By Azriela Jaffe
The Judaism of my youth was defined by what I was not able to do. Is that not what characterizes any observant Jew? I may not eat non-kosher food, as G-d commanded. I may not work on Shabbat, as G-d commanded. I may not eat on Yom Kippur – as G-d commanded. I may not eat chometz on Passover – as G-d commanded.
True, but these Jewish ideals were alien to me as a child. We didn’t know from kosher, I had no awareness of even the concept of Shabbat, and although as dutiful – and perhaps superstitious- secular Jews, we always attended synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, we ate lunch that day, too. Our Passover celebration did include a rather abbreviated seder, but I had no understanding of chometz, or the avoidance of it – we bought a singular box of matzohs for the seder table, and enjoyed our bagels the next morning, (with no guilt, mind-you, as my uneducated family had no idea that this was a problem).
So what then, do I mean by this notion that my Jewish identity formed around what I could not do – when in fact, our family was so assimilated, it would have been difficult to differentiate us in any way from our goyish neighbors, and there were seemingly no restrictions on our life?
You knew our Judaism in December. Although my parents worked extremely hard to assimilate our family in every way imaginable – and they succeeded – there was only one time a year when they took a firm stand, and we children knew that we were Jewish, and different from non-Jews. Our family did not have Xmas trees and wreaths of holly on the door. Our family did not go to church on X-mas day, we went to the local Chinese restaurant and to the movies afterwards, where the parking lot was littered with hundreds of other Jewish-owned vehicles. We were Jewish, and therefore, we didn’t celebrate X-mas.
As a child, I saw this as a problem. The rest of the world got to have fun, and we were deprived. When we lit the menorah and eagerly awaited our presents, the complete absence of spirituality around the holiday made it only a competition we were sure to lose – which kids got the most presents – the Jews, or the non-Jews? We would comfort ourselves with the thought: Our holiday lasts 8 days, and the Christians only get one day, so we’re actually luckier. But I distinctly remember as a child that lucky is not how I felt. I was a Jew and therefore, I was not allowed to do the holiday that the rest of the world celebrated. We were different, and deprived.
With the perspective of adulthood, I now see my Chanukah “celebrations” with gratitude. It was my parents’ last hold-out, and through it, they formed my identity, albeit uneducated, as a Jew, different from my Christian neighbors. They had given up all other semblance of separation between us and the non-Jewish world, yet somehow, they hung on to this one. Thankfully, as an Orthodox Jew of many years now, I do not have memories as a child of singing Xmas carols, even if M ’aoz Tzur was not in our family’s vocabulary.
The Judaism of my children’s youth is also defined in part by what they cannot do, according to Jewish law, but now, their heads, hearts, and souls are filled with so much they can, and do, look forward to about Chanukah, there isn’t a glimmer of deprivation. The excitement of Chanukah starts early in school with Chanukah chagigas, lessons from their Morahs and Rebbeim about the true spiritual meaning behind Chanukah, and the exciting story of the Macabees, and of course – what would Chanukah be without homemade menorahs brought out of their storage bags year after year? The house smells of latkes, Tatty comes home early from work so he can light the menorah with us, and as we sing M ’aoz Tzur by the window, we thank G-d not only for the miracles that the Macabbees experienced so long ago, but also, the miracle that we are frum, and despite our secular lineage, we have returned.
The Macabees waged a war against assimilation, and with Hashem’s help, they won. We waged our own fight, and also, with plenty of help from Hashem, we’ve won, too. Thank you, G-d.
Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.
First published Dec 22, 2008
My childhood home always celebrated Chanukah, and never Lhavdil ever considered celebrating Xmas. My siblings and I, as well as my mother have very fond and positive memories of Hadlakas Neros and latkes.
PS-Our fsmily emjoys the articles written by the author that are in Mishpacha Magazine, as well as her books.
My boys looked forward all year to the annual “Dreidel Drop” at their yeshiva. At the start of Kislev, a huge hollow wooden Dreidel would be suspended on a wire from the ceiling in the hallway of the school. In the late afternoon of the day right before Chanukah vacation, one of the rebbis would pull on the wire, and the Dreidel would drop. All kinds of little toys, tchotchkes and candy would spill out of the hollow wooden Dreidel, to the delight of all the boys at the yeshiva.
Now I guess you could argue that this sounds a lot more like the non-Jewish custom of whacking a Pinata rather than anything to do with Chanukah (other than the fact that it was a hollow Dreidel) but it wound up being eagerly looked forward to by all of the kids at that particular yeshiva, including my sons.
I think you hit a very resonant note here.
Azriela, Thank you once again for making me feel less alone in the world. As secular as my home was, my parents stood firm in not allowing us to have Xmas trees or any other types of decorations. They do not even remember doing so, but I certainly do and for that I will always be appreciative. As a movie buff, I have tremendous affection for the custom of going to the movies and then out for Chinese food on December 25. With any luck, I will be able to convince my husband to go to a kosher Chinese restaurant this year!