So one more Jewish holiday has passed in which I’ve suffered, utterly confused, isolated, and bummed.
Like many converts, I’ve had trouble letting go of older holidays. I wasn’t thrilled to let go of Christmas. I had never celebrated it as a religious event, and honestly I don’t even view it as one. It was just a fun winter holiday that was the subject of a hostile takeover, really. But it’s really valuable to me to celebrate with my community, and the vast majority of the United States and the western hemisphere is my community.
Now, though, I’m trying to be part of a much different, much smaller community. One with their own holidays and their own celebrations. Not extra ones; replacement ones. I actually don’t mind this, really. I don’t have such strong attachments to Christmas and Easter, etc, that I don’t mind trying something else, but ever since I sat in synagogue for Shavuot, or watched as my rabbi chanted while another person blew through a ram’s horn, and thinking “what the hell is any of this?!” I’ve realized that I don’t actually have anything to replace any of my old holidays with. I don’t know what this stuff is! Celebrations are so important to me, and I’ve replaced them with nothing!
And let me clarify, I do know what the holidays are. I know their meanings and histories. I know their significance. They’re just not significant to me. This isn’t any big point of shame; I’m new. This stuff takes some getting used to. But for many reasons I haven’t really had a proper holiday in something like a year or more, and I’m kind of anxious.
This has become a point of contention between me and my wife. We have very different approaches to the holidays. Tiffany wants to plow through it. She’s content to stumble through Shabbat week after week, and go to synagogue events and for-the-kids holiday invites from our very nice Jewish friends, and participate as best as she can. She feels awkward and clueless many times, but she wants to do them by the book, and feels that the significance will come over time. That by doing what others are doing at the same time they’re all doing it will make it significant, because there is power in that kind of unity.
I don’t find any flaw in her argument, and yet when I rattle my noisemaker at the sound of “Haman!” which I’ve apparently been mispronouncing all this time, I feel like such a doofus because none of this is for me.
If I had my way I’d approach the holidays differently. Having always been an outsider pretty much everywhere I do, I’ve made peace with the position, and I put a lot more stock in things that are personally significant. I want to make Gallagher family traditions. I want to do what feels right. And frankly, I kind of want to mix it up a bit with these holidays. Hey, no one likes a big family-style dinner more than I do, but these holidays are a bit repetitive.
- Light something on fire and/or make a loud noise.
- Bake/fry something particular.
- Everybody eat.
Chanukah is baffling because it’s stretched over eight whole days. How long does it really take to play with a dreidel before you’re done? It feels like I should be doing more with this time. Something’s missing from all these holidays.
Sukkot? We’re supposed to live in a hut? Okay, then let’s just all go camping. It’ll be great. It’ll be an annual camping trip, and it’s totally special because I never go camping. We can even move the campsite each day. It’ll be like we’re roleplaying Exodus. How awesome is that?! Please, lets just do something besides eat inside a hut!
The problem, really, is not the Jewish holidays though. What I like the most about holidays is that they are reminders to act a certain way, and to focus in on an important trait. Thanksgiving reminds us to be thankful. Christmas reminds us to be peaceful and charitable. Independence Day reminds us of our unique history. Halloween reminds us to take time to have fun. And we need these reminders. We need these pauses in life to refocus. And I think the problem I’ve been having with the Jewish holidays is I don’t really know what they’re reminding me to do yet.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether I celebrate traditionally, or adapt (my wife would say appropriate) the holidays to my own ends. Until I figure out what the point is, and really feel that, then I’m not going to take them to heart.
Although that’s what’s nice about Purim, at least. I know G-d wants me to get drunk.
Great question! Here’s a start:
On Shabbat, when you keep the challah covered until after you light the candles and bless the wine, it’s so the challah doesn’t “know” it’s last and its feelings don’t get hurt. Pretty silly, really, until you are reminded, “If we’re being this careful not to hurt the feelings of a loaf of bread, how much more important is it for us to try not to hurt the feelings of another person?”
Passover reminds us that we were slaves in Eqypt, but now we are free. It reminds us to be thankful for our freedom, and to use it responsibly. It reminds us we are responsible to free others who are still captive and to free the parts of ourselves that are still captive, too.
The Daws of Awe (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) remind us that God only forgives us for sins against God. For sins against other people, God does not forgive us until we make peace with the people against whom we have sinned. It reminds us it’s time to go apologize and make peace.
Purim reminds us that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously all the time. We need to have fun and to learn to laugh at ourselves.
Sukkot reminds us what it’s like to be vulnerable; to not have a permanent roof over our heads, and to have compassion for those who don’t live in a nice, safe home.
This is just a partial list of course, but it should give you an idea of what we’re remembering.
Thank you Susan! These are lessons for all of us!
Purim is a struggle for me, too, and I’ve had 54 years to get used to it. Now, Pesach is a Holiday! Susan has spoken beautifully about the message of redemption from slavery, and there is also so much meaning in what we do:
We clean our homes and remove Chametz, reminding us to set aside pride in material things.
We create a service in our homes, reminding us that values come from our effort to build meaning, not from an institution where we show up.
We tell the story of the Exodus every year, remembering not only that there are many facets to each story, but that our sense of faith has a human scale.
We open our doors to members of the community who have no Seder, remembering when we were strangers and reawakening the openness of our spirit.
We end our Seder by allowing our children find a broken Matzoh, remembering that even if we are broken we can all be found.