is as part of the Passover seder; for the rest of the week, we are only commanded not to eat leavened bread. Would I rather have a croissant with my morning coffee than a piece of matza? Yes, I would — but I don’t — because satisfying myself that I am fulfilling my self-imposed obligation is more important to me than having the croissant.
    Reform Judaism does not bestow the permission to eat bread during Passover — it only bestows the permission to reject the commandment without fear of human reprisal. (I frankly don’t think God will punish any Reform Jew who eats bread during Passover either, but if I’m due for divine punishment, it’ll be for something else.)
    In years gone by, Reform Judaism tended to characterize itself by the things we did not do. Today we have learned not to be judgmental in either direction — and if I take on a mitzvah and kvetch about it, I may still be happier with myself than if I hadn’t taken on the mitzvah at all. So your first instinct was correct, that how Ms. Einstein chooses to observe is nobody’s business but her own.

  16. avatar

    As it turns out, Ms. Einstein did not intend to imply that she was describing her own level of observance. I know a handful of Jews — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — whose degree of ritual observance is greater than that of most members of their respective denominations, and they all seem to have adopted these practices with joy, not resentment.

  17. avatar

    This conversation is lovely. Have the participants heard aout the joint visit by a Catholic Biship and a Reform Rabbi to the Vatican (Rabbi’s first vist) and Israel (Biship’s first visit) along with congregants of both faiths. Purpose: to build understnding among us. Individual practices and/or rituals may exist, or not, in different ways, but understanding and respect for our common humanity is universal.

  18. avatar

    Almost exactly one year later, I have followed up this blog post, in “Fifteen Christmases and an Eitz Moed”. As it turns out, I did have another tree in me. Just not the kind you might think. You may find the new post here:


  1. Fourteen Christmases and a Chanukiyah | CHICAGO CARLESS - October 28, 2012

    […] 11/30/10: I am absolutely honored that the official Reform Judaism blog has cross-published this blog post […]

Leave a Reply