By Laura Hirschfield
Here’s a list of things that make me feel Jewish: 1) angel yard statues, 2) red-and-green sweaters, 3) Christmas carols, and 4) Santa photo-ops. An overwhelming sense of Jewish identity sweeps over me each winter, lasting from the day after Thanksgiving through the year-end Christmas sales. It’s not that I don’t always feel Jewish. But holiday fanfare works like Miracle-Gro on my sense of otherness.
Like many Jewish families in the New York neighborhood of my childhood, we celebrated Passover, Easter, Hanukkah, and Christmas. On Passover and Hanukkah we read Hebrew prayers aloud, ate special foods, and the children got to participate in things usually reserved for grownups, like candle-lighting and tasting wine.
Christmas and Easter, on the other hand, were clearly for kids. There were multi-colored decorations, candy, and presents. These holidays generated the excitement of Halloween, the anticipation of a birthday. No crosses, no stars, no Jesus.
I don’t remember where I first heard the term “cultural Jews”; the descriptor was always there. Like a place. Once I had my own child, I assumed she’d be Jewish, too. Before she turned five, I’d towed her to a handful of celebrations at several nearby synagogues. None felt quite right, but the situation didn’t seem urgent.
That is, until the November night she came home from kindergarten and told me she loved Jesus. She wished we had two chimneys, she said, so Santa could slide down one and Jesus the other.
My stomach lurched; my throat seized. “We don’t have any chimneys,” I sputtered, “and if we did, I’m sure they could share.” My words fell like bricks. Her best friend’s Jesus stories sparked a flame in her that my feel-good talks about different people’s religious beliefs couldn’t match.
That year, I embraced our heritage with ardor. I found the menorah I’d tucked away, and bought a box of colorful Hanukkah candles. I filled the plastic dreidels of my youth with gelt. At sundown the first night, I told my daughter she was Jewish. I could have been telling her she was a Homo sapiens of the order Primata. It didn’t mean a thing.
But how could it? Nothing in our lives bore our religious or cultural identity. No one in our family or circle of friends was observant. We were a single-mom-and-daughter duo in a Pacific Northwest city with a Jewish population of less than two percent. We still celebrated Christmas at my parents’ house in Wyoming, where my father, even into his 70s, foraged the semi-wilderness for the perfect tree. We ate Chinese on Christmas eve, bagels and lox for brunch. It was like a costume party for which we didn’t dress up. We looked the part – down to the sparkly silver tinsel – but I knew the reason we never placed a star at the top of our tree.
Which was why, when my daughter began saying that Jesus “lived in her heart,” I felt an urgent need to tell her what I hadn’t needed to be told: You are Jewish. I wanted to fit it onto her, like a stiff confirmation dress. As if that would make it so. As if that’s how my own sense of Jewish identity had come to fit me.
I was 18, nearing the end of a month-long college course called Christian Mysticism and Buddhism. Taught at a monastery in the Colorado Rockies, my fellow classmates and I woke early each morning for meditation, lectures, and study. It was April, but the aspen limbs were bare and the snow thigh-deep.
Our group was allowed into the monastery’s stone hallways and library, but the chapel was off-limits. Except on Easter Sunday, when a morning service opened to the public. I could hardly wait to enter the un-enterable.
The sound of an organ rose like a snowdrift, and pages of prayer books softly shuffled. A chorus of low voices in song. We sat and stood and sat and stood and turning, we entered the aisle, slowly forming a line.
How did I not know where the line led? There were two people in front of me by the time I realized. By the time it was time. To kneel before the abbot and open my hand, just as the others had done before me.
How I wished for an offering of escape. Instead, the abbot gently placed a small piece of bread on my palm. It was warm. It was soft. I squeezed even as I tried not to, the bread-flesh heating, moistening. I was concealing a chunk of Christ’s body in my hand. Guilt engulfed me. I was Jewish. I could neither eat the body of Christ nor throw it away.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, only that I was outside in a gravelly parking lot amid mingling people, the flesh-bread sticky in my fist. How does a suddenly-extremely-Jewish girl dispose of the flesh of Christ? When a man approached and asked to see what was in my hand, I uncurled my fingers to reveal the misshapen lump. “Don’t you ever do that again,” he said, taking it. I never knew who he was or what he did with the bread. Relief salted my shame.
“Oh no!” my daughter screamed. It was the first night of Hanukkah after our Jesus conversation, and our lit candles had begun to melt. Her cheeks flushed with tears. “Stop! We’re making them disappear!” She’d spent days playing with the candles; they’d become alive to her, beloved stick families and friends. She looked at me wild-eyed. As if they were bodies, and I was sentencing them to burn.
Nothing I said would console her. She begged me to blow them out. Panicked, I complied. But I couldn’t promise what she asked for next: to never light Hanukkah candles again. To never to light any candles again. But this was no simple ask. The line between make-believe and belief can be watery, saturating, like food coloring in challah bread.
Twelve years have passed since that first painful night of Hanukkah. I wish I’d said, Tell me what you see; I will look with you. It’s what I wish someone at the monastery had said to me. Also, You can handle this. And Look, there’s a hand hiding in handle. And, a rhyme with candle.
This year, my child—now a teenager—will set out our menorah. They’ll use a toothpick to carefully unstick the bits of last year’s wax from inside each of the nine candle holders. Along the base of the menorah, the previous years’ mottled wax will go on accumulating. It’s given rise to a miniature kingdom of drip sand castles in blue, white, red, and green.
Laura Hirschfield is a therapist in Seattle where she lives with her high school senior and ageless chow-shepherd pup. Ugly Hanukkah sweaters don’t make her feel more at home.
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