“I don’t DO Valentine’s Day.”
It wasn’t the first time our cultural differences had butted heads, but it was the first time that I’d really felt such separation. After all, our relationship was brand new and shiny and, according to popular culture, what he did on that fateful day was my best measurement of what this shiny new relationship meant to him. Except, here he was, already telling me that he was not going to be participating.
The interesting thing was that Valentine’s Day never really was high on my priority list. I’d never viewed it as a religious holiday and I just kind of took it for granted that if I was dating someone, there would be something. Flowers, candy, little hearts with silly sayings…it was more of a child’s holiday for cute heart shaped cards and adolescent awkwardness. Still, I found myself stewing over this. It was clear that his objection to a secular holiday seemed more important to him than me. He wouldn’t even go through the motions.
Almost a decade later, I’m thankful that he didn’t cave, that he didn’t give in to the pressure I put on him.
This was the first time I realized that our cultures really were that different. I hadn’t been that thrown off by us not celebrating Christmas, but Valentine’s Day was the first time I really understood at a deeper level that Judaism wasn’t just “the Old Testament,” but also a very separate culture that I needed to understand. Initially, I began studying to understand the man I loved, but at some point, those studies took on a life of their own, even going deeper in some areas than his day school education had imprinted on him.
In the West, we often make the mistake of assuming Judaism to be more like Christianity and Western culture. This is exposed in the term “Judeo-Christian” that gets thrown around and is assisted by the fact that so many Jews have become assimilated into Western culture. The more I studied, though, the more I recognized that Judaism is older than Western culture, it’s more what Americans would view as a Middle Eastern culture, with all the richness of the spices of that part of the world. While Western civilization may have borrowed much from Judaism when it comes to codifying laws, it’s still a culture separate.
As time went on, Valentine’s chocolates faded into the background. If I want chocolate, all I need to do is ask and it appears and it doesn’t take a special day. I realized that by refusing to assimilate, even for me, he gave me a greater gift of having to confront and understand his culture. It wasn’t long before I loved that culture for its own sake and the secular holidays I gave up along the way seemed so empty, cardboard paper hearts next to something so much more substantial and rich. I also came to understand that the way he expresses his love isn’t the cop out of remembering a single day and sending flowers. His love is in the everyday routines he keeps, the care he takes in the mundane day to day work of making a life together.