Christmas decorations

Credit: Creative Commons/ Ian Wilson

I spent last Christmas at a Jewish meditation retreat. Stepping into the lobby of the Jewish summer camp where it was held was crossing over from one world into another. There were no poinsettias, no mistletoe, none of the amped-up holiday cheer. This was Jewish space: mezuzahs on every doorpost, Hebrew letters on the bulletin board, kosher everything, faces of people I’d never met but somehow already knew—their gait, the furrows on their brows, the occasional clothing item we Israelis recognize immediately as coming from over there.

Much of the retreat was spent in silence. One of the things that silence can do is wake us up to the noise inside our own mind. On this particular retreat, the silence made me realize that it took two days for the Christmas carols to stop playing in my head.

During Shabbat and as part of the morning blessings, we broke the silence and sang other songs, songs that for fleeting intervals made me understand what people mean when they talk about raising the roof.

Ozi vezimrat ya, vayehi li lishua.

God is my strength and my song, and will be my salvation.

It was as if the room—like my body after a good session of yoga—had discovered more space between its vertebrae.

For the remainder of the retreat it was these melodies that reverberated through me. On my drive back, instead of turning on the radio or plugging in my iPod, I stayed in silence and I sang. When I arrived at my house I parked, dropped off my bags, and walked to the river, where I sang some more. Then I went home.

Within the hour, Christmas carols started playing in my head again. In my own house. What triggered that? I have a mezuzah on the door and a circle of meditation cushions in my living room. My Menorah was still up from Hanukkah.

Something about the way I had inhabited my own house before the retreat left a residue of Christmas for me to come home to. This shocked me. I was aware that as a child of secular Israel, creating a Jewish life in America has been a challenge for me, and I was aware that in theory not being Jewish in America means becoming Christian—culturally Christian. It doesn’t happen immediately, it’s not a deliberate choice; it’s a slow, incremental process, like osmosis. This was the first time I felt it so starkly, and it felt creepy.

My Christian friends will balk at that word. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I know Jesus preached love, and there are streams of Christianity I am in awe of. Still, I can’t seem to disentangle Christmas from danger, from my grandmother preparing cakes for a lavish Christening party while the ghetto where she had left her father was burning. It’s a visceral thing.

So what’s the answer? For a time, I thought it was Israel.

When I visit Jerusalem, something inside of me shifts. Jerusalem might be the only place in the world where I am not different. It’s a city filled with people like me—American-Israelis, grandchildren of survivors, brainy, spiritual, conflicted. And then there’s the air. Sometimes the body trumps everything else, sometime just smelling Mediterranean pines is all I need to feel whole.

That’s true at the same time as the opposite is true. The lift I feel in Israel is always tempered by a weight, the weight of the two catastrophes—theirs and ours. Many Israelis don’t share my experience, but when I am there the ricochets of these twin traumas are everywhere—in the fight for a place on the bus, in the business-card-shaped prostitution ads that litter the streets of Tel Aviv, in the khaki uniforms so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine what Israel would be without them. By the end of each visit I discover again that for me Israel is like an ex-boyfriend I have no business spending the night with. The love is still there, but somehow we just can’t make it work.

So I am here in suburban America, where the carols are starting to play. This is my reality, a reality I don’t want to brace against. My reality includes Christmas—can I soften to it without becoming it?


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