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.
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 and discussed what the new day would entail. I would say we are the classically enmeshed all-female family. This is not to leave out my father, but the poor man had, for the last 23 years of his life — since I was born — only estrogen-filled beings living under his roof. I was his third born. His last hope. Needless to say, he is a man of few words, mostly because he could hardly 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 explained, “Michael, I know my family. Once precedent is set, it is 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!” I thought, “Maybe we can think about what we would want when we have kids and work from that point of view.”
“When I was little, Hanukkah just was never as fun as Christmas. My house never felt as alive as my friends’ homes who did Christmas. I want my kids to really feel it,” he said.
“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. 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 five 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 as a kid!”
Excitedly, I added, “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?” My family is big on gifts.
Michael suggested, “What if they give us our gifts on Hanukkah, and we give them theirs on Christmas?”
“No, because then they have to get our gifts early because Hanukkah is usually earlier. That seems too demanding. I know, what if we say 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 holiday with the least logistical inconvenience.”
“Do you want me to talk to them about it with you? Since I was born Jewish, maybe that will help them understand.” I knew by Michael wanting to jump in and rescue me, he understood the magnitude of what I was asking my family to do and the difficulty I would encounter. I felt it best that I speak with them alone.
Oy vey, it was now my mission to express our plan to my family. Up to this point, my entire family had been very supportive of my conversion to Judaism. I knew they accepted and respected my decision; however, I knew 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 is your typical nonreligious celebrator of Christmas. It is not about the birth of Jesus, but as it is for many others, it is about Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In many ways, this can make it harder for them to understand, because on the outside it seems Christmas shouldn’t be a big deal because they don’t see it as religious — but it is viewed by Jews as one, no matter how much they replace their nativity scene with a Santa Claus snow globe.
Part of it is that they need to understand that we 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, as 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, “Okay, 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 sound of her voice and the pit in my stomach that the big battle was yet to come.
My mother avoided conflict at all cost — even to the point of sometimes losing herself along the way. I guess in many ways, that is why I am so different than her. I try to look at the conflict straight in the face, which I guess has gotten me into trouble a few times with my family.
You see, 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, that is the ultimate weapon in any war: disconnection. My need to be heard and understood by my family was always greater than my fear. If I really look 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 seems small, and to some silly, but in the scheme of one’s life, it is these small acts of noticing that we give to those we love that can be so deeply meaningful.
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 so 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 for her, non-religious. 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 retorted. 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 like 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 not doing the “right” thing or you are ungrateful for what you have been given.
I was torn by my desire not to hurt my family and the desire to create a spiritual life for myself, Michael, and our future Jewish children. I want my children to feel honored and respected for their beliefs and holidays, as I will 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 very different for his children too. Together we could create a spiritually based joyous home. I want my children to remember the Jewish holidays as meaningful, full of joy, and dare I say, a little wacky too!
Michael and I want to experience the joy, laughter, and knowledge of Hanukkah. The wrapping paper war was something much larger than the packaging of a gift. It was about love, respect, and not just tolerating differences but truly celebrating them. It is not just about our holidays — it is about ourselves and all of our differences and how we choose to either turn towards or turn away from each other. My hope is that we continue to turn toward and try to face each other even when it is painful to do so.
The white flag was waived 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.” 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 less? Explain it to me please, why is this so hard?” She stopped and her face became very soft and she said, “I don’t know.” 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 so amazed he found them at a Wal-Mart in Riverside. My mom and sisters told of their complaining to the manager at Target because they didn’t have one single Hanukkah card! She said to him, “Do you think no Jewish people live in Corona?” The way she tells it, I guarantee next Hanukkah Target will have a nice blue and white section!
With tears in my eyes, Michael and I told the story of the Maccabees and their fight for religious freedom as my nieces lit the menorah candles. As I watched my family with the warm glow of the candles washing over all of us, I realized it is difficult to turn towards one another, but 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.