My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

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Pesach Seder, Day 1.

Emotions are competing inside of me, and I am having trouble putting any of them into words. I was fortunate enough to be placed with a family from my congregation for the first seder of Passover 5772. The family was absolutely wonderful. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to sit at their table and learn, eat, and enjoy wonderful company. In so many ways, this was the perfect seder for me, and in so many other ways, the seder left me feeling frustrated or empty. Either way, I KNOW that Hashem led me to that table and was with me throughout the roller coaster of emotions I felt in each moment.

First, let me begin with what was so perfect about the seder. My host family was wonderful. They were very welcoming, and conversation was easy because I felt I had a lot in common with just about everyone at the table. Two women at the seder both converted to Judaism. Another guest was about to convert (in a week). My host’s oldest children were around my age.  Another guest was deeply fascinated with religion and studies comparative religion as a hobby.  Also, the youngest children at the seder, made up of both  Jews and non-Jews, gave me such a great view into family life and community. I can not speak enough to the amazing, instant feeling of community I felt with my host and her family and friends. It was something I had never really felt in this Jewish community.

The main (challenging) thought that kept entering my head throughout the night was whether or not this is already my story. I would be so moved by passages of the Haggadah expressing ideas of freedom and soon begin to feel isolated because of the language used in the Haggadah. The Haggadah, and the story of the exodus from Egypt in general, creates a clear sense of division between an “us” and a “them.” In multiple parts of the seder I would ask myself, “which side am I on?” I can definitely relate to Abraham’s story of leaving the religious beliefs of his father in order to follow Hashem, but does that make me part of Israel? I can feel as though I too am preparing for my flight from Egypt, but does that make me an Israelite?

I struggled with a feeling of otherness at times during Pesach. Pesach is so focused on community and even welcoming in the stranger, but it was just that– I was a stranger. The hagadda says the word “our” so many times and I kept struggling with whether or not I was part of that. It is weird, because I had not felt this so strongly before, even when I say the Aleinu or any other liturgy. But during Pesach there is such a strong sense of “us”- Israel and “them”-Egyptians/other. I have celebrated Pesach before, but this year, when I was more in the community than any year before, I felt most removed from the community. I still told myself I too was being led out of Egypt, but I don’t know if i really believe it. Now, as we approach Shavuot, every night counting the Omer I am reminded that I have not yet been commanded to count the Omer. In other blessings, I have never minded the “who has commanded us..” but since the Omer is an extension of Pesach, linking us to Shavuot, my feeling of being an outsider is still present. I have debated whether or not to even count the Omer then, but decided that I still want to even if I am not commanded and even if it does not really led to me receiving Torah on Shavuot. This may all sound really depressing, but I really do not feel too sad about it. It is not like I did not know I was not Jewish before. It is just that as the time is getting closer to me becoming Jewish, I realize even more strongly that I am not yet. No matter how badly I want the words to be about me, telling my story, they aren’t yet. But hopefully soon.

Conclusion: Even if this isn’t my story yet, I feel in every inch of my being that I want more than anything to join the narrative. I am already excited for next year’s seder (whether or not it is in Jerusalem). And more than anything, I am anxiously awaiting the day I have my own seder where I can help create an open environment of creativity, learning and growth for family, friends and strangers.

Passover in College

I have attended Passover seders for the past four years, and last year I didn’t consume any chametz (including leavened breads, oats, rice, corn and peanuts). But this year, I am going to be having my first real Passover complete with cleaning my apartment, selling my chametz, and conducting the search for chametz the day before Passover. While I have been anticipating Passover all year so I would be able to have a Passover more closely aligned with Jews around me, I have also been stressing over Passover for about the past month.

Living in a college apartment is not the same as having a Jewish home. The hardest part of the situation is that my roommate is not Jewish. While this does pose some issues for general kashrut (kosher) laws, it becomes much harder when the dietary laws become stricter over Passover. Also, having a college student budget does not allow for too much frivolous spending and lets face it, Passover is not a cheap holiday. In order to have a kosher kitchen for Passover you can’t use your ordinary dishes, pots, pans or utensils. Also, you need to get a whole new pantry full of food for 8 days.

After many weeks of stressing and running over scenarios in my head, I have found a non-ideal but practical solution to making it through Passover in my apartment. First, let me say it would be so much easier if I had a Jewish home to be in that already kept the mitzvot of Passover, but I can not invite myself to live with someone for eight days! But, if you have the option to help someone else prepare their home and stay with them, it would be a great way to learn and escape the issues of a roommate who doesn’t keep kosher for Passover. Now, my solution:

I am going to get rid of all the chametz (that I own) in my apartment, as well as clean the entire apartment (except my roommates room, which I never enter), car, and other possessions. During Passover, I will not use the kitchen at all since my roommate is going to continue to prepare food normally in there. We already discussed that for the week she will keep all food in the kitchen only. I will use a mini fridge set up in my room to keep all my food separate. Basically, all my food consist of for the week is raw fruits, (approved) raw veggies, and cheese approved for Passover. I also bought some prepackaged Passover junk food in order to keep my sweet (and salty) tooth at bay. I will use all paper goods for my food and won’t eat or take food outside of my room. I will drink still bottled water.

It is not perfect, but is what I see as a reasonable solution for Passover this year. Hopefully, next year I will be able to properly prepare and keep Passover in my home.

Dreaming of Kosher Food

A moment that made me feel like a Jew:

Last night, I had a dream that the candy Starburst suddenly became kosher. I was in the check out line at the grocery store when I saw the package now had a hechsher. I was so excited and grabbed a bunch. Then I ran to the breakfast cereal aisle to see if Lucky Charms were now kosher too. They weren’t, but I was still too excited about the Starburst to care much.

I woke up laughing about how crazy I was to be dreaming about candy becoming kosher. In dreams anything can happen, and in my dreams candy becomes kosher. I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face thinking about how awesome a dream it was and how I could not possibly have had the same dream a few years ago, when I didn’t even know what a kosher symbol looked like.