I recently began spending Shabbos by making the trek to the nearest shul and attending gemara classes hosted by the rabbi. A couple weeks ago, we started to study the laws and history surrounding Chanukah and it made me think about my past celebrations of the holiday, as well as reflect on my mixed-faith upbringing and the tumult of my growing up as it related to religion.
When I was little, we celebrated Chanukah and Christmas. The two holidays were celebrated at different locales; Christmas at our home and Chanukah at my nana's house. As a result, we usually celebrated Chanukah for one night -- a night of gifts, eating latkes and lighting the menorah. In a way, it mirrored my experiences with Christmas, a single day when we would receive presents and then watch television specials, usually focused on Christmas but occasionally on Chanukah. The two holidays therefore began bleeding into each other because I spent so many years celebrating them in a parallel.
These customs and the nature of the holidays began diverging when my parents divorced. Without going too far into these events, once the paperwork began rolling, the split only grew and my parents began incorporating their respective faiths into the fallout.
I continued to live with my mother, so I became exposed to her Catholic faith; I only encountered my father's Judaism through Nana and late Aunt Sandra during the High Holidays and Chanukah. That was it. So while my father never really encouraged my siblings and me to develop our Jewish identity, my mother enrolled me and my older sister in Catholic school.
Everything I learned in Catholic school flew over my head. I never fully comprehended or took to heart Christian dogma or teachings (that and my ADD didn't help things). Even when we briefly attended church, I neither felt anything nor learned prayers or aspects of Christian worship. The only thing that stuck was Christmas -- there were memories attached to it.
In that time, my Jewish identity never really waned. For some reason, I felt a stronger connection to my Jewishness. Perhaps it was the memories I connected to my Jewish identity, or Divine intervention, but it nonetheless stuck. Like the ways the Jewish faith endured despite the Seleucid Greeks' attempt to destroy it prior to the Maccabean revolt, I continued to hold on to an undying assurance that I was a Jew.
My mother's attempts at indoctrination quickly ended as I entered public school. Since her parents had forced it upon her, which only led her to reject Catholicism and embrace liberalism, she stopped thrusting Catholicism upon us. My siblings and I were subsequently left to pursue constructing our own identities without a religious backing. Toward the end of my elementary school years, I began seeing religion as archaic and started to reject what I did not like.
That angst continued into high school and metastasized with even more teenage-ness. Not helping matters was my father moving across the country. By this point, Christmas was dying in our household and Chanukah and the other holidays were long dead. Surely this would have been the end of my Jewish identity as well -- but it was not.
Yes, even though I felt my father had abandoned me and that other ideologies, such as socialism, had my attention, there remained the sense that I was Jewish. The efforts of Nana and Aunt Sandra had stuck. Even as I stopped observing any holidays and attacked faith principles - mostly by rejecting dogma and embracing hedonism - I realize now that I really only felt this way about Christian ideas rather than Jewish ones.
The truth was I really didn't know much about Judaism. As the darkness I felt early on in high school faded, so too did my resentment, and I felt I could accept faith and find a stronger sense of my Jewishness - in part because I one of the two Jewish students at my school.
In college, my journey toward true Judaism began. One day I witnessed a table that Hillel had set up a table for its Chanukah party and immediately I decided to attend and see what it was all about. Something seemed to ignite a flame inside from across the ages. In the following weeks, I felt pulled toward my Jewish identity and wanting to understand the culture. This journey quickly became a focus of my college experience, and I attend more and more Jewish events on campus and became more observant.
Chanukah 5778 is now looming, and I am a regular attendee at my local shul and have begun the conversion process. Although much more of my journey remains, I have gained so much encouragement and support, and I know this is right within my soul. I am prepared to see this through in the same way the Maccabees knew that even as many battles awaited them in their campaign for Jewish independence, the heart of the Jewish nation was secure, and they could feel assured as they marched on.