Back when I decided to convert to Judaism, I knew that the transition would be difficult for my family. But I had no idea that the real war would begin over holiday gifts.
As I recall, the wrapping-paper war began in the early-morning hours. I had just gotten out of the shower and poured my second cup of coffee when my phone rang. Before I even picked up the receiver, I knew it was my mom (probably on her second cup of coffee, too). She most likely had already spoken to one or both of my sisters.
I would say that we are the classically enmeshed all-female family. This is not to leave out my father, but for the previous 23 years, the poor man had had only estrogen-filled beings living under his roof. I was his third born; his last hope for a son. Needless to say, he is a man of few words — mostly because he can hardly ever get one in!
I had been preparing for this war for a few weeks, since Hanukkah and Christmas were fast approaching. I had been a Jew by choice for nearly a year, and had recently become engaged to Michael, a born Jew. This was to be our first “December dilemma” we would be dealing with as a couple.
I remember explaining, “Michael, I know my family. Once precedent is set, it will be difficult to change policy. Once we do the holidays a certain way, it will be written in stone, like Moses bringing down the tablets from Mt. Sinai! Maybe we can think about what we want when we have kids, and work from that point of view.”
“When I was little, Hanukkah just was never as fun as Christmas,” he said. “My house never felt as alive as the homes of my friends who did Christmas. I want my kids to really feel it.”
“Feel what?” I asked, puzzled.
He stopped and thought for a minute. “Happiness and just plain fun, without feeling left out or less-than because of Christmas,” he said. “Believe me: I as an adult know that Hanukkah is not a big holiday according to the Jewish calendar, and blah, blah, blah, but when you’re 5 and your house is not festive and the holiday is minimized to make some adult statement about not wanting to become too commercial like Christmas, it sure doesn’t make your sadness or feeling of incompleteness any less!”
Excited, I said, “I think we should embrace Hanukkah and make it really big to us, and as crazy-fun as we can — especially because we will be going to my family’s every Christmas. Our kids will always be experiencing both Hanukkah and Christmas.”
Michael said, “I think we should have a big party with family and friends every year.”
I replied, “Starting our own traditions will be important for when we do have kids. Believe me, give me some fabric, dreidels and a glue gun, and I will have Santa Claus wanting to trade in his candy canes for some gelt! I don’t want a Hanukkah bush or any of that. I want an all-out Jewish experience sprinkled with visions of menorahs dancing in our heads.” I paused. “What about the presents?” I asked. (My family is big on gifts.)
“What if they gave us our gifts on Hanukkah, and we gave them theirs on Christmas?” he suggested.
“No, because then they’d have to get our gifts early because Hanukkah is usually earlier,” I said. “That seems too demanding. I know! What if we say that we will open all family gifts when we go down on Christmas Day, but ask them to wrap ours in Hanukkah wrapping paper? That way, it will feel like we are each acknowledging each other’s holidays with the least logistical inconvenience.”
“Do you want me to talk to them about it with you?” he asked. “Since I was born Jewish, maybe that will help them understand.” I knew by Michael wanting to jump in and rescue me that he understood the magnitude of what I was asking my family to do, and the difficulty I would encounter. But I felt it would be best if I spoke with them alone.
Oy vey: It was now my mission to express our plan to my family! Up to that point, my entire family had been very supportive of my conversion to Judaism. I knew they accepted and respected my decision; however, I also knew that the latkes would really hit the fan when I requested that they alter their holiday routine. You must understand: In my family, we have a lot of love, but when you are as close as we are, it can become inflexible, and expectations of how everyone should behave can be quite rigid.
I was never given any grief about no longer being Catholic, because my family is not religious. My family members are your typical nonreligious celebrators of Christmas. It is not about the birth of Jesus, but (as it is for many others) about “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In many ways, this ended up making it harder for them to understand my position. To them, it seemed like Christmas shouldn’t be a big deal, because they didn’t see it as religious. But it is viewed by Jews as a religious holiday, no matter how many people replace their nativity scenes with Santa Claus snow globes.
Part of it was that my family needed to understand that Jews see Hanukkah as a religious holiday, and not just a time to decorate with dreidels and give our children gifts. When someone is a practicing Christian, they may not believe in Hanukkah the way Jews do, but they do understand the desire to experience and uphold it as a distinct and separate religious experience from Christmas. But for my family, this was not the case.
So on goes my story: I took a big swig of my coffee and heard my mom’s voice say, “Hello.” I fired the first shot, holding my breath. After some chitchat, I said, “Mom, I wanted to talk about the holidays. Michael and I are hoping the family could wrap our gifts in Hanukkah paper rather than Christmas paper.”
Silence. Then she said, “OK, I understand. But you need to talk to your sisters.” My mother, the ultimate peace negotiator (or rather, conflict avoider), was “kosher” with it, but I knew by the tone of her voice and the feeling in the pit of my stomach that the big battle was yet to come.
My mother avoids conflict at all costs — even to the point of sometimes losing herself along the way. I guess in many ways, that is why I am so different from her. I try to look the conflict straight in the face, which I guess has gotten me into trouble a few times with my family.
I am the youngest of the daughters, and truly a rebel at my core. It is no surprise that I chose a different religion, became a psychologist and seemed to be the one always pointing out the elephant in the room. I know this does not always make me popular in my family, but I must say that even with all the feelings of fear, I still keep doing it. The fear revolves around rejection and disconnection.
You see, when you come from an enmeshed family, disconnection is the ultimate weapon in any war. My need to be heard and understood by my family was always greater than my fear. If I really look at it honestly, I guess I am willing to risk the disconnection for the small possibility of being truly seen by them. I know the wrapping-paper thing seems small, and to some silly, but in the scheme of one’s life, it is small acts like these that can be so deeply meaningful.
Anyway, my heart was racing as I dialed my sister’s number. Her initial reaction was one of annoyance and feeling put upon by being asked to do something extra and out of her routine. The phone call lasted two hours, and on both sides there was anger, frustration, sadness and many tears. It was a painful examination of our beliefs and our differences. For her, it felt like I was trampling on something cute, sweet and nonreligious. In my sister’s eyes, I was executing Santa Claus without a fair trial.
It was difficult for her to understand our need to celebrate Hanukkah and have our holiday honored and celebrated on a parallel level with hers. It felt intrusive and demanding. My sister wondered how she would explain it to her children. “The same way I will when I have kids,” I remember retorting. When the phone call ended, we were both exhausted and had no more tears left. I was sad, angry, hurt, confused and felt guilty. The guilt was about asking for what I needed from them. My family is very generous, but (as with many families) it is best to take what comes to you and not ask for what you need. In the act of asking for what you need, it somehow implies that they are either not doing the “right” thing, or that you are ungrateful for what you have been given.
I was torn between my desire not to hurt my family and my desire to create a spiritual life for myself, Michael and our future Jewish children. I wanted my children to feel honored and respected for their beliefs and holidays, as I planned to raise them to honor and respect my family’s traditions.
When I converted to Judaism, it was like having holiday amnesia. I could choose to celebrate and create holiday traditions without any baggage from my past. Michael, who as a child felt alienated by society during the December holidays, wanted something different for his children, too. Together we could create a spiritually based joyous home. I wanted my children to remember the Jewish holidays as meaningful, full of joy and (dare I say) a little wacky, too!
Michael and I both wanted to experience the joy, laughter and knowledge of Hanukkah. The wrapping-paper war was about something much larger than the packaging of a gift. It was about love, respect and not just tolerating differences but truly celebrating them. It was not just about our holiday, it was about our differences and how we could choose to either turn towards or away from each other. My hope was that we would continue to turn towards each other and try to face each other even if it was painful to do so.
The white flag was waved a few days later at my parent’s house. The entire family was there. Another one of my sisters voiced her opinion. “I am the giver of the gift, so I can give it in the paper I want to, which will be Christmas paper,” she said.
I was so saddened by what I was hearing that I simply started to cry. I looked at her with tears running down my face and said, “Why would you not want our kids to feel like their Auntie respected their holiday, too? Why would you want them to feel lesser? Explain it to me, please. Why is this so hard?”
She stopped, and her face became very soft. “I don’t know,” she said. In that moment, I knew she got it. I knew they all got it. It was very basic, really.
A few weeks later, when they came to light the menorah at our home, they brought our gifts wrapped in the cutest Hanukkah paper. My dad brought us Jewish bingo and Jewish Old Maid. He was amazed that he’d found them at a Walmart in Riverside. My mom and sisters told of their complaining to the manager at Target because the store didn’t have one single Hanukkah card! Mom had said to the guy, “Do you think no Jewish people live in Corona?” The way she told it, I was sure that by the following Hanukkah, Target would have a nice blue-and-white section!
My nieces lit the menorah candles, and with tears in my eyes, I told the story of the Maccabees and their fight for religious freedom. As I watched my family with the warm glow of the candles washing over all of us, I realized that it is difficult to turn towards one another, but that the reward is true freedom — freedom to be who we deeply desire to be in this world. That year at our Hanukkah celebration, we truly had it all: joy, laughter and knowledge.