HaBaitah For The Holidays

The Hanukkiyah has burned brightly with the light of dedication for eight nights, and now, with the colorful wax drippings carefully removed, it is put away until next year. The last of the latkes have been eaten (not to mention the sufganiyot!) and I have consumed enough carbs, salt and fat to make me crave salad and steamed veggies for at least a week. The candy dish in the living room has three lonely chocolate coins remaining. I scoop them up and put them in my backpack on my way out the door. They might come in handy during the long wait at airport security.
Hanukkah behind us for 5773. What is next on the agenda for this nice Jewish boy? I’m going home (HaBaitah) to my mom’s house for Christmas.AtHomeForChristmas
At this point in the story, it would probably be helpful to know that I converted to Judaism two years ago. The story in a nutshell: I grew up in a Catholic family, gradually became estranged from Christianity, and fell in love with the Jewish people and Judaism after working at a Jewish family service agency. Through all of this, my family has been supportive without one moment of drama. Although we have had some amusing moments as my family has learned some of the basics about Judaism and Jewish traditions.
The flight is uneventful, and my arrival at the airport in Bay City, Michigan is without fanfare, save for my mother’s beaming face when we hugged at baggage claim. As we drive home, we pick up where we left off after our last phone conversation, going over the list of out-of-town cousins, uncles, aunts and significant others who are returning to the ancestral homeland for Christmas. There are plans for an enormous family Christmas party the next night, which is being held in a rented event space because nobody’s home can hold the 70 or so people that are connected to one of the eight kids my grandparents brought into the world.
We pull up to the house, and I carry my bags in. This moment is like it always is: I scan the walls and tabletops for the familiar touchstones of family history. I see family photographs with my mom, dad, brother, and me. Portraits of grandparents, my parents’ wedding photo. The flag that draped my father’s casket at his funeral. Mixed in are new reminders that life continues: several photographs of my brother’s beautiful baby daughter; and a family photo of all of us, taken outside my synagogue on the day of my bar mitzvah, just six months ago.  A hamsa that I brought back for my mom from Israel hangs on the wall next to a piece of ceramic art that my grandmother made 35 years ago.
I’m home.
The next night is the family Christmas party. My mom makes Cassoulet, a French-Canadian stew, reflective of our family heritage. As we’re preparing to leave for the party, she reminds me again that the dish contains roast pork and bacon, and apologizes that I won’t be able to eat it. For the umpteenth time, I tell her no apology is needed and remind her how popular this dish is and how much her brothers will enjoy it. She smiles.
The party is filled with kids. As the oldest grandchild who has lived out of state for more than 20 years, I can’t keep up with the names of my cousins’ kids. I joke with my mom that everyone should wear a nametag that also includes the names of their parents. I visit with aunts and uncles, great aunts, in-laws and kids ranging from toddlers to teens.
I handle the question of my Jewish identity much the same way I came out as a gay man in my 20’s. I’m open about my life (Facebook helps fill people in), and generally take my cues from their questions and comments. My cousin Melissa and her husband Kevin wish me “Happy Hanukkah,” and she asks me about the Hanukkah traditions I keep. I tell them about lighting my menorah, and joke that it’s nice to follow up Hanukkah with a full-on family Christmas celebration. My cousin Adam asks me about my trip to Israel last year. It is light, easy conversation.
The party ends with Santa Claus visiting (my uncle Pat is inconspicuously absent at this moment), and the little ones squealing in excitement. We are all here because of my grandparents, and our tradition of coming together at Christmas keeps their memory alive. L’dor v’dor.
To prepare for Christmas Eve dinner, I was tasked with crowd sourcing my Facebook friends for culinary advice. On the menu at Beit Bargeron B’Michigan: Beef Brisket, Noodle Kugel, vegetable and salad. The brisket is in the oven now, and it smells pretty great. A mishpacha with evolving traditions is a beautiful thing.
Tomorrow, on Christmas Day, we will share dinner with my Uncle Dale (my father’s brother), my Aunt Jan, and their brood. It will be just like any other Christmas my family has spent together since my father’s passing. While I will remain silent during the Catholic prayer for grace before meals (probably saying HaMotzi in my head), it is also true that deep love and mutual respect will surround us, as it always has.
I am grateful with so many blessings: loving family who have accepted me the way I was created and for who I have chosen to be, for the Jewish people and our Covenant with G-d, and for the opportunity and the time to be able integrate all of these into one life.
Blessed are you G-d, who has created us, sustained us and brought us to this season.
Yesterday, we discussed next year’s holiday travel plans. I invited my Mom for Pesach, and she told me that she thinks she wants to come to Minnesota in November too. Next year, the first night of Hanukkah is erev Thanksgiving. I see some latkes and sufganiyot in our future.
Photo: Beit Bargeron B’Michigan