I should get this out of the way first. I’m Jewish and I celebrate Christmas. No, not “Jewish Christmas” or “Christmukkah.” Christmas.
My dad’s side of the family is Christian, though certainly leans towards secular. We didn’t go to church or get confirmed growing up but we loved Easter egg hunts and stocking stuffers.
My mom is Jewish. Again, growing up, this was also more of a secular experience. Jewish holidays meant latkes or matzah ball soup. No synagogue services, no bat mitzvah.
Now, as a young adult, I proudly celebrate Jewish holidays on my own with my girlfriend, Hannah Ruth, who is converting to Judaism (even with a name like that, she is not, in fact, from a Jewish family). Last year, we attended services together for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and lit Hanukkah candles together — her first time for all.
This year, as the coronavirus pandemic has raged on and we quarantined together, we’ve continued to build our Jewish practice. We made a beautiful meal for Rosh Hashanah and broke our Yom Kippur fast with bagels while live streaming services. Despite being far from my family, we managed to uphold some meaningful traditions.
Hanukkah this year was no different until I skimmed one of Hannah Ruth’s books that was recommended to her during her conversion process, Choosing a Jewish Life. One of the early chapters explains that by choosing to convert to Judaism, one must forgo any and all non-Jewish holiday traditions. While this book was written in 1997, and thoughts and community practices and acceptance of interfaith traditions and conversion have certainly progressed since then, reading that was crushing — and personal.
Not only had Hannah Ruth and I lit Hanukkah candles together, we put up and decorated a small Christmas tree. It’s simple, with two strands of string lights and a few ornaments. It’s topped with a Star of David and has a garland of Hanukkah-themed felt cutouts on it, like dreidels and menorahs.
Does putting this tree up make me less Jewish? Does it make Hannah Ruth’s choice to convert to Judaism any less authentic?
Hannah Ruth’s family is beautifully and devoutly Christian, and I come from an interfaith family. We are also both proudly Jewish (or soon to be). And I firmly believe there is room for us in our Jewish practices to incorporate our families’ traditions.
In normal years, I would have gone home for Christmas, schlepping gifts for every member of my family along with me. Despite being Jewish and no longer married, my mother — and sometimes her parents — would join my dad and stepmom for gift giving. Christmas morning meant quiche, coffee cake, family, and joy.
This year, our little tree stands in place of all that. But it’s also become so much more. While Hannah Ruth is lucky enough to be making it home to be with her family, I am staying here in D.C.
I’ve never spent Christmas alone. Or Hanukkah. Or Rosh Hashanah or Passover or Easter for that matter. Holidays, by design, whether they are secular or religious, are not meant to be celebrated solo. Yet this year, for the first time, it will be me and my little tree.
But I am actually thrilled to participate in the one Jewish Christmas ritual my interfaith background has never allowed — ordering a ton of Chinese food and watching movies all day. I plan on streaming all the queer and Jewish Hallmark movies I can get my hands on and munching on spring rolls and lo mein while trying to ignore the fact that for the first holiday ever, I won’t be surrounded by loved ones.
In 2020, despite whatever Choosing a Jewish Life declared over 20 years ago, I know there’s no one proper way to be Jewish. And as I continue to build my life with my girlfriend, I’m grateful that we are confident enough in our Jewish identities to know that celebrating holidays, even the non-Jewish ones, with friends and family is never something to feel bad about.
And I’m also grateful to know that even when I’m physically by myself, I can celebrate the holidays in a way that feels right to me. Even though Chinese food and movies on Christmas is not technically a “real” Jewish tradition, celebrating it will help me feel less alone.