All That You Can’t Leave Behind

I used to be a big U2 fan.  I’ll freely admit that as a child of the 80’s, I was listening to U2 well into the 90’s.  One of their songs that always stuck with me was the song, “Walk On,” particularly the lyrics about “all that you can’t leave behind” and the idea of packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been.  Being a band of Irish Catholics, I have to assume the journey they were talking about, where they were packing for a “place that has to be believed to be seen,” was their version of the afterlife.  That being the case, the song still resonates for me in a different way, particularly this time of year and this year in particular.

We all have places we’re trying to get to, either metaphorically or physically and we all have stuff that holds us back from those journeys.  It may be the marathon we’ve always dreamed of running but never can seem to carve out the time to train for.  It may be the song we’ve always wanted to sing, but are afraid of making a fool of ourselves.  It could be a career move we’re afraid of making, a business we keep putting off starting, a relationship we can’t seem to commit to.  It could even literally be a big move, like making aliyah to Israel or even just moving out of our parents’ house.  It could be finally admitting to those we love who we really are.

All of us have stood at a crossroads and gazed longingly down that road less traveled and far too many of us have then looked at all we’re carrying, all that’s holding us back from that road and then turned back to the well-tread path.

There are always good, comfortable reasons not to take big risks.

Passover is a season of celebrating the courage of casting off all that holds us back and leaving the familiar for the extraordinary.  The Jews left the certainty of the lives they’d known for an uncertain future in the desert, trusting in Hashem and that there was something better for them out there.  They had to let go of everything they’d known before and all the adaptations that had helped them survive slavery.  They could only take what they could carry and they could only move forward once they were prepared to leave everything behind.

It really does us little good to rid our homes of chametz if we’re still allowing ourselves to be held back from being the people we were meant to be by a car payment we shouldn’t have taken on, a fear of failure, or worries about what others think we should do or be.

Last night, I had a crisis of faith over the silliest thing.  I was sitting, taking a break from Passover cleaning when it struck me that we didn’t get the kids to see the northern lights.  Living in Anchorage where there is so much light pollution, it’s tough to see them and this winter one of our goals was to get outside of Anchorage and make sure the kids saw them before we left Alaska.  Doubt came tumbling down on my head like fully packed suitcases stuffed up into a closet will fall down on the first person who opens the door.

Were we making a huge mistake moving?  Would the kids hate us for taking us away from Alaska?

I think the cleaning products might have gotten to my head because this morning, these fears seem silly, but last night, they were pressing.  What if the kids never see the Aurora Borealis?!  What kind of mother am I if I didn’t make sure they saw that?!  My kids also never went out on a sailboat when we were in Florida, never went fishing for marlin, never went snorkeling, etc, but for some reason, I felt this heavy guilt descend on me over the northern lights, nevermind that I myself have only seen them once or twice.  Nevermind that the kids could conceivably go on a trip just to see the northern lights one day if they’re so inclined.

It would be easier to stay in Alaska.  We wouldn’t have to sell our home, which is proving tougher than our realtor imagined.  We wouldn’t have to start over someplace new.  I wouldn’t have to manage working remote.  We could keep all our stuff and the kids could stay with the friends they know.  Still, staying here would mean that we wouldn’t be able to complete our conversions and observance would remain a difficult uphill battle every year.  The well trodden path that direction goes uphill, both ways, through the snow.  The path out is a huge leap off a cliff, but there’s a nice flat plateau down there once we land.

Some journeys require that we leave everything behind except that which we can’t.

This journey is one of those.  As we sift through our stuff another time, it becomes more, “What can we absolutely not do without or replace?”  Only that makes the cut.  Similarly, though, we still have to keep sifting through our own hearts and minds, too.  To become the people we’re meant to be means leaving behind fears, grudges, bad habits, limiting mindsets.  It’s a process of constantly decluttering what I carry around in my head and my heart.  It means facing my own fears of whether or not we’ll fit in where we land, whether or not the kids will do well in Day School, whether or not we’ll be happy in a landscape a little more ordinary.

When a conversion candidate prepares for the mikvah, it’s important to remove every barrier from the water.  You scrub under your fingernails and trim them short, detangle all your hair, remove your contacts, even brush and floss your teeth very carefully.  The idea is that there should be as little as possible separating you from the waters and, in fact, an immersion can be rendered invalid if there was too much of a barrier.  In a similar way, I feel like this process of moving is one of stripping off the layers of what has built up between us and Hashem, both materially and spiritually.

Bare and naked of our possessions, left with only that which we can’t leave behind, we’ll take our first steps into a new life, unsure of what awaits, but trusting and hopeful that when we emerge, it will be to a world that is warm and welcoming and that embraces us.

The Power of Speech

I just completed a JLI class at my Synagogue all about communication and the power of speech.  This morning, I had a perfect example of exactly what we’d been studying happen right in front of me in the grocery store line.

A coworker and I were standing in line to pay for some small purchases when a fight nearly broke out in front of us.  I didn’t clearly see the beginnings, but my coworker did and, being a former marine, he quickly stood between a very angry younger man and an older woman, diffusing what had become a pretty ugly situation.  The younger man was inches from the woman’s face, clearly upset and much larger than her.  With my coworker’s quick intervention along with another man, the man who was angry quickly left the store.  I spoke to the woman, asking her if she was all right.

In all fairness, she probably was rude to the man and both of their actions had a lot more to do with where they were before the checkout line.  As the young man left, he angrily related that his wife had just had surgery for cancer.  After he left, the woman admitted that she usually never speaks up for herself, but had “had enough” when she felt he’d cut in line in front of her.  Their words had so quickly escalated a situation.

As I spoke to her, making sure she was ok and calming down, I happened to say, “You know, maybe this is your bad luck for the day and the rest of your day will go really well.”  She suddenly smiled, her entire demeanor changing and replied, “Thank you, that really is a great way to look at it.”  She went on her way much more relaxed and, hopefully, she won’t have any more negative interactions today.

I’m not relating this story because I’m proud of myself.  I am really happy that I found the right words at the right time to help her, but I also wish that someone had found words that could have comforted the man, whose out of proportion anger was likely more about his pain and worries about his wife.  He may have been almost as surprised as everyone else by his sudden reaction.  The fact that he left quickly before anyone could really speak to him seems to me to say that he realized he wasn’t himself.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This was just such a perfect example.  Everyone came into that checkout line carrying with them the weight of their past, if even just that morning.  My coworker and I were discussing a project he’s stressed about this afternoon when he became distracted by the growing altercation.  I was still mulling over my own stressful situation at work, an ongoing conflict with a customer’s engineer that I’m still trying to resolve.  The man had his wife’s health issues and recent surgery heavy on his mind.  The woman had years of feeling like she was too small to stand up for herself, resentment building.

For a fleeting moment, our lives intersected in a grocery store line and we had our words as our tools.

In Judaism we’re taught that words are so powerful that there are words we should never say, other words we should only say at certain times or during prayers, and yet other words that we should be incredibly careful to say.  There is an acknowledgement that words have power inherent in them and that we need to practice being intentional with our words.  There is also an understanding that once a word is spoken, it can’t be taken back, like an oath made in vain.  The entirety of creation was made with ten simple utterances from Hashem and so much can also be destroyed with simple misspoken words.

Sadly, this seems to be a concept that is lost in this time, when words have even more power than ever.  Words travel at the speed of light now, across national boundaries in an instant.  I can sit and measure the latency of a message in milliseconds, just fractions of seconds.  Anything over 200 milliseconds is now considered “slow.”  We have only to type out our words and hit send and our utterances can reach millions.

Our words have such power for good or ill and I’m inspired to slow down more and more carefully consider my words.  I can never know what has led another person to where they are, what lonely battles they are fighting.  I can, however, try to focus on kindness and using my words to bring just a little bit more light into this world.

I can try to be just a little bit more like the One in whose image I was made.

Slowing Down and Building the Mishkan

In this week’s parsha, we talk about the actual building of the Mishkan, the moveable tabernacle that the Hebrews carried around with them in the desert wanderings.  Up to this point, we’ve talked about why there needed to be a Mishkan and we even had a rather long parsha that explained in great detail all the tapestries and hangings and fasteners.  This parsha, though, talks about the actual building of the Mishkan, from all the donations that the Jews poured out until Moses had to tell them to stop giving, to the actual work that was done by all different kinds of craftsmen and women to build it.  It’s from this list that we get all the prohibitions for different kinds of work that we’re not allowed to do on the Sabbath because we know that all these workers paused from their work on the Sabbath.

There were spinners and weavers of cloth, bakers of bread, metalworkers, and carpenters.  It’s even said that each craftsperson was divinely inspired in their work.

What it doesn’t say is that they met certain metrics or deadlines.  In the parsha, even though the artisans are praised for their handiwork, no mention is made of how quickly they built the Mishkan.  In fact, when Hashem tells Moses to build the Mishkan, He only states a starting date…no deadline at all.

My life revolves around deadlines it seems.  Projects have “benchmarks” that must be met in an orderly fashion to reach an arbitrarily decided endpoint.  Tickets, which really are just electronic and not even written on paper, have SLA’s or “Service Level Agreements” for responses.  I work in a world where an outage of a minute is like a lifetime, where everything happens in an instant and, so too must I move quickly.  At home, I watch over all the deadlines for my children’s homework and also, deadlines for my own work at home.  Meals must be ready before lighting Shabbos candles.  Different projects must be completed before our move.

Time feels like each year it speeds up and I scramble to keep up with it all.

Perhaps that’s why, when I want to relax, I turn to hobbies that are slow.  I spin my own yarn, delighting in the slow process of turning a ball of fluff into something useful, something that can be made into a hat or sock.  I enjoy that this is a process that I can touch and feel and that exists wholly in this world.  Then, I enjoy knitting, which is so much less efficient a way to make a hat than driving to the closest store and buying one.  Still, I enjoy the process almost more than the hat itself.  I can lose track of time in the stitches and feel a sense of comfort in the repetitive nature of the act.  I also love baking homemade bread and feeling the dough in my fingers and the smell of yeast rising in the home.

All of this helps me to escape the frantic pace of life and pretend I live in a simpler time that perhaps never really existed.

I wonder if the people spinning yarn for the weavers to use to weave the tapestries of the Mishkan worried about falling behind.  After all, if they failed to spin quickly enough, the weavers would be left with nothing to weave until they caught up.  Did they feel stressed?  Did they sneak glances at the weaver’s progress or ask for updates?  Did the weavers feel pressured to weave all their tapestries quickly so that the builders could put them up?  Or, did everyone just try to do their job to the very best of their abilities?  Was Moses tapping his foot, urging them to spin faster to meet some date he had hoped to dedicate the Mishkan on or, did he urge them to slow down and do their best work.

Did a spinner stop for a moment, just savoring the fact that he or she was doing this sacred work?  Did they want to make the project last just a little longer, knowing that never again in their lives would they be doing something so momentous?

We only know that when it all was completed, Moses saw that every piece of it had been done exactly to Hashem’s specifications and that Moses blessed the workers.  The text sounds like all the work was inspected at once and all the workers blessed together at the same time, the great project completed.  Was a project plan, a timeframe, part of Hashem’s specifications?  I’m left to wonder.

As I reluctantly turn from my hobbies, where I am content to work through a slow process, and back to my work where all too often, I must simply do “good enough” in order to meet deadlines, I wonder at how I might bring deeper meaning to my work and blessing to me as the worker.

In the meantime, my ticket queue calls…

Teachability, Conversion, and Life

I have a couple of really wise friends that I listen to and always learn something from our conversations.  Today, we were talking about the power of teachability and it seemed to fit exactly with a lot of what has been going on in my life recently as well as struggles I have seen around me.

We all live in a culture where just about the worst thing you can admit is that you “don’t know.”  Information is literally a major driver of our economy and we can research almost any topic with a web search.  When you’re asked a question, either in school or especially later at work, “I don’t know,” becomes an unacceptable answer.  We aren’t allowed to admit the limits of our knowledge.

The problem with this is that we are all full cups.  We’re so full of certainty and what we “know” that we are no longer open to accept more.  I know I’ve been guilty of this plenty of times in my life and also in my conversion studies.  I often feel resistance to being told something I think I already know or having to study something that I’ve studied before.  At work, I sometimes make assumptions based on what I think I know about a system or process, in too much of a rush to reach a solution or move on to the next task.

As I grew older, it became worse.  I no longer looked for teachers at work or at home.  I became more resistant to learning from others because I thought I had to appear an authority.  Obviously, if I’m open to learning from my kids or junior coworkers or even my customers…then it must mean that I’m not really worthy of the position I’m in.

This resistance to learning…made me stagnate.

It’s basically like Hashem took a look at me and shrugged and said, “Well, if you KNOW, then I guess you don’t need to learn anything new or move up any levels.  Ok, stay where you are.”

I thought I’d gotten a lot better at this and I probably have.  I’ve opened up a lot more to learning and become a lot more teachable.  I’ve actively studied subjects that I “thought” I knew and found new facets, new richness, new depth.  I’ve learned so much from the younger engineer I’m mentoring that often I feel like I’ve learned more than I’ve taught.  Still, I have a long way to go.

As my friends and I spoke, I realized that there are still places I’m resistant to change, resistant to learning new ways to handle situations.  At work, I’ve been struggling with a customer who has had a high amount of employee turnover and quickly changing processes.  Now, I wonder where I could be more teachable there, more able to move with their changing environment?  At home, my children seem to be rapidly changing as they move into adolescence, yet I realize that I’ve been relying on the same parenting techniques that have worked before.  Where could I be more open to learning new ways to parent them that work better with who they are now rather than keep trying to treat them like the children they were?  In my conversion studies and process, where am I still resisting being led or learning at a new level?  Where am I still stubbornly sticking with how I think things should be rather than accepting and working with how they are?

thought I understood lifelong learning, particularly since I work in a field that is constantly changing and I’m always having to learn more to keep up, but I realize that I’d fallen into a very common trap of knowing too much and not being able to admit that even the things I think I knew, I may no longer know.

Widening this out from my own personal experience, I would say that teachability is one of the bigger predictors of who will be successful in Orthodox conversion.  The converts that I have known that have successfully completed conversion, for the most part, have been those who were teachable, who were willing to admit what they didn’t know, and who were willing to do what they were told was necessary rather than insist on doing things their own way.  When they were told they needed to move to within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue, they didn’t waste much time arguing about the expense or difficulty or unfairness or trying to find some way to not have to move…they instead focused their energy on finding the right community and working out the logistics.  I’ve even known of converts that left their home country and had to learn an entirely new language besides just how to read Hebrew in order to convert.

In contrast, I know another conversion candidate who is stuck in the process.  She has been in process several years and yet still will argue about whether or not she should drive to shul or carry outside an eruv on Shabbos.  She can’t see how her own resistance is in the way of her desires.  There are countless others like her that really do yearn to convert, but just can’t seem to get out of their own way to do it.  Looking back, I can see places where we got in our own way during our process.

Learning how to be teachable, how to work through initial resistance to new information and change or being led…is such an important life skill, no matter what age you are or what your goals are.

Even if you aspire to join a “stiff necked people.”

Plot Twist!

This morning, I saw a particularly timely cartoon come across my Facebook feed.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, “PLOT TWIST,” and move on!

My life has been full of plot twists.  Interestingly, I’ve always, in the moment, reflected on the fact that bad news, or a major life change, never seems to come in the form I think it will.  Every time I’ve been given news that changed my life’s direction, it’s been on a sunny day.  In the movies, bad news has weather to fit it.  It’s generally raining or gray.  When my mother reached across the table to take my hand and tell me my brother had been diagnosed with cancer the first time, I distinctly remember the sunshine streaming through the windows.  It was like a note out of key.  Here she was, talking about radiation therapy and my brother’s odds and it was a bright sunny Saturday morning.  Similarly, the morning my father called me to tell me my brother had passed from his second battle with cancer, it was a bright morning.  Plot twists in real life aren’t nearly as well scripted as they are in the movies.

Each time I’ve had a major plot twist as well, I’ve never had music come in to warn me or some foreshadowing to let me know how this story would play out.  When I was younger, I didn’t really have a faith to fall back on.  Every big, life changing change hit me with full force and it was hard to trust that any good could come of it.  I was fortunate that my brother passed when I had already begun exploring Judaism.  I had a framework in which to process my grief that most of the rest of my family didn’t have.  I had a hope that in some way, he was in a better place and had completed his work here and that his life and death had an ultimate purpose even if I couldn’t see it with my own eyes.  I found comfort in prayer and in looking for the good he had done in his life.  Most of my family were left without that same comfort and it seemed to me like their grief process was more difficult for it.

Most of the plot twists that have come in my life have been far less serious than losing my brother.  Some have even been comical.  I have noticed, though, that since I began studying Judaism years ago, I have come to handle the plot twists of my life better and better.  I’m sure ageing has some part in it as well, but a big part of it is that I no longer react so much to change, but instead, I wait, knowing that everything will work out for the good in some way if I’m patient enough.  If it hasn’t yet…then we’re not to the end of that plotline yet.  Knowing that there is an author writing the story of my life that cares deeply about each character in it rather than a room full of monkeys typing randomly on typewriters brings me comfort when suddenly there comes a huge shift in the story.

I trust in the Author, that He knows better than I how this story needs to play out.  I just need to play my part the best way I can.

This message was timely for me because we’ve run into a bit of chaos when it comes to our conversion process recently.  There is a lot that we thought was certain that isn’t now and we’re not sure how the story is going to play out.  At worst, we may have to begin our process over again after our move, adding on 1-2 more years in process before we can complete.  For my husband and I, 1-2 more years is little to worry about, but for our children, 1-2 years is a much bigger issue, particularly when it comes to their Jewish education as well as their hopes.

Years ago, such a plot twist this late in the story would have sent me reeling and reacting.  I consider it a sign of great growth that I simply shrugged and said, “It will all work out some way or other, for the best,” and then went back to the work of living each day, davening, volunteering, raising and educating the kids, and preparing for our move.  There is little time to worry about it before Purim, which inevitably leads to the rush of Pesach preparations.  Homework from both the kids’ secular studies and their Orthodox Online Day School studies must still be overseen and done.  Food has to get bought and cooked.  Cleaning has to happen.  Davening, mitzvahs, and tzedekah all still are a higher priority than worrying over things I simply can’t control.  At some point, living as an Orthodox Jew became even more important than the process of becoming one, which I firmly believe will follow if we stay focused on living this life.

So, we check in with our Rabbis periodically to see how things are going and if anything more is needed from us to help the process, but beyond that?  I leave it to above my pay grade except when I’m davening.  I channel all my tears and pleading there, to the only One who ultimately has control of any of it and leave it there.

The rest of the time, I focus on playing my part in this story the very best way I know how and wait for this latest plot twist to work itself out for the good, even if that isn’t the way I would have written the story.

I trust the Author with my life because it’s His life to write.  I’ve just been given the honor and responsibility of living it.

Soon, My Children Will Not Be Mine

Orthodox Jewish conversion has a lot of fascinating quirks that a lot of people aren’t aware of unless they’ve dealt with the process directly.  One of them, which I mentioned in relation to my husband yesterday, is the fact that once you emerge from the Mikvah as an entirely new, Jewish person in the eyes of Jewish law, you also emerge with a new set of parents, Avraham and Sarah.  An interesting twist in this happens when a child converts in that, when it comes to Jewish law and ritual matters…they’re technically no longer their parents’ child anymore, but a child of Avraham and Sarah.  When an entire family converts, this means that, from a halakhic perspective, technically, the parents and the children all suddenly have the same spiritual parents and are also spiritual siblings.

This can lead your mind down some uncomfortable, very West Virginian paths if you let it and it is important to have a Rav that can advise you on things like laws of yichud and such if you have older children and are in this situation, but I think those details are best left to Rabbis who specialize in this particular and peculiar area of Jewish law.  This also applies to non-Jewish children who are adopted by Jewish couples and converted as infants or children, too.

The aspect that I struggled with early on in the conversion process was the idea that my children wouldn’t be prayed for with my name, but Sarah’s.  For some reason, that ached in my heart, that if my children were sick or hurt and needed prayers, they wouldn’t be prayed for as MY children, like any other Jew.  My son wouldn’t be called to Torah as the son of my husband, but as someone else’s son.  I have heard, in passing, that there is such a thing as “halakhic adoption” after conversion, but I also had to face the prospect of this being yet another thing I would have to work through letting go of in order to become a Jew and so…I set to thinking very deeply about it.

Like my husband’s journey to letting go of his attachment to his names, it took years and I can say that it’s only this winter that I’ve finally come to a place where this feels good, not just something that I’ll grit my teeth and make it through, but something I see as a positive good.

Part of it is the growing up my children have done since we began the conversion process.  7 years ago, when we first approached a Rabbi, my daughter was just 5 years old and my son 7.  They were still very much attached to me and needed a lot of care.  Over those 7 years, they’ve grown more and more independent.  My son, in particular, is now a 14-year-old, an adult in Jewish law and more and more, he craves his independence as he becomes his own man.  He needs space from me and our relationship shifts and changes as he grows into being more and more my peer than my child.  My daughter turns 12 next week, which is the age she would have become a bat mitzvah.  There are moments where she is still my baby and then the next, I see glimpses of a beautiful, bright young woman, strong and capable in her own right.

It’s already becoming the time of stepping back and letting go of my children so that they can be the people they were meant to be.

That process is so bittersweet.  I worry over them.  I’m intensely proud of them.  I’m annoyed by them.  I long to just pull them back into my lap and cuddle them.  I even ask them for help, particularly my son with jars I just can’t open.  I love them just as fiercely, but often, it’s appropriate to hold back some so I don’t embarrass them or cross the boundaries they’re beginning to make in their own lives.  They change so quickly and most of the time, I’m clumsily trying to keep up with it all.

A big shift happened this winter when we went to visit a Yeshiva and a boy’s High School with my son.  For years, I’d been resistant to the idea of sending him off to Yeshiva.  It felt like I was abandoning him to others to finish raising.  However, visiting these schools and watching the boys there interact with their Rebbes and seeing my son interact as well, I suddenly realized that this could be something really healthy.  Perhaps boys need to go off into a world of men that aren’t so close to them to be stifling and have more influences than just my husband and I.  I realized that my son could not just survive, but really thrive in this environment.  I also saw that he’d have even more support and guidance than we alone would be able to give him.  I suddenly felt like it was time to open up, let others into his life in a much deeper way, and take steps back of my own.

Up until now, my husband and I have been his coach, calling the plays in his life.  Now, it looks more and more like we need to be on the sidelines, just cheering and supporting him from more of a distance, but still his biggest fans.  He needs new coaches to take him to the next level.

I can think of no better spiritual parents to entrust my precious children to than Avraham and Sarah, the very people who helped to guide so many people of their time to the revolutionary concept of monotheism itself.  I also realize that as a spiritual newborn myself, I’ll need to depend on others now to give my children what I can’t, what I’m still in need of myself.

In my own life, I’ve struggled with the transition with my own parents from child to a sovereign adult.  I can now see more clearly from the other side of the equation just how difficult that transition must have been for them, too.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked spiritually to make that transition with my own children in a very literal way at the same time that they’re at the age of adulthood in Jewish law and I really feel blessed by all the lessons there are for me in this.

Sometimes the very things we feel the most initial resistance to are the things we most need, the bitter medicine that is our cure and, it’s absolutely fitting in a Jewish sense that this cure comes before I have to let go of my children in other aspects of our lives together and accept them as the adults they are growing into.

Plus, I can’t imagine that there couldn’t be a blessing from serving as a handmaiden to a woman as righteous and great as Sarah, giving over to her two new Jewish children that, G-d willing, may grow to bring her blessing with their lives.  It’s almost like being a commoner and raising your children to adolescence and the Queen of the realm seeing them and how special they are and how well they were raised and adopting them into her royal family.  It’s bittersweet to let them go, but such pride at seeing them ascend and knowing how much more able they’ll be now to reach their full potential.

So yes, I am letting my children go, but in the end, I realize they were only ever lent to me to care for and always belonged to Hashem.  I was just entrusted with these treasures of His for a time and it has been an honor.  I’m sure I’ll still be needed for many years to come in different ways and I’ll be so happy to step in, but I’m also glad I’m not alone in raising them the rest of the way.

Mother Sarah, I gladly and happily share my children with you and I know that you’ll love and worry over them with me and together we can daven for them.

What greater gift could I ever give them?

How a Trip to the Ends of the Earth Helped Me Make Peace with Christmas as a Jew

Last week, I traveled to the north slope of Alaska, about as far north as anyone can go, and I spent almost a week in an oil camp.  This was probably the most unlikely place for an Orthodox conversion candidate.  As part of my work there, I had to walk through every dorm room unless someone was asleep and every office and workspace, so I got to know the camp in a way that few probably do.

It was probably about the most Christian place I’ve ever been to.  The dining halls played Christmas music 24/7 since the camp operates 24/7.  They play it all December and it sometimes becomes a bit much even for them.  In particular, “Merry Christmas Ya’all from Texas” gets stuck in your head in the worst way.  There were Christmas decorations everywhere and I was wished a Merry Christmas by kind and well-meaning people everywhere I went.  I guess it was almost like being at the North Pole!  In their dorm rooms, there were symbols of Christianity, bibles, even magazines for bible study.  The announcement board had various Christian bible studies and even services advertised for Saturday night.  To say I felt a bit out of my element is an understatement.

As I ate my reheated kosher meal with Christmas music playing and everyone around me enjoying fresh non-kosher food, I began to rethink my attitudes toward Christmas and Christianity in general.  Why did I feel such revulsion?  Why was I so defensive, so grumpy?  Was it that I felt like I had to openly reject this in order to protect my Jewishness?  Sure, maybe it was presumptuous for people years ago to ask my kids what Santa was bringing them for Christmas, but I’m sure they meant well.  These were people living their faith just as I try to.  They were earnest in their beliefs and the warmth with which they gave their holiday greetings was sincere.  In such a cold place, I didn’t really stick out as being anything different.  My choice of skirts over pants might have been unusual, but just being female there was already unusual, so it was natural they would assume I was Christian like them.

Just because their beliefs never fit me doesn’t mean I need to have such high walls up against them.  In fact, the fact that I was raised Catholic and never found anything there for me should be enough to tell me that I have nothing to fear from Christmas carols.  If I’m truly happy in Judaism, then why not wish the same for them in their faith?

Inside, I felt some tension ease and I could look at all those old symbols with fresh eyes, realizing that they meant me no harm.  I could smile and wish someone a Merry Christmas, even while letting them know my family and I celebrate Chanukah.  I began to see their confusion for what it was, rather than judgement.  I also found myself looking forward to Chanukah more, where before I’d simply been thinking about all the work for the shul’s annual Chanukah party that was coming up and trying to figure out when I’d find time to make latkes.  It was as if my grinchy attitudes towards my neighbors celebrations had been bleeding over to my own.

It took flying up into the far arctic to melt my heart some to where I no longer felt under attack by Christmas carols and lights, but instead could focus on the joy of my own holiday season and genuinely wish my coworkers, friends, and my non-Jewish family happy holidays of their own.  I stepped off the plane home on Motzei Shabbos with a lighter heart, ready for Chanukah!