December Holiday Issues

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My husband Jack and I assumed that the same high-minded secularism that guided our wedding ceremony would be sufficient to guide the marriage itself. We were married in November and that sentiment endured until we returned from our honeymoon and found ourselves in the holiday season.   

My husband’s family didn’t appear all that religious to me–they gathered at Passover, for instance, but certainly didn’t keep kosher. There wasn’t a hubbub when he married a woman who wasn’t Jewish. But suddenly it appeared we might have a problem when I asked him how he felt about getting a small tree for Christmas. “We’d have to hide it,” he said. I was stunned. Hide the tree? What fun was that? The tree, I assured my husband, was purely a secular symbol. I wasn’t sure about that, but it was to me. I prevailed that year, and you never saw such a sad sight in your life as my poor husband gingerly dragging that tiny tree to his car with the Miami sun beating down on us both. To show him I was a good sport, I bought him a menorah for Christmas.

We were deep in the midst of the interfaith battle that grips, to some extent, every couple that intermarries. I had heard tell of it and assumed we would avoid the worst because we weren’t religious. What I hadn’t realized was that traditions were at stake. I had moved to Miami from Vermont where the family had shared sleigh rides and eggnog on Christmas Eve. While that wasn’t possible here, I thought I could recreate my holiday fantasies indoors. I missed my home badly. This was a small way to reconnect.

I also hadn’t realized that my traditions actively threatened my husband’s very identity, a fact that had been carefully hidden from me during a limpid Catholic childhood. In the last century alone, his family had fled Poland and then Cuba. Whatever kept them together was a stronger brew than eggnog.

In the autumn three years after we married, I felt especially homesick. We hadn’t satisfactorily resolved our issues. I was cleaning house one day and came across a childhood book of my husband’s, Morris Epstein’s All About Jewish Holidays and Customs. It outlined a Jewish lifestyle and life passages. I’m ashamed to say I had tucked it away years past, as it was so old-fashioned. I opened it and began to read about the festival of Sukkot. When my husband came home, I sent him to the same Home Depot where we had purchased Christmas trees so he could buy poles for a sukkah, a wooden hut. I laid palm fronds across the top with the children and on Hoshanah Rabba, I looked searchingly into the sky at midnight and felt my heart open. Mr. Epstein’s book gained a prominent place on our bookshelf, only this time I was the young mind consulting it. Many other books joined it as I gained knowledge and my husband renewed his own. We began to light Shabbat, Sabbath, candles faithfully.

***

What I love about Judaism is that nothing is divorced from its source. The sukkah is a makeshift shelter wherein the Jewish people remember their years of wandering in the desert. The Hanukkah candles are lit to remember the miracle of rededicating the Temple. Nothing is separated from its cause, and as is said, God is the first cause of all.

What is Hanukkah if not a reminder to the Jewish people to struggle against the prevailing customs which threaten to subsume their own? The tree, which was for me a neutral symbol of holiday cheer, was anything but that for my husband. I could not have known then. Now that our family studies Judaism together, I feel I’ve been entrusted with the history that has guided his family though the last four thousand years. That history will not stop with his generation. We’re guarding it. We’re engaging joyfully in Jewish life.