These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni] You Still Have Chanukah

Posted on December 23, 2014 by Bracha Berkson

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I remember the first Chanukah I ever celebrated. It was 2003 and I had been thinking about converting for a little over a year. I was already in the process of meeting with a Rabbi and was beginning to participate in Jewish holidays. I was also living at the time with my non-Jewish boyfriend.

November came around and I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. He was going to want to celebrate Christmas, I needed to move towards the Chanukah direction. This was going to be a problem. In the end, Chanukah won. I lit a menorah and for the most part completely ignored that Christmas existed. Maybe, I thought, if I just ignore it, it will go away.

I moved out of the condo a couple months later. But it didn’t solve my Christmas problem. As I went forward in my journey towards becoming a Jew, the topic kept coming up. Since that hanukah, I had begun to tell friends and family about my decision to convert. This was a big step for me. I was solidifying my decision to become part of the Jewish People, to spiritually and in many ways physically, transform myself. My entire life was about to change.

And yet the first response from many recipients of this news was the question, “But what are you going to do about Christmas?” “Well, I won’t celebrate it anymore,” I would say. And then it would come. It always did. ”Well, you’ll have Chanukah.” This went on for years. “Chanukah is not a replacement for Christmas,” I would have to repeat. “It’s its own holiday. They don’t have anything to do with each other.” I secretly began to dread the month of Kislev, with all its impending “Well-you-still-have-Chanukas”.

So it was with a bit of irony that after 7 years of trying, and begging, and working towards this transformation, that after everything, when my date had finally come, it fell out on Chanukah. No way was I going to ask for a different date. For all I knew it would be a year later. No, I was going to that mikveh on 26 Kislev and I was going to love 26 Kislev. Me and Chanukah were going to have to learn to get along.

And then something happened. I actually did love it.

As I left the mikveh building that day, one of the Rabbis stopped me. I’ll never forget it. My hair was still wet from the water. I was a newborn. “I just wanted to remind you,” he said,” because I know it’s the third night of Chanukah tonight and you’ve probably already been lighting. But when you light tonight, don’t forget to say Shehechianu.”

The enormity of what he said was overwhelming. And I’ve carried that moment with me for 5 years. I went home, lit my menorah, and on that third night of Chanukah, there was one more light in the world. And it hadn’t been there the day before. Shehechianu, Ve’Keyemanu, Ve’Higianu Lazman Hazeh. Thank you HaShem, for granting us life, for sustaining us, for allowing us to reach this occasion.

I love Chanukah.

Each year now, I say Shecheyanu on Chanukah, only now it’s on the first night. When I say it, I think of all the miracles that HaShem has given me since that first 26 Kislev 5 years ago. I got married, had a little girl, was blessed with another. I have a lot to be grateful for. This year, I got to watch as my daughters lit their own menorahs for the first time. The days leading up to it were really exciting. Especially for my eldest daughter, Rivka, who discovered at this same time the existence of Rudolph and Prancer, our neighbor’s Christmas Reindeer across the street.

Apparently, ignoring Christmas is not going to make it go away.

I smiled nervously as Rivka said hello to them yesterday, then brought my children in to wait for sunset. I watched as they lit their menorahs. And all of the sudden, I understood what everyone was asking me so many years ago when I announced to them my plans to convert. They weren’t asking what I was going to do about Christmas. They were asking what I was going to do with my past. When you become a new person, what happens to everything that happened before?

I looked at our menorahs as I looked into my past. Looked back and saw my home town: Culleoka. A tiny town of 300 people. That’s fewer members than the shul I go to. There’s a church on every corner. My grandfather was a preacher. There’s not a single Jewish person there.

I wasn’t supposed to be here. But I am.

And then I felt it. I wasn’t afraid of Christmas anymore. I wasn’t afraid of those questions. Because it’s there, in my past, that you find my whole story. The unique place where I came from, all the way through to the beautiful place I’ve ended up. I looked at our menorahs and saw how that extra light I lit 5 years ago has multiplied. Three extra lights. It’s a miracle really. That’s my Chanukah miracle.