Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year

There are undoubtedly reasons why today and tomorrow have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. January is named after the Roman god Janus, who was depicted as literally two-faced--one glancing back to the past, the other looking forward into the future. What we now know as the Gregorian calendar was preceded by the Julian calendar, instituted by one Julius Caesar after spending time in Cleopatra's Alexandria and learning about proper astronomy. While Caesar wanted to make the vernal equinox the start of the new year, he ceded to the objections of Senators who took office on January 1st according to the Roman civil calendar. Yes, politicians were just as self-involved back then.

In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII instituted further calendar reform and had no problem naming the new one after himself, even though most of the work had been done by his predecessor. Since this happened not long after the Reformation, many Protestants viewed the change as a conspiracy to suppress their beliefs, and it took decades or even centuries for countries with a non-Catholic majority to begin using the Gregorian calendar (The US, as British colonies, in 1752). As it turns out, the Vatican was thumbing its nose at the Jews, not the Protestants--one of the major catalysts for a new calendar was putting distance between Easter and Passover, a move initiated by the Council of Nicaea.

I would venture to guess that drinking too much on New Year's Eve is a tradition inherited from the Romans, a people who loved excess. So much so, in fact, that it was common to have a servant tickle one's throat at a banquet to make room for more food and alcohol. And you thought holding your friend's hair in college was gross.

And yet, the Jewish influence is there, because people also recognize the impending new year as a time to reflect, a chance to improve. Of course, it's a cliche that most resolutions don't stick, and I think Judaism can provide helpful insight on this. First, community is key. Modern-day experts back this up and say that making a goal with at least one other person stacks the odds in favor of success. Let's say your New Year's resolution is to go to the gym X times per week. Imagine everyone you know making the same goal. You open your prayer book, it's there. The topic is all over your favorite blogs. If you're wondering how the Jewish religion and people have remained intact for over three millenia, now you know. Community is how we do.

Next up, why on earth have you resolved to go to the gym? Speaking of the Romans, you know how we think everyone bathing together in public bathhouses was gross? I'm convinced future generations will feel the same about our gyms, and rightfully so. Let the record show that I am a woman ahead of my time and not just a germaphobe. In all fairness, some people actually do enjoy the camaraderie of grunting and sweating together. (Ew.) But those people, my dear, don't need to resolve to go. So what's really holding you back? Perhaps you're already decently active, and deep down, you sense that there is more to life than a perfect body. How wise you are. I'll also let you in on another secret the Jewish people have known for quite some time: If you're going to do something, make it beautiful. For myself, staying healthy and making it beautiful means ballet, tennis, and taking long walks. When I wanted to pray more, I moved on from my learning siddur to one whose words capture my heart. You get the picture. By all means, make the goal. Just know that there is nothing wrong with actually enjoying self-improvement.

So no, this is technically not my New Year. I'm still working on my Rosh Hashanah "resolutions." But seeing as I live in a country where it's celebrated, it's not a religious non-Jewish holiday, and I welcome any excuse to grow, I hereby resolve to do the following in 2014: Strive to be more down-to-earth, to be more grateful (to people and to G-d), and to be kinder. Lucky for me, I'm part of something that offers me 613 ways to achieve those goals.

Happy New Year!

P.S. I also decided to give up social media for 2014. If the withdrawal doesn't kill me first, I'll be blogging about it at some point for my friend Ruchi over at Out of the Ortho Box.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Xmas Makes Me Believe

I grew up believing in a lot of things. I believed that an overweight man in strange clothes spied on me throughout the year and then rewarded good behavior by breaking into my family's home through inexplicable means and leaving a pile of presents and a stocking of sweets. On a more serious note, I was raised to believe that the holiday was really all about the birth of a Jewish man, a story replete with details that required an even bigger leap of faith.

I thought that I would be leaving Xmas far behind by converting to Judaism, but I was wrong. There's no escaping it. Jews of all persuasions seem just as preoccupied with it as my goyishe family, though for different reasons. How do we prevent Jewish children from wanting Xmas? Are Xmas traditions for Chanukah ok, e.g. gifts or blue and white lights? How do I handle being wished "Merry Christmas"?

Being a Jewish convert during the holiday season is no easy feat, but I have come to believe Xmas can be used to strengthen my Judaism, not weaken it. I don't regard it as a coincidence that the Jewish holiday that commemorates resisting assimilation lands on the calendar right around the time everything gets hyper holly jolly.

People on both sides have a hard time believing I don't miss Xmas. It helps that I never had a tree in any of my residences after leaving home and I hate most of the music with a passion. That being said, it's easy to take things for granted when they're a regular part of your life. Several months after beginning my conversion studies, I approached my first Xmas warily. Would I feel a twinge of regret over giving all this up?

If I wasn't fully sure I had what it took to be a committed Jew, that first Xmas made me believe. In the art and fashion worlds, juxtaposition is often used to make certain details "pop." Xmas makes my Judaism "pop." The more I know what Judaism is, what I stand for, the less intimidated I am by Xmas. Pretty lights are pretty lights. Magic fades. Myths are outgrown. I choose to believe in miracles.

I believe in Judaism. I believe in its beauty and its strength; no need to gild the lily with traditions that aren't ours. I believe that giving my children an entire heritage is more important than giving them stuff. I believe in resisting assimilation and being proud to be different. I believe in the power of family, because I've remained close with mine despite giving up their holidays. I believe that Xmas is generally good for the world. I believe in my Judaism enough that I can say that. I believe that I can admire certain things about the holiday season, and still be happy and grateful that I left it behind and became a Jew. I believe all these things because of Xmas. It can be the best time of the year to be Jewish, believe me.