by Steven Philp
This past Saturday my family sat around the Christmas tree to unwrap presents. We have a particular system when it comes to opening gifts; it takes careful timing and distribution to make sure that each person has something to open, that no one runs out of presents before anyone else. However, this year my pile was conspicuously small. The thing is, I had already opened most of my gifts earlier that month when my mother sent me a few things for Hanukkah. We had saved a few so that I wouldn’t be left out of the festivities. Yet, this was my first Christmas as a rabbi-certified Jew-by-choice; I was bound to be a little out of place.
While most Jews spend December 25th eating Chinese food with their friends and families, there are a handful of us who schlep across the country to visit relatives who observe the Christmas holiday with religious fervor. And unlike other converts who have started their own Jewish families, we make these trips alone: the only Jew among a crowd of Christians. This trip can be daunting; my own family was not excited about the prospect of my conversion. In fact, my mother had let the cat out of the bag the year before, during our traditional Christmas brunch. After arguing for a couple of hours, we agreed to disagree; the conversation was tabled for a later date, and I was sent home with a pile of books arguing for the saving power of Jesus.
That this particular Christmas coincided with Shabbat made it particularly appropriate for the negotiation between my new identity as a Jew and my desire to spend time with my family. If I went to services on Friday night, I was going to be late for Christmas Eve dinner. And if I wanted to daven the next morning, I was going to miss opening presents. My mom and I developed a compromise: I would attend ma’ariv but not shacharit. Even then, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to my evangelical Christian relatives why I was showing up late for dinner.
I’m always a little nervous going to a new synagogue alone; nobody likes to be the stranger in a strange congregation. Thankfully, Temple B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA welcomed me with warm curiosity. I fended the usual questions: where I was from, what I do to keep myself busy, who I was visiting in the area. And then: why wasn’t my family here with me? Well, I explained, they are back home celebrating Christmas. I was met by blank stares, so I continued, because my family is Christian. A few of the older congregants looked confused, if not a bit uncomfortable. So I decided to come clean: I’m a Jew-by-choice. The confusion gave way to a bevy of comments, good-natured and congratulatory, which had to be interrupted by the cantor because we were already ten minutes behind schedule.
The next morning my mom, stepfather and I arrived at my uncle’s house for Christmas brunch. Looking at their front yard, you would think that they had taken it upon themselves to unilaterally keep the “Christ” in “Christmas”: between the lights and the plastic reindeers were reminders of the holiday’s spiritual significance, captured best by a large sign staked in their front yard reading: “Happy Birthday Jesus.” In fact, this particular message was echoed throughout their house, even framed in the guest bathroom next to the red-and-green hand towels. I made myself useful by helping my aunt in the kitchen. The year prior, she had been particularly resistant to the idea of my conversion. So you can imagine my surprise when she asked if I was keeping kosher, in addition to being a vegetarian. I explained that I was the former insofar as I was the latter.
After clearing piles of wrapping paper and ribbons from the living room floor, we sat around the table to enjoy another December tradition: my great-grandmother’s chipped beef. That is, all of my relatives ate it; you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that chipped beef – a viscous puddle of aged beef, cream and butter – is not kosher. Couple that with the fact that I haven’t eaten meat in five years, and I was relegated to eating the side dishes. But then, from the kitchen, my aunt emerged with a bowl of fruit and yogurt. She apologized for not having something better for me to eat. But the food mattered less than her effort to accommodate my needs. I realized that this experience – my first Christmas as a Jew – was not only my own, but shared among my family. As I was negotiating the space between my faith community of choice and that of my birth, so too were my relatives. And just as I was nervous about coming to the table that year, I suspect that each of them felt a bit of trepidation as well. Yet this is what Christmas is all about: to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Jew – divine or human – who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves, even when that stranger is in your own family.