This piece was published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on
December, 22, 2006.
Note: The Recycler was Craig's List, before the internet. Before iPhones, we listened to music on the radio in our cars.
I was very sad when I put an ad in the Recycler for my beloved Christmas dishes, but it was time to part with them. I had converted to Judaism two years earlier but kept the dishes stored in the back of the linen closet. I wanted them to go to a good home.
The dishes represented another part of my life, a part that was past, and I had to move on. I was never a devout Christian, but we always had a tree when I was a kid, and Santa Claus came every year. The Christmas dishes were a gift from my former mother-in-law. She gave me a place setting every year.
Having celebrated Hanukkah only two times, I was still new to its joys. My latkes were greasy. I stumbled over the dreidel song, but still sang along easily with Christmas carols on the radio. The menorah, with its nine tiny candles, was not as festive as the neighbor’s house that glittered and shone as bright as a Las Vegas casino.
As I considered giving up the dishes, I remembered the story of Ruth and Naomi. When Ruth declared to her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” I wondered if she took a plate or two with her as she departed. Conversion is a commitment to a new life, but also requires relinquishing some remnants of the old life that are deeply ingrained. It takes time.
The day the Recycler came out, I got a call from a woman who wanted to see the dishes. When my prospective buyer arrived, I welcomed her and showed her the dishes, which were displayed on the coffee table. She sat on the couch and I could see she loved them. I had priced the dishes at a very affordable $100 and she didn’t quibble about the price. I knew she would cherish the dishes as I had. It was at that moment that I fully let go of my old life.
My conversion class took seventeen weeks, but it took much more time to feel, think and react like a Jew. It took years before I said “us,” when talking about Jewish issues.
On the rare occasions when “born Jews” were less than welcoming to me, I felt that sting and reminded myself that, although Jews turn away a potential convert three times, once the commitment is made, I was just as Jewish as anyone. Paradoxically, their rude comments made me feel more Jewish.
I learned that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, as Jewish holidays go. Over the years I have developed a deep attachment to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and began to refer to them as “the holidays,” and no longer use that term to mean Christmas and New Year’s Eve. By the time Christmas comes, my holidays are pretty much over.
In my twenty-two years as a Jew, I have see the commercialization of Hanukkah increase and watched the small displays at bookstores and in mail order catalogues grow every year. I succumbed to their charm and now have Hanukkah hand towels in my bathroom, a battery operated menorah and a small dreidel collection. Even though I enjoy putting the items out every year, I am grateful that Judaism’s most solemn holy days will never be overwhelmed by consumerism, as Jesus’ birth has.
Last year, I threw a Hanukkah party and learned from the hands of a master how to cook latkes. She told me to get a decent food processor as she watched me grate five pounds of potatoes by hand. She taught me how to get them brown and crisp – simply give up on the notion of good nutrition at this time of year and pour on the oil. I can sing Hanukkah songs by heart, though I still sing Christmas carols along with the radio in the car. If Barry Manilow and Barbara Streisand can sing them, so can I.
Occasionally, as I light a candle on the menorah on a dark December night, I think about my former Christmas dishes and the woman who bought them. I imagine that she lovingly sets them on her table, as she prepares her Christmas dinner, and I smile.
Kathleen Vallee Stein