A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.

My Favorite ‘Things’

This past weekend was very special. We celebrated my 60th birthday as a family. It was made special by the people who showered me with love. I am grateful and inspired by your words and deeds. The main planner of the lovely weekend in the Berkshires – with all of my favorite things – was Gary, with able assists from Leah, Daniel, Beth and our granddaughter.

Let me pay tribute to my favorite things – ‘things’ encompasses people, places and objects.

First and foremost, I love my family. Not just my immediate family, though they are the best. Many people would not choose to celebrate a milestone birthday with their mother, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews (and some other assorted relations). I would. So, Gary arranged to gather them.

I love the Berkshires. The wooded mountains, with enough autumn color to contrast with the bright blue sky, are lovely. Saturday provided us with crisp, cool air and bathed us in sunshine.

I love a walk in the woods, so we took a hike up Monument Mountain. Dan, Beth and our 17-month old granddaughter started out with us, but when it started to approach her nap time, they went back to the Inn. Gary, Leah, Ben and I continued to the peak.

It was the perfect hike in that some of it was easy, some of it was uphill which demanded more of us, and some of it was a little scary. When we got close to the top it got rocky, with some sheer drops. It required care and concentration – especially for this 60-year old. But the payoff was worth it – the views and the sense of accomplishment were satisfying. Leah led us through the tricky parts and kept an eye on me to make sure I was okay. Ben found me a great walking stick. We all got back to the car safe and sound.

I love a good sandwich with chips. As we made our way down the mountain, I pulled out my handy-dandy smart phone and pulled up Yelp and found a highly rated deli nearby. The wonders of modern technology! We picked up sandwiches and brought them back to the Inn. Our granddaughter was still napping so we sat in the common area and ate.

While I don’t generally love games, there are certain kinds of games that I do enjoy. Beth, our daughter-in-law, introduced us to one where you pick a letter (in this case m) and each person takes a turn naming a movie title that begins with that letter. We played as teams. Gary was my partner. He is not a movie maven, but he has a great imagination. He made up some great titles (The Mufti, Grand was a particularly humous one) and we laughed. That is one of my favorite things to do – laugh. He also surprised us with some legitimate answers.

Our room at the inn had a huge claw-foot tub. After lunch I soaked my weary legs and back in a wonderful hot bath. Yet another indulgence in a pretty great day. But there was more to come.

Next was the dinner party. I love food! This was a sumptuous meal. I had a cocktail. I had some wine with dinner. I visited with my favorite people. There were so many nice touches. Gary borrowed someone’s Polaroid camera (who knew they made them anymore?) and Leah took pictures and put together an album during the festivities (I can look at it and think back on this lovely time). Our granddaughter was a joy and made it through the main course.

Gary composed and read a poem for me. It really isn’t fair that he has so many talents. Others offered kind, loving words, too.

Daniel presented me with custom socks. I have a tradition of gifting socks. I also have a tradition of sending my children postcards from wherever my travels take me – including work which brought me to exotics cities like Buffalo and Rochester. I sent a postcard anyway. Dan has saved those postcards. Beth photographed them and had it printed on socks and made up two pair. One for Dan, which he was wearing that night, and one for me. How cool is that? It makes me smile to look at them, remembering the various trips. But, more than that, I get to reflect on my connection to my son (and daughter).

I love chocolate. The birthday cake was a celebration of chocolate. They plated it with a scoop of black currant sorbet. So delicious! What a way to end the meal!

Sunday morning dawned cold and rainy – not my favorite thing. But the kids, Gary and I gathered for one more meal. Hot coffee, a warm scone, berries, yogurt and granola hit the spot. One last snuggle with our granddaughter and hugs for our children. The weekend was over, and it was time to go home. I will keep the memories of my favorite things: my family, the beauty of nature, physical activity that pushes me just enough, laughter, delicious meals and decadent chocolate to top it off.

Thank you to all who made it possible, especially Gary, Leah and Daniel. I love you hugely!

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A view from Monument Mountain