The Grinchstein Who Stole Christmas

It’s that time of year again.  Christmas is approaching and the hap-hap-happiest season of all is in full swing.  Lights are lit, trees are trimmed, shops are bustling, and the oh-so-familiar Christmas music is pleasantly and joyously echoing throughout the city.

Except at our house.  Because Christmas is dead.

Now that I’m a Jew, Christmas is a very bitter-sweet – melancholy even – time of year.  It was one of the hardest things to give up.  Actually, it was the hardest thing to give up.

And this year I’m particularly bummed, now that “ugly Christmas sweaters” are all the rage.  I could totally rock one of those.  You know, like with a side ponytail and candy-cane earrings.

BR: Blondie, what are you doing?

Me: Oh, just baking cookies.  You know, for Hanukkah.

BR: Really.  Well that’s interesting, because they oddly resemble Christmas cookies.

Me: No, they’re Hanukkah cookies.  See?

BR: Blondie, there’s no such thing as Hanukkah cookies.  And just because you’ve cut them in the shape of a Star of David and decorated them with blue icing and sprinkles, doesn’t mean you’re not secretly making Christmas cookies and trying to disguise them as something Jewish.

Me: No, they’re very Jewish.  Just try one.

BR: Ok… wow, these are delicious.  I will let this slide.  This time.  But I need to make sure that I’ve successfully wiped the Christmas right out of you. So let’s have a little test, shall we?

Me: (blinking and staring)

BR: As a Jew, what do you want to do when you see a Christmas tree?

Me: Umm… I don’t know.  Quietly admire it from afar?

BR: Blondie!  That is incorrect!  You should want to roundhouse that Christmas tree and kick it over!

Me: What?

BR: Now I’m going to ask you again.  When you see a Christmas tree, do you have the urge to give it a solid roundhouse-ing and kick it over?

Me: Uh, no BR.  I do not have the urge to “roundhouse” a Christmas tree and “kick it over.”  What is wrong with you.

BR: Well you should.  Otherwise I’m going to take you back to the Rabbi so he can dunk you in the Mikvah and drown the Christian right out of you!  Is that what you want?  A good Christian drowning?!

So needless to say, BR is not a fan of Christmas.  He’s more like the Grinchstein who stole Christmas.  Or the Grinchstein who came into your house and kicked over your Christmas tree.

Now I’m sure many of you are wondering, why can’t you celebrate both holidays?  After all, Christmas isn’t necessarily religious.  Why can’t you have Christmas and Hanukkah?  Or “Chrismukkah?”

Well the simple answer is… you just can’t.  Jews don’t work like that.  At least not the ones I’ve shacked up with.  And it took me a little while, but I eventually came to understand that after thousands of years of enduring religious persecution and antisemitism, Christmas doesn’t necessarily give Jews the “warm and fuzzies.”  In fact it often serves as an annual reminder of segregation and persecution.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m still not mourning it.  Every.  Single.  Year.

I loved, loved, loved Christmas.  I loved every single thing about it.  I loved decorating the tree.  I loved our Santa collection.  I loved shopping for presents and wrapping them with glittery paper and bows.  I loved stuffing stockings.  I loved playing Christmas music all month long.  I loved Christmas parties.  I loved playing my favourite Christmas CD in the car and driving around the neighbourhood looking at Christmas lights with my family, while sipping hot chocolate from Starbucks.  I loved watching Christmas Vacation every year with my dad – that was our special little tradition.  I loved turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie… and everything else we ate at our dysfunctional family gatherings.  I even loved our dysfunctional family gatherings.  And my Grammie, who I miss dearly.  I had 31 Christmases at her house.

So when you give up Christmas you’re not just giving up one day a year.  You’re giving up an entire lifetime of happy memories, celebrations and traditions.  You’re giving up much loved, very special moments with your family.  Forever.

(Sigh) It’s not easy being a Jew.

So the best way for me to deal with giving up Christmas is to basically cut it off like a limb.  Just hack it off like a dead lump of coal.  This may sound harsh, but you have to understand – it’s very hard to be around Christmas and not want to participate.  You can’t just dip your toe in, get a little sprinkling of Christmas glitter on it, and then walk away like nothing happened.  Or at least I can’t.

So every year BR and I have had the same strategy: we travel.  Because if I’m not home for Christmas, then I won’t have the uncontrollable urge to hang Christmas balls on all the plants and put Santa hats on the dogs.  And for any of you newly-minted Jews are out there – quietly sobbing into your old Christmas stockings that you’ve kept hidden in the closet while shoving bricks of fruitcake into your mouths – I highly recommend this strategy.  Actually, I highly recommend Vegas.  It’s easy to forget about Christmas when there’s all sorts of drinking, gambling, prostitution and general debauchery going on around you 24-7.  Unless, of course, that’s how you like to celebrate Christmas.  Then you better go somewhere else.

But this year is different.  This year we’re home.

Holy Christmas, pass the rum balls.  Blondie’s riding in on a one-horse open sleigh full of glitter with a carton of eggnog in one hand and a bottle of spiced rum in the other.  Ho ho ho, lookout bitches.

And last night I had the ultimate test.  BR is away, and I was invited to my parents house for my sister’s annual gingerbread house party.  Did I go?  Hell yes.  And it was awesome.

I brought along the lady who cooks for us and the dogs.  My cousins were there and my Aunt, and a few close family friends.  My parents go all-out for Christmas.  Their house is so… festive.  As soon as I walked in I was bombarded by all the familiar sights, smells and sounds.  The lights were twinkling, the tree was beaming, stockings were hanging from the fireplace and Christmas music was playing in the background.  As usual they had lots of food and wine out, candles lit, lights dimmed, and an explosion of Christmas decorations everywhere.  I almost cried.  I was so happy to see everyone.

So we mingled for a while and then my sister threw some blankets down and got us all seated on the living room floor.  Then she passed each one of us a gingerbread house kit.  I was so excited.  I wanted to bedazzle the crap out of mine, in a pent-up frenzy of icing and sprinkles and forbidden cookie dough.  I almost started to hyperventilate.

And then I remembered my conversion.  I remembered the commitment I made to BR and to his family.  And to Judaism.  Suddenly the visions of sugarplums dancing in my head were replaced with frowning Rabbis.  And BR’s grandmother scolding me and shouting, “I knew this would happen!”

Ah, good old Jewish guilt.  That’s how you know you’re really a Jew.  So I took a deep breath, unwrapped my kit, and decided to make a gingerbread synagogue.  Or a ginger-gogue.  I put a Star of David on one side and a menorah on the other.  And I put a little yarmulke on the gingerbread man.

There.  See?  I could handle being around Christmas and not be pulled back over to the dark side.  I could sniff some glitter and not become addicted.  I could drink the eggnog and not join the cult.

And just as everyone was taking a step back to admire their gingerbread houses which were spread out around the living room floor, BR’s beloved black poodle came stomping in like Godzilla, and tried to trample and eat every house in her path.  Everyone started screaming.  Christmas was ambushed.

Was this a coincidence?  Maybe.  But I can’t help thinking that somewhere far off in Austria, tucked away in a remote ski village, BR was sipping scotch and slowly rubbing his hands together, laughing that evil laugh of his.  When I texted him what happened, his response was, “Yay. I hope she stomped your ginger-gogue.”

You win again BR.  Happy Hanukkah.

Shabbat Shalom

One thing BR insisted on if we were going to end up together and maybe one day start a family, was that I convert to Judaism.  I thought about this for a while and tried to imagine what it would be like to give up Christmas, but finally I agreed.  And I took the whole thing quite seriously.  It is, after all, a life changing commitment.

If any of you are considering converting, let me tell you a little bit about what is involved.  Do you remember what Charlotte had to go through on Sex and the City?  That was actually not that far-off from reality.

In a nutshell, it’s about a year long commitment where you have to immerse yourself in Judaism.  You have to go to Jew school, learn Hebrew, attend shul and participate in Jewish holidays.  There is a lot of reading and homework, as well as a couple of exams.  For those of you who are interested, I’ve written in detail about what’s involved at the end of this blog.

Bottom line: it’s intense.

Now, I actually really liked going to Jew school, but I found the Rabbi who taught the class a little… odd.  I could never really put my finger on it.  She was fine speaking in front of us a group, but one-on-one she was kind of awkward.  Like she would never really look you in the eyes.  I just assumed she didn’t like me.  Probably because BR kept sneaking off during the Hebrew lessons to hide in his car.  Or because throughout the rest of the class he would be checking his phone incessantly.  Which would cause me to “whisper-yell” at him.

Me: BR!  Put that away, what’s wrong with you?

BR: Shhhh.  Stop talking and pay attention.

Me:am paying attention!  You’re the one who’s not paying attention!

BR: Blondie, I’m already Jewish.  You’re the one who needs to be paying attention, not me.  So stop being such a selfish Christian and focus on the lesson.

Me: Are you playing a game on your phone?

BR: Shhhh!  You’re disrupting the class.

Anyway, towards the end of the course the Rabbi invited all of us to her home for Shabbat dinner.  She divided the class into three groups.  We were in the first group, along with four other couples.

I was very nervous about this for a couple of reasons.  First, I was sure she didn’t like me.  Second, it was a small group and you were supposed to fully participate.

I really didn’t know what to expect, since all I knew about Shabbat dinner was solely due to what I had experienced with BR’s family.  Which was basically a lot of eating and shouting.  Although we did occasionally say the prayers over the candles, wine and challah.

Then I remembered the first time BR and I tried to do Shabbat dinner together as a couple.

BR: What’s wrong Blondie?

Me: I tried to make matzoh balls but half of them exploded and the other half are hard as rocks!

BR: That’s ok, I’m sure the chicken soup is fine.  Oh… hmm… that’s an interesting colour… You know what?  Let’s just forget about the soup.  Go find some candles and we’ll light them.

Me: All I can find are birthday candles.

BR:  Oh.  Alright, that’s fine.

Me: But where are we going to stick them?  We don’t have any birthday cake!

BR: Don’t panic Blondie, I’ll figure something out… now pass me that knife… ok.  Voila!

Me: You stuck them in a cucumber?

BR: Blondie, it’s fine.  Now light them and say the prayers.  Actually, wait.  I think you’re supposed to cover your face with a handkerchief or something.  Umm… here.  Put this napkin on your head.

Me: Are you sure this is right?

BR: Blondie, I’m a Jew.  Of course it’s right.

It wasn’t.

Anyway, we arrived at the Rabbi’s house, made some awkward small talk, and eventually sat down at the dinner table.  The Rabbi said we were just waiting for her two sons to come and join us.  In the mean time she announced that not only were we the first group in the class to come to her home for Shabbat dinner, but that we were the first group of students ever because this was her first time teaching the course!

Within a few minutes her sons came to the table.  They appeared to be around 18 and 20, a little “hipster-ish” and kind of dishevelled like they had just rolled out of bed.  And the minute they sat down they looked at each other in a way that said, “we’re gonna fuck shit up.”

And they did.

Before we could start eating, the Rabbi had us stand while she passed out some prayer books, as she had selected a number of prayers for us to sing.  Which nobody knew.  So she asked her sons if they would be so kind as to help lead us in the songs.  Now I’m not sure if what they were about to do was planned or purely spontaneous, but either way it was pretty off-side.

So they began to sing (nicely at first) in Hebrew and we all nervously tried to follow along.  It started off pretty quiet and timid until I glanced up and noticed her sons eyeing each other from across the table.  The older one raised his eyebrow and started singing a little louder.  Then the younger one cocked his head and raised his eyebrow and also began to sing a little louder.  Then the older one started singing even louder, and then also a couple of octaves lower like he was performing in a Hebrew opera (if there is such as thing).  The younger one also started singing like he was in a Hebrew opera and was now trying to add a little “harmony” to his brother, as well as some wildly exaggerated hand gestures.  Then the older one started adding crazier hand gestures.  And because I have a tendency to laugh (often uncontrollably) in inappropriate situations, all I could do was put my head down and stare at my prayer book.  I couldn’t even look at BR.

Although I have to admit, they actually had pretty good voices.  But it didn’t take the Rabbi long to notice that this was getting out of control so she quickly wrapped up the singing.  Then we all said the prayers over the candles, wine and bread and sat down.

At first no one was really talking (probably because we were all a little stunned from the singing), so we were just sitting there looking awkwardly at one another.  Finally the Rabbi broke the silence by asking us to go around the table and talk a little bit about our experiences with Judaism so far.  So a few of us shyly took turns speaking and everyone was listening and nodding and being very supportive – until her oldest son decided he was going to “interject” and go on a 20-minute rant about how stupid he thought Judaism was and how we were all a bunch of suckers for getting “scammed” into this.

Then he threw his own Rabbi mother right under the bus:

Rebel son: And my MOM – she’s not even really Jewish!  She was born a Protestant!  She only converted for my dad, and now they’re divorced and he’s shacked up with some Catholic chick!

What the…?  There was an immediate awkward silence and everyone was staring at the Rabbi who was now looking pretty sheepish because she had just been “outed” at the dinner table in front of her students.  Her younger son was laughing.

Now, I can completely understand why someone who was committed to Judaism would choose not to openly disclose that they had converted.  Because even though you’ve converted, some Jews will still never fully accept you as Jewish.

However, when it is your JOB to guide and participate in the conversion of others, it may be extremely beneficial to those who are making this life-long commitment – not to mention struggling with all of the inevitable changes that go along with it – that you openly share with them that you once went through it yourself and everything turned out fine!  You’re a freakin’ Rabbi now!  You can’t get anymore Jewish than that!

But I digress.  Anyway, to break the awkward silence, the Rabbi decided to change the subject entirely and talk about what great musicians her sons were.  Apparently the one who gave the inappropriate rant was very good at playing bass.  At which point he announced that he was going to go upstairs and get his bass so he could play us a few numbers.  He then ran back down to the table with it and proceeded to play emo-rock through the rest of the dinner.  Awesome.

And then dinner was over, and she saw us all out.  And it was like nothing had happened.  Which kind of makes sense because that’s typically how WASPS handle things.  You know, force a smile and pretend there’s no elephant in the room.  A real Jew would have never let that happen.

BR:  I cannot believe that just happened.  I’m shocked.

Me: That was by far the best dinner party I have ever been to!

Is there a moral to this story?  No, not really.  I just hope BR appreciates what I went through to convert for him.  Because at the end of the day it really is, as my own Rabbi puts it, “a selfless act of love” in which there will be many diversions, obstacles, and unsupportive people along the way… maybe even your teaching Rabbi’s own children.


Converting to Judaism

If you are considering conversion, the first thing you have to do is find a Rabbi who is willing to sponsor you.  Without this sponsorship you will not be admitted into the Intro to Judaism course that is compulsory.  You will become a member of your sponsoring Rabbi’s synagogue, and he or she will act as a personal mentor to you throughout the entire process, should you have any questions or concerns.

And that thing about being turned away three times before you’re even allowed to begin conversion?  That’s true.  In my case however, our Rabbi was a family friend so he spared me that awkward initiation.  I did however have to go and meet with him for a good hour to discuss my reasons for wanting to convert.

Now keep in mind that I converted to Reform Judaism, which is the most “liberal” form of Judaism (then Conservative, then Orthodox).  But the whole process still took about 11 months to complete.

Once you have your sponsoring Rabbi, you can begin the Intro to Judaism course.  Which means one night a week for three hours in a classroom with a bunch of other blond shiksas and their Jewish significant others.  For the first half of the class we learned Hebrew and for the second half we got a lesson on Judaism.  Eventually you learn about all the holidays, history, culture, traditions, and important Jewish figures. This goes on for 10 months, with a break during the summer.

Now, taking the course itself is not enough.  You have to pass the course.  Which means reading a number of books and answering homework questions, writing a mid-term essay, and passing two final exams: One in reading, writing and translating Hebrew, and one on everything else you learned in the class.  You’re also expected to attend shul regularly and participate in any assigned field trips.

Oh – and you have to be prepared to give up any previous religious beliefs and holidays.  So basically Christmas will be forever dead to you.  And the baby Jesus.  Good luck explaining that to your parents.  Mine only cried a little.

But wait, there’s more!  Once you’ve passed the course you then have to go in front of a Beit Din, which is a panel of Rabbis who ask you a number of personal questions regarding your conversion in order to gage your “sincerity” and level of commitment to Judaism.  Then they send you out of the room and discuss amongst themselves for a few (agonizingly stressful) minutes before they bring you back in and tell you whether or not you will be accepted into the faith.

Then you’re taken over to the mikvah (a sacred pool) where you have to get completely naked in front of a stranger (in my case a female Cantor) who, along with the Rabbi (who was behind the door), will help guide you through the prayers and the ritual, and watch as you fully immerse yourself in the bath 3 times.  When you come out after your third dunk, you are now reborn a Jew.

Mazel Tov!