I am engaged to a wonderful man – who is not Jewish. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve talked a lot about what our interfaith life will look like. But talking about a Christmas tree, something seemingly so small, was always put on the back burner to make room for conversations about what traditions the wedding ceremony will involve, and how to raise our future children.
Last year was our first Christmas together living under the same roof, and we were saved from the discussion yet again because our apartment was too small to even conceive of displaying a tree. We have since moved to a larger, more tree-accommodating apartment, and this year the conversation became real. It was very deep, and went something like this:
Erik: Can we please get a tree?
Erik: Like, right now?
And off we went to pick out our tree and all of its fixings. A couple of hours later, our living room glowed from its lights and we sat on the couch tired, happy, and thoroughly impressed with ourselves. Then, my mind began to wander.
What did this mean? What would my mother say? Am I going to be judged for putting this up in my apartment?
I found myself in an after-the-fact December Dilemma, and all of my thoughts were verbalized through the sentence, “I can’t believe there’s a Christmas tree in my apartment.” I didn’t know that uttering those words would lead to a learning experience!
My fiancé Erik, who is originally from Ukraine, told me that in the Soviet Union, in the Communists’ effort to stifle religion, Christmas trees were forbidden. So instead, folks put up New Year’s trees – a tradition that many continue today. The tree therefore can carry with it cultural as opposed to religious significance.
“Cool!” I thought. “We have a New Year’s tree – NOT a Christmas tree! So much easier to explain to family! So much easier to confess to friends!”
It appeared that my personal December Dilemma had been solved thanks to a quick history lesson from my fiancé. I have learned through this process that feelings about Christmas/New Year’s trees are fluid. So where are my feelings now?
Well, the tree has been up for a few weeks, and with each day that passes… I love it more. I appreciated the history lesson from Erik, but I’ve since realized that labeling the tree is unimportant to me. What is important is that it makes someone I love comfortable and happy, and, whatever its significance or connotations, that’s enough for me. Appreciating a part of his identity doesn’t take away from my identity, and I understand now that that is why it was so easy for me to agree to get one. My heart got it before my head did.
There is no single “right answer” that will apply to everyone, when it comes to deciding on shared practices and rituals—at this holiday season, or at any time of year. I am also very glad that there are so many resources, like Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism, that can support interfaith families in navigating these conversations and choices in respectful, informed ways.
This year, when I look at the Christmas/New Year’s tree, with its ornaments hung so precisely and its laughably-too-small skirt, all I see is joy, understanding, and respect. I am proudly Jewish, and the tree does not diminish that – and in fact, while a Christmas tree might not be part of my identity, the qualities of joy, understanding, and respect, are ones I try to embody every day.
On the first night of Hanukkah, Erik and I took out our brand new chanukiah (which we also picked out together). We said the blessings, and the candles glowed right alongside the Christmas lights. Who knows how our interfaith traditions will evolve over time, but for now there is no December Dilemma in our apartment. There is love, and learning, and a whole lot of lights.
From my interfaith family to yours, Happy Everything!
Fellow Standard Time: (noun): Nothing standard about it all…
Thriday (noun): The combination of Thursday & Friday, used when Thursday is the last day in the
office. Common element of Fellow Standard Time.
There’s a lot of talk about the differences between Jews in the North and Jews in the South. Some differences certainly do exist. But in a world where the Jewish experience can be so drastically different based on where you live, there is one thing that binds all Jews together, from New York to Alabama: Jewish Standard Time.
In the Jewish world, when events are late to start or people are late to arrive, you’ll often hear it blamed on “Jewish Standard Time.”
Person A: “It’s ten after. When do you think we’ll get started?”
Person B: “Oh, we run on Jewish Standard Time around here.”
OK, in the South there might be a “y’all” thrown in there, but the conversation would sound more or less the same anywhere. Hearing this phrase uttered so often in my community and the communities to which I travel got me thinking about life as a Fellow and the way we spend our time. What is Fellow Standard Time?
Turns out it has even more to do with calendars than with clocks. Our whole week is shifted off-kilter from the rest of the world’s week!
For most people with full-time jobs, the week starts on Monday and ends on Friday. It’s a little different for an ISJL Education Fellow. On Fellow Standard Time, our weeks generally start on Tuesday and end on Sunday (yes, you read that right). On Tuesday and Wednesday we are in the office having meetings, brainstorming, touching base with our communities, and planning for our upcoming visits. Then comes Thursday, the day most others celebrate as a final push before the weekend. It’s a final push for us too, but in a different way. At the ISJL office, Thursday becomes “Thriday” (the natural hybrid word of Thursday/Friday) since Thursday is our last day in the office before we head off on our trips.
“Thriday” is an exciting day full of shopping, cutting, gluing, printing, and even sawing. You name it, we’re doing it. When the week is winding down for other folks, we’re getting pumped up.
On Friday, we hit the road. While you might be getting home at 5 PM, heading to Shabbat services or getting into your PJs, watching your favorite TV show, and looking forward to some R&R, we are just getting started with the most fulfilling part our job. We are lucky enough to spend our weekends with communities and in homes, teaching and learning. And then, on Monday morning, when everyone is gearing up for another week, we’re the ones in our PJs, enjoying our “weekend.”
Yes, it’s official: there really isn’t anything “standard” about Fellow Standard Time after all!
This week, as I perused the internet, I stumbled upon a quiz entitled “Where You Belong: Your State Personality.”
It involved a series of ten questions and, at the end, it tells you in which state you should live. I’m a little bit of a sucker for these kinds of quizzes, so I took a stab at it. Based on my answers to the ten questions, I belong in… Georgia!
I was pretty unfazed by this, considering I was raised about twenty-five minutes from the Florida-Georgia Line (the boundary, not the band) and feel comfortable in the area. But this whole concept of a person “belonging” in a state really got me thinking. Is it true? Are there states in which I “belong,” and states in which I do not?
I have never felt this way. In Florida, I belonged. In Massachusetts, I hated the cold, but I belonged. In Mississippi, I belong. However, when I talk to some of my friends, I don’t get the same reaction. Sometimes, my friends are too nervous to even try a new place, a location different from where they grew up.
“The South?” My Northern friends will say. “Oh, no. No thanks, I’m fine up here. I don’t think I could ever move down there.”
“The North?” My Southern friends will say, “Oh, no. I’m fine down here. I don’t think I could ever move up there.”
Why do I feel comfortable everywhere I go, when others just… don’t?
I think I’ve figured it out, though. It’s not that I’m a perfect blend of Northern and Southern, or that I’m more adaptable than most. It’s that I’m Jewish.
After much thought, I realized that this defining characteristic – being Jewish – is what has consistently allowed to me to find a home and to feel comfortable in all the states, and all the countries, in which I have lived. I don’t have to worry about where I will make my first friends, where I will find meaning, or how I will be spiritually fulfilled. All that is a given: I just find the other Jews!
I now realize how incredibly lucky I am, but I also am hopeful that others will understand that they too can belong anywhere once they find their niche, be it a faith community, activity, cause, or passion. Besides, as dynamic personalities, we change and find new ways to fit in, too.
Case in point? I took the quiz three days later to see if it was the same, and this time it said I’m made for Tennessee…maybe that’ll be my next stop!