Gina Hagler is a freelance writer living in the Maryland suburbs with her husband and their three children. You can see more of her work at www.ginahagler.com.
Originally published September 2005. Republished September 10, 2012.
I've been married to a Jewish man and celebrating Jewish holidays for over twenty years. I've been Jewish myself for nearly ten. Still, it wasn't until last year that the holidays felt truly my own. I wasn't sure exactly why this was the case until I realized it was the first year I didn't feel compelled to do our holidays by the book. I'd been Jewish long enough that it was clear to me whatever I chose to do would be how a Jew celebrates the holiday. It was an incredible feeling. Sort of like when you reach the summit after a long, arduous hike. The kind of hike where you begin to wonder why you ever thought it would be a good idea to start in the first place.
Much of what we've done for the Jewish holidays consists of traditional observances having nothing to do with me or the Italian Catholic traditions with which I grew up. Many of the things we do as a family (jelly donuts at Hanukkah, Tashlich at Rosh Hashanah) we found through research. Many others we learned by attending family services at temple. But researching and doing were not the same as feeling comfortable with or adept at these traditions. Still, I had children to consider and I wanted them to have a sense of looking forward to a special day when each of the Jewish holidays arrived.
Arts and crafts were an easy enough first step. Since we weren't celebrating with any extended family, my husband and I felt sort of foolish at first. We'd sit at the kitchen table with our son, coloring popsicle sticks with blue markers so we could glue together a Star of David. As he got older and our other children arrived and joined in, it got to be a lot of fun. Once they started bringing work home from religious school, our kitchen felt positively festive. And when we took out our holiday box, the kids had a strong attachment to the things they'd made in previous years.
Since music had always been a big part of my childhood holiday celebrations, adding music to our celebrations seemed a simple enough way to start making the Jewish holidays my own. I ordered tapes and CDs of holiday music and played them in the background in the weeks before the big days. It took a long time to look forward to Had Gadya (The Little Goat), but eventually it felt like Passover would not be complete without it. When I joined the choral group at temple and brought home some new Hanukkah music, that felt even better to me. To be the one teaching my kids something that went with the tradition we'd chosen for them was very exciting.
But the things I missed most were familiar foods. The foods I'd looked forward to each year as a child. From the Vigile (traditional Italian feast of the seven fishes) on Christmas Eve to the ham on Easter, food was THE major component of every holiday I'd ever known. I have an extensive collection of excellent Jewish holiday cookbooks and cook a mean honey cake, but I still missed the foods I grew up with. Last year I decided those foods in and of themselves were not Catholic foods. Shellfish aside, the Christmas Eve Vigile includes many types of fish that could be prepared in keeping with the fried food conventions of Hanukkah. And while ham was obviously not appropriate for Passover, lamb certainly was. Even my French Canadian grandmother's meat pie recipe could be easily adapted for Rosh Hashanah.
The thing is, none of this had occurred to me before last year. And once it did, it was like someone had declared true holidays! The kids joined in with ideas for meals based on their favorite foods. The desserts got pretty wild. But the brisket tasted just as good with an Italian tomato salad. And the trifle was not compromised in any way by my grandmother's secret topping.
Making the holidays my own went beyond decoration and food. We are what my more observant friends refer to as "one-day Jews," meaning we observe one day of Rosh Hashanah. Our children join us at services in the morning. In the afternoon we go to a brook and throw our breadcrumbs in with thoughts of what we'll do differently this year (Tashlich). We have a special meal that evening.
Last year was also our first at the new temple I'd found. This temple was more family-friendly and had a greater number of interfaith families than our previous one. I felt very comfortable there. Looking for a way to feel more involved in their spiritual life, I decided to go to second-day services. Alone. After all, these were my holidays and I was curious. I went, and the intimate space, small group of people, traditional service--all held me close and reminded me why I had agreed to raise my children as Jews. Why I had started this entire journey into another tradition. How I had arrived at a faith for myself that, kneeling in Mass as a little girl, I never would have imagined!
Rosh Hashanah finally felt right to me. Deep down right. The Holy Day was really mine. I'm looking forward to taking a more active role in temple life this year. The kids and I are already planning our holiday celebrations.
I'm not sure I could have gotten to this place sooner. I'm delighted to be here now.