The Conspiracy

A Convert’s Christmas in Southern Oregon

Megan, right.

The span from Thanksgiving through New Year’s is generally a hectic time for me. A week after trying to wrest control over half the Thanksgiving menu from my mother and sister while debating internally if it’s even worth trying to keep kosher on such a day before inevitably stuffing myself to the gills either way, I get to experience the unrestrained joy of acknowledging that I am a year older.

Sometimes it’s also Chanukah, which, here in Southern Oregon, is a relatively quiet time for me, where I make latkes and homemade apple sauce for myself, light candles on my menorah, and sigh with yet more soul-crushing longing for my old life in Jerusalem, from when I first converted several years ago. Gazing at the little flames dancing on their wicks, I know that I’m supposed to be reflecting on the never-ending-miracle-oil™ and the bad-assness of the Maccabean Revolt, but really, I just find myself wishing to once again stroll the streets of Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood on a chilly night, sufganiyah in hand while I marvel at all the pretty chanukiot lit-up and on display in the cozy windows of the picturesque Jewish homes (note: I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually been merrily eating sufganiyot while simultaneously frolicking through the streets and admiring the lit-up windows of one of my favorite Jerusalem neighborhoods during a brisk Chanukah evening, but I also swear that I somehow have a memory of ice-skating while drinking hot chocolate, hand-in-hand with jolly old St. Nick from around some Christmas during my gentile youth; pretty sure that never happened. I mean, I’ve never ice-skated in my life). This year, Chanukah went right up to the eve of Christmas Eve, and then it was suddenly Christmas Day. And Christmas is, quite honestly, quite a confusing time to be a gentile turned Jew such as myself, especially while living with my family.

Christmas is the same holiday today as it was during my childhood; there are colorful lights adorning the neighborhood houses, inexplicable pine trees sitting in living rooms, all decorated and lit up as well. There’s a charming, bearded fat man, looking like a Rebbe in red asking kids if they’ve been naughty or nice while they gaze up in awe from his lap. There are images of reindeer that purportedly fly, and mom’s sugar cookies baked in the familiar shapes of snowflakes and sleighs, hot chocolate with peppermint canes melting in red and green mugs, and every channel on television playing movies with Chevy Chase, Tim Allen, and Ralphie. There’s a cozy fire in the fireplace where my teddy bear stocking from childhood hangs, holding gifts from my enormously giving and loving family, despite the fact that this holiday is no longer mine. There’s nostalgia in every scent from the baking Christmas goodies in the oven, and memories that arise like ghosts from the past and haunt every displayed photo of me and my sister sitting on Santa’s lap, looking like the WASPiest set of kid that ever came into existence. From my blazing white-blonde hair, red velvet Christmas dress and shockingly easy smile, the image of my past self bears no hint of the fact that I would grow up one day to realize that, well holy shit, it looks like I’m supposed to be a Jew! There are also little figures of Mary, Joseph, the three Wise Men and a baby Jesus hanging out in a manger, but I’ve grown used to Christian symbols all around the house, juxtaposed strangely with the modest mezuzah hanging on my bedroom door, behind which, is where the seemingly random Jewish artifacts are kept in my lonely Jewish abode. Like I said, nothing has changed, except for me. Obviously, I’ve changed a lot since Christmas was one of my holidays.

It’s hard to let go of Christmas, especially as I remain here with my family. Like last year, Chanukah comes and goes while I try to explain to my gentile friends and family that Chanukah isn’t the “Jewish Christmas,” that American Jews likely felt the need at some point to compete with the cultural dominance of Christmas, especially when raising Jewish kids; perhaps they wonder at some point why the Rebbe in Red doesn’t come to visit their houses to leave presents like he does at the homes of their gentile classmates (“Are we naughty while the Christian kids are nice? Is Santa an anti-Semite?!”) Giving gifts on Chanukah is a rather American thing, and not what the minor holiday is all about anyway. It shouldn’t have to compete with the grandiosity of an American Christmas, but by default, it has to anyway.

I give up on the idea that my family will ever dream of excluding me from the Christmas gift-giving, because to them, that just isn’t right, and it has nothing to do with Jesus anyway. Granted, neither does Santa and his reindeer, the Christmas tree, or about a billion other Christmas traditions, but I still feel awkward as I do my own Christmas shopping for my family, because I can’t possibly accept gifts and refuse to reciprocate because of religious differences, can I? What am I supposed to do on Christmas morning, anyway? Sit by myself in my bedroom, gloomily picking the wax off of my chanukiah, while my family gathers in the living room to exchange gifts and happily reminisce about holidays past? Those memories belong to me too after all, and there is a lot of happiness in them. They include my now deceased grandmother, and a simpler time when I was young, happy, debt-free, and not sitting around longing for things currently beyond my grasp, because chances were, those things that I was longing for were waiting for me under the Christmas tree, wrapped and decorated with love.
I also find myself feeling a bit down when strangers ask if I’m ready for Christmas, if I’m going out of town for Christmas, if I had a nice Christmas, like it is assumed that I have easy, simple, fun, happy associations with the season. Here, Chanukah is lonely, like every Jewish holiday, and Christmas is some sort of guilty pleasure I’m not supposed to indulge in anymore, yet when I do, it grants me momentary relief from that holiday loneliness that I otherwise get to swallow for over a month. It’s not “Merry Christmas” that bothers me. It’s not even the intent behind the questions about how “my Christmas” is going. It’s that it isn’t really my holiday anymore, and at the moment, I’ve got little else to fill the void here. It’s like they’re all saying, “Trade in your latkes for ham—who are you kidding? I’m sure it was fun being Jewish and all, but now it’s time embrace reality. Now, tell me that you had a merry Christmas! It ruins it for everyone else if you don’t!”

All of these difficult feelings are, of course, due to my own insecurity over my Jewish identity born of trudging through months-turned-to-years of getting back to where I once was—a Jew in Jerusalem. Perhaps if Chanukah weren’t so lonely, perhaps if I hadn’t just turned one year older, I’d have no problems connecting to Christmas in a happy way. Christmas is a part of my history, after all, part of my connection with my family. It has nothing to do with Jesus for me, except when I feel like the Jewish alternative of the season means more loneliness, more isolation, more longing for doors currently shut and firmly locked around me. It’s disconcerting to have a grand Christmas when your Jewish holidays have been so difficult. I don’t mean to compare, but I can’t seem to help it.

The solution to all of this, of course, is “Next year, in Jerusalem!” To be an outsider looking in is fine, if you have other outsiders with you. Otherwise, you end up looking at all the happiness around you as you try to smile and pretend something significant isn’t missing in your Jewish soul. I know that I walked away from this life for a reason, and while it’s nice to visit, I know it just isn’t home anymore, and never again can be. Home is where you aren’t, and nothing can change that in the moment.

Next year is when I will be ready to take the plunge and make aliyah. Perhaps then Christmas can be my holiday again, because I’ll have had a better Chanukah with the fellow Jews in my life, because turning a year older won’t be such a big deal, because other things will have finally fallen into place, because I will have made this Jewish life of mine work the way I envision it. There’s always the hope of next year, which is a very Jewish thing, indeed.

A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.


Megan Dyer graduated from Portland State University.

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