Human beings are sense-making beings who create rituals and cultural norms as a way to function individually and with others in every day life. Some rituals are fairly mundane: what we eat for breakfast varies from culture to culture; what we wear may be determined by our workplace or the current fashion; and, how we worship often depends on where and how we were raised. All these things are subject to change.
We change our diets according to what we learn and choose to believe about the foods we eat. We change our clothing based on our workplace and what the clothing industry sells us each year. And we change our spiritual beliefs, rituals and levels of observance as we learn and grow in (or out) of our faiths.
Growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan in the 1970s, I remember painting menorahs, dreidels and latkes on classroom murals, teaching my classmates Hanukkah songs as well as participating in a variety of Christmas parties. I dressed as a reindeer for synchronized swimming and was a Herald in the school Christmas play. My parents always made sure that we were proud of our Jewish heritage and identity at the same time as they honoured the culture we lived in, which was predominantly Christian.
In Judaism, as I'm sure with other religions and belief systems, labels are limiting. Even so, we need them to make sense of why we do what we do.
I was born in 1961 and raised in a traditional Jewish modern-orthodox home. Simply, although this is far from simple, we celebrated the Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday nightfall (25 hours) with: family dinners; candle-lighting; blessings over wine and challah (special bread); grace after meals and synagogue services. After a huge Sabbath meal, we would play board-games and cards, but we didn't knit, sew, draw, colour, paint, cut, ride our bicycles, go shopping or to the movies. We also didn't do any housework or yardwork. It was family time and a day of rest. Funnily enough we did watch television in the afternoon because my Dad loved to watch Canadian Wrestling and it came on at 3:00 pm on Saturdays.
I've shared some of my childhood memories in previous posts: Chanukah memories tells the story of how my parents adapted to the Christmas season when we immigrated to Canada. HERE
My parent’s ability to adapt and to teach us how to respect everyone has played a significant role in keeping my family together to this day. In the mid-1970s, when I was 14 years old, my middle sister went to Israel and stayed on a religious kibbutz. When she returned, we discovered that our family wasn't orthodox at all. In fact, we were doing many things incorrectly, according to her and what she had learned. Suddenly, we weren't kosher enough, we didn't observe the Sabbath correctly, the synagogue we attended (which was the only one in Regina at that time) was making mistakes, and the list of our errors was long and fraught with controversy. This was my first experience learning that the way I was brought up apparently "wasn't good enough" and I didn't much care for it. My mother, who at that time was patience-personified, gently told my sister that when she had her own home she could observe all the laws and customs she wanted, but in our home and in other people's homes, she needed to respect others and accept the way things were.
My sister heard my mother's wise-words and I'm glad she did. You see over the years, my family has become more observant in some ways and less observant in others. But one thing that hasn't changed is the respect that we have for our choices and love that we share for each other. When we visit each other's homes, we work hard to honour the laws and customs that each of us holds dear. The only label that applies to each of us is that we are Jewish--our level of observance doesn't change that fact.
On December 24th, on the first night of Chanukah, I will be lighting the menorah at my brother-in-law's home as we sit down for Christmas Eve dinner. My mother and I will bring some kosher food to eat and everyone else will have their traditional turkey dinner. We will all enjoy our family time together.
And just as my parents taught me to accept and share in my friends’ celebrations, inter-faith and multi-faith friends and families have been finding creative ways to honour each other's traditions since long before it was politically correct to do so. In the 1970s, the TV sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie featured an interfaith Catholic-Jewish couple and the challenges they encountered in their inter-faith home. Greeting card companies got onboard soon after with combined Hanukah and Christmas greetings: Santa eating latkes, reindeer playing with dreidels, and so on. In 1994, Adam Sandler performed the Chanukah Song - HERE - and in 2004 the TV show O.C. aired The Best Chrismukkah ever. HERE. The response from the public was so positive that now you can buy ugly Chrismikkuh sweaters right along-side all the other bizarre fashions we choose to wear at this time of year.
We all have varying levels of beliefs and observances. If you're reading this column, chances are you believe that we are spiritual beings living a physical existence. If this is true for you, then our bodies are essentially the clothes for our souls. In Judaism, all souls are G-dly. All souls are good. Now more than ever we need to look past these clothes and see the souls that live within.
Wherever you are, have a happy and merry Chanukah, Chrismakkah, Christmas, Hannukmas and/or Festivus!
Fiona Prince, MA is a coach, facilitator and teacher who provides fundamental communication and writing skills to help people succeed in their professional and academic lives. She worships at the Chabad Family Shul where she volunteers teaching children and adults how to read Hebrew. Sign-up for weekly communication tips at www.princeheron.com. To learn to read Hebrew, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Morah means teacher and Faiga is her Hebrew name).
You can read more articles from our interdaith blog, The Spiritual View, HERE