My 12-year-old daughter, Chava Mariam, named after her two Jewish immigrant great-grandmothers, no longer wants to be Jewish. She was in love with Sukkot and Hanukkah; Now she wants Christmas and feels cheated. She says she hopes to marry someone who is not Jewish and only celebrates her holidays – because the message I gave was that she couldn’t do both.
Now that I’m in my 40s, it’s very easy for me to step back and realize that I shouldn’t have been so afraid of a tree.
When I kept Christmas out of our house, I did not end my husband’s childhood traditions and holidays. I reject a lot of inheritance because of my one daughter, I worked very hard to make sure she would never question. I inadvertently sent a message of disbelief, emphasizing the idea of a singular identity.
I grew up not religiously Jewish, but religious, baking cinnamon and walnut raglach in my little Queens Kitchen with my Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian nana. I ate Franks with local deli mustard and crat with my father in the Bronx. We lit the menorah on Hanukkah, substituted matta for bread at Passover, ate pomegranate seeds and bay leaves on Rosh Hashana.
I never gave a second thought to the lack of a Christmas tree in our house or did not feel that there was only one child on the block. I just felt Jewish, whatever that meant. This was my identity and I never questioned it until my brother married a non-Jewish girl when I was 20 and I got engaged sometime later.
From the beginning of their relationship, my brother’s future wife had challenged our family’s accuracy of Judaism – I have searched for many words to end the inciting feeling in me, and this is the best with which I I can come. There was a feeling that we were not proper Jews, that the execution of our description was not enough for him.
She did not dispute the validity of our Judaism – how could she? Our father’s parents fled to Pogroms and Cossacks to come here for religious freedom and security. My grandfather helped build the neighborhood synagogue. Our mother had Christian roots, but had to undergo a strictly conservative conversion that stood under Hasidic examination.
Our knowledge and practice, on the other hand, my sister-in-law was seen as a fair game. Maybe she had questioned our brief ciders on Passover because she wanted to learn more, as she was trying to adopt our customs and mingle in our family, but her remarks always seemed pointed and abusive. And they made me feel insecure about an identity. Always cherished. It was particularly painful for me because my Jewish heritage was tied to my father’s family.
I had asked almost everything about myself up to that point in my 20 years of existence – my intelligence, attractiveness, sexual orientation, values as a person. But my Jewishness was a part of me, similar to a limb, and I will not be questioning the leg attached to my leg any time soon.
When I was engaged, I suddenly felt an extreme need to preserve and preserve that Jewishness – and anything, to put it in true form, to be an accurate Jew. I was worried that my lack of knowledge somehow made me less Jewish and in return my future children would feel the same. I saw my impending marriage as an opportunity to start anew.
My fiance was raised in an agnostic house, celebrating Christmas and Easter with chocolate bunnies, trees and gifts, but no religion. His father was an atheist and his mother believed in all kinds of gods. He celebrated what he believed to be the omnipresent nonviolent holiday with the vague knowledge that his mother’s great-grandmother grandmother must have been Jewish.
When the time came for our own marriage, I captured my mysterious Jewish ancestry, sending my new religious father’s orthodox rabbi on a quest to see if it was water. It turned out that the rumors of a Jewish grandmother were true, and the next thing my border atheist fiancé knew was being welcomed into the tribe, called the Torah, and given a Jewish name.
After that, I threw myself into being perfect about everything being Jewish. I planned a completely orthodox wedding with all the traditions: immersing myself in the micawa, the Jewish ritual bath, in preparation for the ceremony; Separating the dance of men and women; And covering herself in a satin dress from head to toe to follow Vinay’s rules.
I was determined to build a house and build a family whose identity was so strongly in Judaism that no one could shake it. I put five of my children in a Jewish day school, invoked Becca on Friday, fried my own jelly donuts on Hanukkah, and locked my husband’s non-Jewish heritage in a box and buried it.
These Jewish traditions were foreign to him and he never felt like they belonged to him despite his Jewish roots, but they left him out of solidarity with me and a deep respect for the culture and history that his children were born to . Giving cheeseburgers and electricity was off the table for the weekend, so we didn’t even consider keeping kosher or looking at Shabbat restrictions. But the Christmas tree was unimaginable to me, so it was our agreement to leave Christmas.
My four children now fully identify as Jews, proud to be Jewish and connected to the larger community, as I wanted to. But when my fourth child, Chava Miriam, left her Jewish school bubble to attend public school two years ago, she began to question the eccentric identity I had introduced to her. She knew that her grandparents celebrated Christmas and demanded to know why we did not.
I never wanted anyone to be able to feel my children, as I felt when my sister-in-law attacked my Jewish identity; I wanted them to feel like they always belonged to the Jewish community. But I did not want to cut him from half his legacy. Now that I have aged, I realize that I need nothing to allow my children to adopt their adult lives free of their burdens.
I reject a lot of inheritance because of my one daughter, I worked very hard to make sure she would never question.
I want them to feel proud of who they are, love themselves and make them feel good on whatever holiday they celebrate. I want them to know that no one can take their inheritance from them, and it is okay to respect and embrace their partner’s traditions without losing their partner.
When I married at the age of 23 and was pregnant with my first child at the age of 25, I saw the world through the lens of my limited experience, not to all the possibilities that it presents. Now that I am in my 40s, it is very easy for me to step back and realize that I should not have been so afraid of a tree. I should not put my husband’s traditions aside because he had a Jewish great-grandmother. He has never identified as a Jew, and it is revealed that he remembers the celebration of Christmas as much as our daughter wishes for him.
I want my children to see the world through the wide lens of infinite possibility, so if my daughter wants to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, I will now happily welcome them both to our home.