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Sunday, November 23, 2014

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What Christmas taught me about Judaism

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Rabbi Debra Stahlberg Dressler

I came to Judaism as an adult, the adopted daughter of a secular Christian family. Although my embrace of Judaism didn’t create a family conflict about religious beliefs, it did challenge one supreme element of family culture: Christmas. The stakes were only heightened by the fact that I had produced the only grandchild.

It wasn’t just that my mother placed a lot of emphasis on Christmas and all its trimmings. It was how well it all worked, too. It was by far the happiest and most celebratory time each year. We didn’t always do family vacations so smoothly, or birthdays, or simple family time. But Christmas was something altogether different. It was elaborate and genuine. Ours was mostly Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty – irredeemably secular, but Christmas was the closest thing to sacred in my childhood recollections.

So what did I, the eldest daughter, do to honour my mother’s example as I began a family of my own? I discovered my Jewish roots and embraced Judaism exclusively. No Christmas. No Santa Claus. Not even a little Easter anymore. As a “new” Jew, I wasn’t about to “sell out” and make Chanukah into the superlative eight-day Jewish Christmas.

“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the holiest days of our year,” I reasoned. “Chanukah is a minor festival, after all!”

My mother never said a single thing to challenge my decision, but you could almost hear her heart shatter like a broken ornament when she came to understand that her grandchildren weren’t going to celebrate her signature holiday.

One of the greatest blessings of family life, however, is that children often grow up and mellow. As the years passed, we all got comfortable with each other’s choices in my family. Asserting the Jewish identity I had chosen for myself and my children became less and less about how we celebrated December holidays. The winter holiday was always going to be the big gift-giving event in my family, and I accepted that for the sake of shalom bayit and kibud av v’em.

I also learned that I could visit my family during their Christmas season and not in any way undermine the Jewish identity of my now-oldest daughter, who is a day school graduate, URJ camp veteran and fluent Hebrew speaker who has visited and lived in Israel multiple times already in her 19 years.

What I finally came to understand, probably more in hindsight than in real time, was that the “Christmas” of my youth was so much more than a secularized Christian holiday. My mother’s Christmas was about creating memories, sharing joy and celebrating precious years together as a family.

Memory, joy, and family are lessons that apply equally well to Chanukah, Passover and all things Jewish. And now that my mother is gone, the three-foot-long “Chanukah stocking” she made the only grandchild she ever knew is a treasured, albeit unique, Jewish family heirloom.

In a nutshell, my mother’s Christmas rocked, and through it, my completely non-Jewish mother taught me more than I can ever appreciate about being a Jew.

Rabbi Debra Stahlberg Dressler is spiritual leader of Temple Israel in London, Ont.

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