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Hanukkah and My Italian Mother-in-Law

December 9, 2009

I felt a twinge of Jewish guilt when my husband and I got married. I was no longer innocently dating a man who wasn't Jewish; I was going to be committing my life to him.

We decided that our ceremony would be held at a lovely hall nestled in the woods. We had agreed that God could be mentioned without any hint of religion.

Silver menorahI felt a little strange that my wedding decorations would not include a huppah. I felt a bit sad that I wouldn't be able to say the words "Ani LeDodi veDodi Li" ("I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me"). I had always thought that this phrase captured everything about the moment. I hope that the vows I wrote myself would somehow capture this feeling.

I also admit that I felt a bit off once our minister showed up in full minister garb. I think it was at that moment I accepted giving up my Jewish self.

The only touch of Jewish tradition was when my husband broke a glass at the end of the ceremony. While our guests recognized this Jewish element, the minister successfully took out anything remotely Jewish while he explained the ritual.

So here I was, the stranger in the Italian family. This is what I signed up for. I chose to marry this non-Jewish man, and I figured I would have to accept not being Jewish as part of the deal. I figured in time that it wouldn't bother me so much.

My mother- and father-in-law stayed with us while we opened wedding gifts. The presents were predictable, as most things were from our gift registry.

My in-laws surprised us with a fairly large box. It was pretty heavy. I figured it was filled with dishes.

I opened it up to find a beautiful silver Hanukkah menorah. This was my mother-in-law's idea. She wanted to show me that they accept me, who I am and where I came from. She explained to me that she had my sister-in-law ask around for Judaica gifts for newlyweds, and this is what was suggested.

She didn't just want me to feel welcomed; she gave us a wedding gift that was very specifically Jewish. I didn't realize it then, but she was teaching us about interfaith marriage. This 75-year-old Italian woman tried to teach us that an interfaith relationship means accepting each other's culture and faith. I had convinced myself that I needed to give up my Jewish self.

I admit, I was completely speechless.

My mother-in-law had a rough idea of the story behind the menorah, and she wanted to know more. What was the holiday about and what would I do with this menorah? I didn't really remember much, except that there was a miracle in Jerusalem that lasted eight days. And something about a dreidel.

I didn't fully live up to the lesson my mother-in-law tried to share. I didn't celebrate Jewish holidays after I was married. The one holiday that did remain was Hanukkah, and only because of that silver menorah. We didn't celebrate it as a Christmukkah gift-giving combination, but as a holiday that stood on its own as a celebration of light.

It was actually quite lovely, but I stiII felt embarrassed about the only holiday I celebrated. My husband always insisted that I light the candles and say the blessings.

As I spoke the Hebrew words, I was so afraid that he would see me as a freak speaking gibberish. It was the only time he saw me being Jewish, and it scared me. My insecurities remained even while my husband clearly enjoyed lighting the menorah.

Every Hanukkah, my mother-in-law asked about the menorah and whether I used it. I forgot the lesson she tried to teach, and I just took it as her making sure I was using the gift that she gave me. I didn't think she was genuinely interested in whether I was doing anything Jewish. I told her we lit candles and had a Christmas tree. I didn't want her to think it was getting too Jewish in her son's home.

I also didn't see the irony--that the gift my mother-in-law gave me was connected to the story of Hanukkah and one of the many incidents in Jewish history when the Jews were forced to assimilate into the dominating non-Jewish empire. The story of Hanukkah also includes my own namesake, Chana, who perished with her seven sons to avoid bowing to Greek idols, thus denying their faith and violating God's laws.

Here I was, some two millennia later, caving to my self-created fears and choosing assimilation over any kind of Jewish identity.

Last year, I chose a new path of greater Jewish observance. On Hanukkah, not only did I light that menorah, but I put it up in the window where everyone could see it. For eight days, after I lit the candles with my husband, I sat in their glow, in honor of the brave women from the story of Hanukkah, and my mother-in-law.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles.
Chana-Esther Dayan

Chana-Esther Dayan lives in Ottawa, Canada, with her husband of five years. She is learning to integrate her Jewish faith in her daily living in a mixed marriage. Since there are no real rules, Hannah and her husband are learning as they go.

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