10 December 2015

On (C)Hanuk(k)ah (For Judy)

So I have an admission to make:

I have always secretly wished to be Jewish.


It started when, during my young Baha'i upbringing, I learned about the major religions of the world (We also learned about those unnamed Messengers from prehistory of Whom we have little to no information.  The Baha'i understanding is that God has never left anyone alone - ever - without guidance, in the whole world for all of time.  So, that covers all the bases.).  In children's classes, we learned about Noah, Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and the Bab (the forerunner to Baha'u'llah) and of course Baha'u'llah (I can remember the names in this order because there's a sweet children's song about it.).  The Baha'i Faith is very clear that each of these special People - we call them Messengers of God - was sent to humanity throughout time to teach the people about God.  The cultures and times in which They appeared necessitated variations in the Teachings They brought forth, but I learned from a very young age that no religion is better than another, and all teach messages of love and peace.  It is human distortion of these pure and divine Teachings that create the disunity and confusion that we see today (and have seen throughout history).  Baha'u'llah is the latest of these Teachers, and His Message for all of humanity (essentially) is that of peace, through justice and unity.

It's a long intro, I know, but I wanted you to get a sense of things.

Anyhow, learning about the history of religion as a six-year-old was exciting, because it removed any barriers to friendships that I may have had.  I understood as a child - a capacity which most children have - that some people were unkind to others for rather silly (and often unchangeable) reasons:  race, gender, religion, class.  And so this fundamental teaching made it clear to me that any sort of disunity based on these criteria was essentially made up, and - in a word - not cool.

When I first realized that I had a friend who was, in fact, Jewish, I was super-excited!  I had been to a synagogue once, and it has been a memorable experience.  Our extended family was predominantly Christian (my parents were the real rebels of their families, becoming Baha'is in their early twenties (ish - don't quote me on that)), so I was familiar with churches, but a synagogue was cool.  Then there was the Torah, and how it had to be hand-written and if anyone made a mistake he had to start again.  And how the Jewish Sabbath was not on Sunday at all but on SATURDAY and how some people who were Jewish couldn't even use umbrellas on the Sabbath (I learned that once while driving in Cleveland with a friend and seeing a girl walking home in the rain and offering her an umbrella, which she almost took, but then realized that she couldn't - I was proud of her for being so devout!).

But the best part for me was all of the ritual!  Baha'is don't have really any ritual at all, which is fine, but to my young and order-desirous mind, rather annoying.  My parents often changed things up for our Holy Days, and for Ayyam-i-Ha, our gift-giving time, it was always a different thing.  Which I really disliked.  I wanted the SAME THINGS to happen EVERY TIME.  Christmas and Easter were the big Christian Holy/holidays and there was something so comforting about looking forward to the same thing each year.  And then there was Passover and Chanukah for Jewish folks, and Eid for Muslim friends and... well, those were the only ones I knew about.  A friend in high school once invited me over for Passover and I LOVED IT.  Seriously.  There was a special plate and all of these different foods on the plate and each of them symbolized something different and it was so freaking awesome.  And there were special stories and words in Hebrew!  I was cross that nothing like that ever happened for our Baha'i Holy Days.

SO - boy, this is taking a long time - when, as an adult(ish) person, I was married and Nathan and I became good friends with some Baha'is in Chicago AND we learned that their family was JEWISH AND they invited us over for HANUKKAH, I was OVER THE MOON.  Because I had never been to Hanukkah and there were dreidels involved and chocolate geld and I was already ready to go.  Adam Sandler had educated me about Jewish celebrities, and I knew a little bit about Kosher laws, and also presents.

Our dear friends invited us to celebrate with their mom Bobbe and their Aunt Judy.  We were to go to Judy's house and make latkes and eat brisket.

Guys.  Brisket is amazing.  And don't get me started on latkes. 

When we arrived at the condo in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the hallway smelled delicious.  Once inside, we were greeted with the warmest love and hugs.  Judy and Bobbe were in the kitchen shredding onions and potatoes, and the oil was warming in the pans and there were so many things to DO!  I could HELP!  I donned an apron and got to work.  There was ritual and food!  Perfect!  The condo was brilliantly lit from top to bottom with both Christmas and Chanukah decorations (Judy's dear husband, Len, was Christian), and we all ended up smelling like we worked in a fast-food joint, from all the frying oil.  We learned about the miracle of the oil (which is why we were making latkes), and why there are eight nights of Chanukah, and we felt a part of a larger and ancient human story.  And Judy - she was a perfect blend of love and generosity and teasing sarcasm.  She made us feel at home at once, and we felt to be perfectly fit in the puzzle of the family gathering.  Plus, she got us presents.

From that point (nine years ago!) until today, we have celebrated Hanukkah with our friends.  They are our family, and it was cemented through Judy's love.  Olivia was just a baby at the first Hanukkah, and we soon welcomed our friends' son, and then Elsie.  Each year, the children would look forward to going to Hanukkah (which was an actual place - Judy and Len's house), and even when we moved to Indiana, we drove up to Chicago for the party.  It was only two years ago, when Judy suddenly passed, the weekend before our trip, that we missed it.  Eleanor had just arrived that summer, and this would have been our first big trip after her arrival.  She had never met Judy, at least on this plane, and when I got the call from our friend, I was shocked, and then - once it had set in - absolutely heartbroken.


It was amazing that this woman, who had unquestioningly embraced our family (with all of its diversity - and when others might have cast judgement or glanced awry or even asked unwanted questions about race/religion), had exited the world so quickly.  She had wrapped our Chanukah presents only the day before she passed, and made sure that all of the tasks were finished before she resigned from this life and entered the realms beyond.  She had made sure that we felt loved and accepted just as we were.  She touched my heart more deeply than I had realized - this woman whom I had known only for a few years, and whom I only saw annually - and, upon reflection, I realized that it was because she had loved me.  Unconditionally.  And had accepted me - all parts of me - in the same way.  Never once did she criticize me for my appearance or my choices.  She understood that life was life, and we all travel through it differently.  She offered advice when asked (and sometimes unasked), but with a love and humor that was so different than the seriousness to which I was familiar.  She loved my children and looked forward to showering them with love and chocolate and presents when we visited.   She had even purchased a gift for Eleanor in advance of our visit.

She had personified the love of her Faith, and included me in it. 

She had made me Jewish.


We celebrated as a smaller group later that season, without the brisket.  We started up again last year, this time at Bobbe's house, and Len and our framily (friends/family) came, and made gluten-free latkes (don't worry, we made regular ones, too).  It was different, but the familiarity and connection which had been forged in the heart of Judy's home had bonded us.  We ate too much, laughed a lot, and left smelling of latkes.

This year, we will miss it.  In over nine years, we will not be home for Chanukah. 


This morning, I saw a comic on Facebook that made me laugh.  Santa has just come in the door, where a family is seated around the table, a fire burns brightly in the grate, and a Menorah shines from the mantel.  Santa mumbles, "Oops... wrong home!"  The father gestures to Santa and says, "Forget 'wrong home!'  Get in here before you freeze your tuchis off!  Sit... sit!  I'll put on some coffee!"  I laughed out loud at this and began to share it, and then realized that this man in the card - it was Judy.  Reminding me that she loves me, and that I am always welcome - like Elijah the Prophet, during Seder, for Whom we open the door. 

"When there is love, nothing is too much trouble, and there is always time." -'Abdu'l-Baha

Happy Chanukah/Hanukkah everyone.