Being a non-observant Jew is effectively no religion. It isn’t like being an atheist because it doesn’t imply a belief in no god. My mother was an atheist. I understand what it means. To me, atheism requires as much certainty as any other faith. You have to know something you can’t really know. It’s faith, even if it’s faith in nothingness.
Given my upbringing and personal preferences, I’m mildly uncomfortable celebrating all religious holidays, including Jewish ones. I feel as if I’m wearing someone else’s clothing. Even when they fit well and look good, I know they aren’t mine. Every year when Christmas rolls through town flattening everything and everyone in its path, I bow to its power and supremacy. I enjoy the lights, music, gifts and season while remaining aware it isn’t my holiday. When everyone is sharing their warm fuzzy memories of Christmas as a child, I have no equivalent memories to share. Not of Christmas or any holiday because my mother, atheist that she was, celebrated nothing. As a kid, I yearned to be part of Christmas. All my friends had trees and got a zillion presents. I would wander around to my various friends’ houses, stay a little while, aware I wasn’t really welcome. Then I would go home. I felt so left out.
When I married my first husband, his family was almost as religious as mine. They were pretty sure they had been — at some point in the past — something, but they weren’t sure what. They celebrated Christmas with enormous energy and enthusiasm, without any bothersome religious overtones. It was an alcoholic’s dream holiday featuring eggnog that might actually kill you. And very tree-ish. My father-in-law hauled in the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in a private home. Paul Bunyan would have been impressed.
That first Christmas (1965), they pulled out all the stops. They had a Jew to entertain. How exciting. A new audience. Jeff passed away twenty years ago, but his mother — she will be 104 in February — still sends a Christmas present. I have one in the living room right now waiting to be unwrapped.
The nine years I lived in Israel gave me perspective. There was no evidence of Christmas. Chanukah was a holiday, but not like Christmas. Passover and Sukkot were big festivals. It was comfortable to be a Jew in Israel. That sounds redundant, but the freedom to live by a Jewish calendar was no small thing. Even if you were entirely non-religious, you didn’t feel the pressure to be involved in what is — theoretically — a Christian holiday, but is — as practiced — Pagan. I like the Pagan part.
Basically, I have no religious affiliation. Jewish by ethnicity and history. And I know a lot about Judaism, admire it, but I don’t practice it and never have. I thought seriously about practicing it but it didn’t fit better than anything else. I’m skeptical of everything, certain of nothing. I have no answers.
So to all of you, Merry Christmas. Have a cool Yule and a grand Solstice. Whatever you celebrate, please — enjoy it! I’ll sing along because I know all the words.